President Biden came to office promising to support U.S. allies, including Ukraine, and stand up to Russian aggression in Europe, but he’s alienated Ukrainian pro-democracy and anti-corruption advocates with his failure to block a Russian gas pipeline.
Over 50 Ukrainian leaders from the 2014 Ukrainian Maidan revolution, the ongoing conflict with Russian separatists in the country’s east, government, and civil society express disappointment in Biden in a letter to the U.S. president, obtained by National Review before its release by the Atlantic Council, ahead of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Washington on August 31. Specifically, they note Biden’s failure to take steps to kill Nord Stream 2, the Russian-backed gas pipeline supported by German chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We, the signatories of this letter, have been on the frontlines of Ukraine’s fight for democracy and reform. Today, these efforts as well as your declared effort to rally the democratic world against authoritarianism and global corruption are weakened by your Administration’s decision to indulge Germany on Nord Stream 2,” write the letter’s signatories, who include Vitaliy Shabunin, head of the board of the Anticorruption Action Centre, and Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a member of parliament who previously led Transparency International Ukraine.
The letter will give Zelensky — a vocal opponent of the pipeline and of a U.S.–Germany deal designed to assuage concerns about the project — more leverage as he heads into his upcoming meeting with Biden.
Although Biden has pledged to defend Ukraine from Moscow’s ongoing campaign to weaken the country, he has found himself at odds with Zelensky early into his own presidency. After Biden’s team declined to enforce U.S. sanctions against Nord Stream 2 and its CEO, a German citizen, this spring, Zelensky spoke out publicly against the move, revealing in an interview with Axios that U.S. officials hadn’t told him in advance, and demanding that Biden meet with him.
Administration officials then turned the tables on Zelensky by wielding Ukraine’s troubles with corruption as a political cudgel, telling Axios that Biden had decided not to move forward with meeting with Zelensky because of concerns that he was “backsliding” on corruption issues. But as Biden approached his June 16 summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the White House announced that Biden had invited Zelensky to Washington. The letter’s authors coolly note, however, that that meeting will take place three months after Biden met with “the tyrant Putin.”
Thus the administration has implemented a Ukraine policy that’s barely kept up with the twists and turns of public outrage over Nord Stream 2 and Biden’s oddly cool indifference over meeting Zelensky.
The anti-corruption advocates see problems with Ukraine’s still-flawed handling of corruption, but they say that that’s all the more reason for Biden to stand with Kyiv.
“For President Biden, a Ukraine which still makes slow but steady progress in its fight against corruption is still better than a Ukraine which may be ignored by its strategic allies in security issues,” since without Ukraine “all defense issues which have so far been taken on by Ukraine will become a problem of NATO and the United States,” Gennady Kurochka, co-founder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center and organizer of the letter, told NR in a text message.
In addition to the failure to impose tougher, congressionally mandated sanctions on European entities involved in building Nord Stream 2, the recent U.S.–Germany deal is seen by Ukrainians as another U.S. policy failure.
That agreement effectively codifies U.S. acquiescence to the pipeline’s construction. According to the deal, Germany pledges to take steps to retaliate against Russia if it uses Nord Stream 2 against Ukraine and to help Kyiv achieve energy independence, including by developing green-energy sources. But those assurances — including a recent pledge by Merkel to impose sanctions on Russia in the event the pipeline is used as a weapon — don’t impress the letter writers, who describe them as inadequate, vague, and having unclear legal implications.
Importantly, the letter disarms the administration’s attempts to distract from its Nord Stream 2 concessions, making clear that anticorruption work can take place in tandem with an attempt to push back against the Kremlin’s political-influence activities — and in fact, that Ukraine’s ability to confront corruption, and Biden’s kleptocracy agenda, hinge on confronting Nord Stream 2.
“This decision completely contradicts the anticorruption memorandum of the White House, issued on June 3, 2021, which asserts: ‘Corruption… provides authoritarian leaders a means to undermine democracies worldwide,’” they write. “Allowing Gazprom to finish and operationalize its kleptocratic project Nord Stream 2 means no less than gifting to the authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin an extra tool to undermine democracies across Europe.”
The anticorruption advocates also note that the Nord Stream 2 sanctions waivers and the Germany deal empower European business interests “that serve as apologists for Putin’s authoritarian policies” and give Putin more resources with which to co-opt prominent European politicians, including former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French prime minister Francois Fillon.
Thus far, it appears that Biden’s meeting with Zelensky will still take place next week, despite the ongoing evacuation effort in Afghanistan. If the session were canceled, however, it’d be grimly fitting: One prominent self-inflicted foreign-policy crisis featuring an abandonment of U.S. allies will have overshadowed another, slower-moving debacle.
Update 6:40: This post has been updated to include comment from Gennady Kurochka.