Three important steps. How Zelensky can get Biden’s support
What can Ukraine do to achieve constructive relations with the Biden administration?
After four years of at times unstable relations with the Trump administration, the Ukrainian government is keen to bring Ukrainian-American relations under Biden off to a more stable start.
Since Biden’s inauguration, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken a series of steps to, apparently, earn the favor of Washington. He banned the broadcasting of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian TV channels , imposed sanctions on Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk, and blocked a planned purchase by China of Motor Sich, a manufacturer of aircraft and helicopter engines . Zelenskiy also appointed respected ex-finance minister Oksana Markarova as ambassador to the United States . These are all geopolitical gestures that are likely to be welcomed by the Biden administration.
Biden’s close proximity to Ukraine is well known, confirmed by six visits to the country when he served as vice president under the Obama administration. His arrival at the White House could not have been more timely for Ukraine. During Trump’s presidency, Ukraine found itself embroiled in an impeachment case and at the center of attempts to link Biden’s name to corruption allegations. This has led to an uncharacteristic level of tension in bilateral communications.
Now Zelenskiy is trying to leave these problems behind and strengthen cooperation with the new US president. While planning to start relations with Biden on a positive note, Zelenskiy also hopes to receive a new tranche from the International Monetary Fund.
Will Zelenskiy’s recent moves convince the Biden administration to provide financial assistance, increase supplies of military equipment and accelerate Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration? It is too early to judge this, but, from a historical point of view, US policy towards Ukraine has always been driven by the fact that the latter needed fundamental reforms rather than demonstrative foreign policy gestures.
For example, in June 2003, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma convinced the Ukrainian parliament to send 1,800 Ukrainian soldiers to Iraq to help a US-led combined military. Seeking the participation of Ukrainian troops in a key US foreign policy initiative, Kuchma cynically sought to secure American approval for his plans to run for a third presidential term. At the very least, he hoped that this would help him transfer power to his successor, Viktor Yanukovych.
But Kuchma failed to achieve any of these goals. Less than a year and a half later, the United States intervened during the Orange Revolution to support pro-democracy protests and ensure a fair re-election of the president. This served as a reminder that the US government does not bargain when it comes to core principles.
In early 2021, the US Department of Defense announced the allocation of military assistance to Ukraine in the amount of $ 125 million , as well as the intention to transfer another $ 150 million if Ukraine makes progress in reforms. In other words, the Biden administration does not diminish the importance of the relationship, but rather prefers to take a wait and see attitude, focusing on Zelenskiy’s actions.
Negotiations of the Ukrainian government with the IMF in early 2021 on the new tranche also did not lead to concrete results . In recent weeks, Kiev has been discussing the idea that Zelenskiy can leverage Biden’s positive attitude towards Ukraine and convince the American president to pressure the IMF. But these hopes are unrealistic. After all, accusations against Biden of involvement in Ukrainian corruption were heard during the presidential elections last year, therefore, from the point of view of domestic politics, Biden cannot afford to close his eyes to Ukraine’s shortcomings.
What can Ukraine do to achieve constructive relations with the Biden administration? The US State Department gave Ukraine a strong clue by imposing sanctions on Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky on March 5 . This is clearly a signal that the Biden administration expects Zelenskiy to fight overly powerful oligarchs.
First, the IMF announced a list of key requirements that must be met in order to receive a new tranche. These include the removal of fixed gas prices by the end of March, the determination of macroeconomic indicators for the next two years, the implementation of judicial reform, the adoption of a law on criminal liability for false declarations and a new law on the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine ( NABU) in order to legitimize it constitutionally and make sure in the independence of his leadership. If the government acts quickly and convinces parliament to pass the necessary laws, then a new tranche can be expected in June.
Secondly, despite all the government talk about “investment”Foreign direct investment fell to $ 420 million last year, the worst since war-torn 2015. This decline is partly due to COVID-19, but the bigger problem is the lack of the rule of law in Ukraine and the protection of foreign investors. The real goals of the authorities should be: meeting the needs of existing investors, protecting them from raider seizures by oligarchs and punishing corrupt officials for extorting bribes from investors. This would be much more effective than the hackneyed phrases that Ukraine is open to new investors. In other words, by solving the problems faced by existing investors, new ones will be attracted. Investment growth would send a strong signal to the Biden administration that Ukraine is indeed changing for the better.
Third, green energy has been the engine of investment in Ukraine in recent years . The Biden administration’s plans are the ” greenest” in US history. Unfortunately, Ukraine owes more than UAH 600 million to green energy producers and continues to import cheap Russian electricity.
Ukraine can quickly earn a couple of points if it immediately gives up on Russian electricity and establishes cooperation with local sources of green energy, paying off debts to existing producers. If Ukraine resolves its energy problems, it will sound more convincing in convincing Biden to block Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
President Zelenskiy clearly wants to be a friend of the Biden administration, and there is every reason to believe that President Biden is also willing to cooperate. By tackling key changes now, Ukraine can benefit from a new era of bilateral ties with the United States. But if this window of opportunity is missed, Ukraine may find itself in a geopolitical wilderness for years to come.