Officials at Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry keep saying they are working on organising a telephone conversation between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the new U.S. president.
President Joe Biden has managed during all this time, to speak with a long list of leaders, as has Vice-President Kamala Harris.
But Zelensky has not figured on any such list.
The most senior contact between Washington and Kyiv was a telephone conversation between Secretary of state Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
And by rights, it should have been in Biden’s interest to make such a contact as he probably knows the issues associated with Ukraine better than any of his predecessors. He has visited Ukraine several times and as vice-president under Barak Obama was viewed as the point man on Ukrainian affairs.
Biden addressed the Ukrainian parliament and his speech was seen as one of the most inspiring addresses ever made in the chamber by a foreign dignitary – well remembered as one of the most disconcerting was the “Chicken Kyiv” speech made by President George W.H. Bush Senior in 1991, when, on the eve of Ukraine’s proclamation of independence from Soviet rule, he tried to persuade parliamentarians to support the “renewed” Soviet Union advocated by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Support for Ukraine
Since taking office, Biden has continued to raise the issue of Ukraine in a telephone conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Speaking on the anniversary of Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, he said the United States would not recognise the annexation – one of many statements Biden has made with regard to Ukraine in recent months.
Would it not, therefore, seem logical to repeat such approving language in a telephone conversation with his Ukrainian opposite number?
Biden has, for the moment, stayed away from such a conversation. Why? The Ukrainian president has repeatedly shown his desire to forge contacts with the new U.S. president – even Biden’s inauguration was turned into a formal occasion. Zelensky looked on, with U.S. charge d’affaires Kristina Kvien in attendance. There has been no U.S. ambassador in Kyiv since May 2019, when Marie Iovanovitch was recalled early from the Ukrainian capital and later testified before Congress in an inquiry that preceded Donald Trump’s first impeachment.
Observers in Kyiv say that the issue does not lie with Ukraine, but rather with its president. In the first months after he took office, Zelensky found himself enmeshed in the scandal which led to Trump’s first impeachment. Trump had sought greater understanding from Zelensky in the investigation of the business activities in Ukraine of the former U.S. vice-president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Zelensky, who at the time was embarking on his very first steps as a politician, was clearly unable to withstand Trump’s legendary ability to apply pressure. And the new Ukrainian president clearly did not expect the White House to make public transcripts of the conversations between the two leaders. In a recent interview, Zelensky made it plain that he remained greatly affected by the story and even “a little offended” by Donald Trump.
But apparently even this lesson failed to prepare Zelensky for what else might be in store later.
When Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach (who later became subject to U.S. sanctions) presented recordings of telephone conversations between Vice-President Biden and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky referred to the recordings at a news conference and suggested that Ukrainian legal institutions could investigate them.
The president’s main rival
That might have had less to do with Biden than with his predecessor Poroshenko, who remains one of the president’s main rivals and critics.
But a criminal investigation was nonetheless launched not only against Biden’s son but also against the man who would later be elected president. Both cases have been dropped and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova refers to the fact that they were initiated as “geopolitics”.
But the fact that on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, one of the main contenders was under investigation in Ukraine was unlikely to endear Zelensky to Joe Biden or his close supporters.
How will U.S.-Ukrainian relations develop, given a situation in which the White House is clearly in no hurry to communicate with Volodymyr Zelensky? And with little prospect of those relations being invigorated – not only for personal reasons, but also because any reference to Zelensky is bound to spark other references in the media to Hunter Biden, the investigation into his work at the energy company Burisma, the pressure exerted by Trump and Derkach’s recordings.
In other words, all those things which Biden is unlikely to want to read about in the next morning’s newspapers.
It is entirely possible that the optimal form of contact will be further support for Ukraine without dialogue at summit level. President Biden and other senior officials will speak in support of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. And concrete measures will be taken as part of that support.
In recent days, the Pentagon announced fresh assistance to Ukraine for a total of $125 million to enable the Ukrainian army to “defend the country’s territorial integrity, make its borders secure and boost operating compatibility with NATO”.
A further $150 million earmarked by the U.S. Congress within the 2021 budget will be disbursed to Ukraine only after the Pentagon and the State Department secure assurances that Ukraine’s leaders are proceeding with reforms in the defence sector.
And that approach could come to dominate any issue of extending assistance to Ukraine – money in exchange for reforms.
And added to that the fact the International Monetary Fund has made disbursement of further credits conditional on wide-ranging reforms – credits without which Ukraine will have considerable difficulty meeting its external debts — it will be clear that the approach of money in return for reforms will not be confined to U.S. assistance.
And that is the essence of the support that Biden could provide for Ukraine. In the run-up to his election in 2019, Zelensky persuaded voters that the main thing was a change of leadership, a rejection of “old politicians” and the appointment to key positions of new figures who had never been involved in running a country.
Real reforms – under way only since the revolutionary events of 2013-3014 –were replaced by talk of “people’s power”, talk which Zelensky maintains to this day. Ukraine has become more or less a country in which transformations have been put on hold.
And the prevailing trend of fearing all change which could trigger discontent in society has not even been offset by the opening of a market for buying and selling land. That had seemed to many to be an epochal change, but which has not yet produced obvious results – though that could also possibly be because of economic stagnation linked to the COVID pandemic.
And perhaps as well, because investors are in no hurry to come to Ukraine out of distrust for a judicial system still in the hands of oligarchic clans.
The very fact that the influence of those oligarchs has increased under Zelensky’s administration is yet another indicator of a slowdown in reforms.
And however paradoxical it may seem, Biden just night be the one to put an end to that slowdown. But Volodymyr Zelensky is still waiting for that telephone call.