Biden and Ukraine: US Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is well acquainted with Ukraine. In Kyiv, his triumph was widely celebrated. Many Kyiv saw the next four years as a chance to rebuild trust between the US and Ukraine, advance Ukraine’s reform agenda, and put a stop to Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine’s east.
The new Biden team’s first goal should be to familiarize itself with the actors in Ukraine and Zelenskyy’s inner circle (Zelenskyy’s team and ministers are not household names in Washington) and to build trust following the instability of the Trump years. Second, Western assistance for Ukraine’s defense against Kremlin aggression should be bolstered. Thirdly, a plan should be developed to persuade Zelenskyy to adopt a genuine reform program, particularly one that establishes and enforces the rule of law and strengthens civil society and independent media.
II. The United States’ Interests in Ukraine
The US is a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s efforts to ward off Russia in the east and turn the country into a market-based government with property rights and impartial tribunals. Assuring Europe’s peace and stability is a critical US priority. Ending the Russian-led conflict in Ukraine and assisting Ukraine in transitioning away from its oligarchic system are mutually reinforcing objectives; that Ukraine must achieve on both fronts in order to thrive as a modern, democratic European country.
Ukraine’s victory over Kremlin aggression is in the US national interest for at least three reasons: Russia’s war is directed against the West, not just Ukraine; the future of a rules-based international order is contingent on Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, and the US has a moral commitment to both Ukraine’s struggle for independence and democracy in general.
III. What the Kremlin Wants in Ukraine
Russia’s relations with Ukraine are fraught with baggage. Russian nationalists have long had difficulty accepting the existence of a distinct Ukrainian nation, let alone an independent country aspiring to join Europe. As former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, “Russia ceases to be an empire without Ukraine, but when Ukraine is suborned and subsequently subjugated, Russia inevitably becomes an empire.”
Russia’s influence over Ukraine has not been benign under Putin. Russia’s economy grew rapidly during Putin’s early years. Russia’s economy stagnated as Putin’s kleptocratic regime became more entrenched. Zesty (stagnation, the term used to describe the late Soviet period) has resurfaced as a moniker used by many Russians to late Putinism. As economic prosperity waned and elite corruption became more obvious, the leadership became more defensive and inflexible, frightened of public revolt.
Putin laid the burden for Yanukovych’s demise squarely on the shoulders of the United States. However, the culprit was Putin’s own Ukraine strategy, which intends to maintain Ukraine’s corruption, weakness, and consequent poverty. What Putin desires in Ukraine is detrimental to the country. Russia and Ukraine are at conflict due to the logic of imperialism and Putinism. This does not need to be the case. If Russia abandoned the Putin system in favor of more productive changes, a “Europeanized” Ukraine would no longer be a danger, but a model. Of course, the Kremlin does not want this but judging by the ongoing resistance to Putin’s reign, a sizable portion of the Russian population does.
IV. Possibilities for US Engagement
The United States could engage in at least five ways:
- Participate in the Normandy Format.
This might help revive the process and urge Moscow to take the Minsk agreements seriously. It would allow Biden to engage personally in the Normandy Format conferences, demonstrating the US commitment to outcomes. One impediment, though, is that all Normandy Format members, including Russia, would have to agree to include the US.
- Create a Budapest-style format.
Consider the Ukrainian suggestion for a “Budapest” format. This would be consistent with the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom guaranteed Ukraine’s security in exchange for Ukraine handing up its nuclear weapons.
- Bilateral interaction.
Assume a leadership role in diplomacy by addressing Russia directly at the highest level, as the Obama administration did, while coordinating its views with France, Germany, and Ukraine.
- Appoint a special envoy or a senior deputy to negotiate on your behalf.
While a special envoy would signify the US commitment, it may not be necessary if the secretary of state and/or one of his deputies were willing to take on this position full-time. A special envoy may be appointed later if discussions advance. What is critical is that US interlocutors have the authority to speak on behalf of the president and secretary of state when dealing with Russian authorities.
- All of the above.
These are not mutually exclusive possibilities. Even if the US joins the Normandy Format, direct interaction with Russia is critical for holding Moscow accountable and resolving disputed problems. Putin may be more receptive to an agreement if the process emphasizes Russia’s great-power standing alongside the US.
V. Consensus on Redlines with Kyiv
Before engaging with Russia, the US and Ukraine must agree on guiding principles for the discussions and their respective positions in the Normandy Format and Trilateral Contact Group. These should include the following:
- Maintain adherence to the Minsk framework.
- Remain adamant about not holding elections while Russian forces are present.
- International peacekeeping force tasked with completing the cycle of sequencing
- Make contact with the occupied Donbass
VI. Creating Leverage in Relation to Moscow
Whichever structure is used, every negotiation must be backed up with a stronger combination of carrots and sticks. Only by increasing the cost of Russian aggression and demonstrating to Moscow the benefits of de-escalation can the West expect to alter Putin’s calculus and persuade him to withdraw from the Donbas, as he vowed in the Minsk agreements. There are at least five ways to increase the expense of doing business with Putin:
- Collaborate with partners to increase the expenses
- Make targets meaningful
- Strengthen Ukraine’s NATO integration.
- Undermine Russian political support for a lengthy conflict in the Donbass in order to put pressure on Putin to seek a diplomatic settlement.
- Adopt a long-term strategy.
The first item of business should be to develop a simple connection, one of trust, between Biden and Zelenskyy in the aftermath of Trump’s efforts to use the US-Ukraine relationship for political gain. Restoration of normal ties between the US and Ukraine will surely take time as the incoming administration fills major foreign policy positions. Biden was a hands-on policymaker for Ukraine throughout his tenure as vice president. Establishing a president-to-president understanding will expedite lower-level policy negotiations and strengthen the US’s power in Kyiv, which will be critical as the US works with Ukraine on challenging reform problems.
Published By: Simran Mulani
Edit By: Khushi Thakur