The Washington-Kiev Connection

On September 1, President Biden welcomed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to the White House. It was Zelensky’s first visit to the White House since taking office in 2019. Ukraine gained its independence following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, but has struggled to consolidate its democracy and stabilize its economy since then. It has suffered a succession of strongmen presidents aligned with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as well as widespread corruption and steep inequality under the domination of “oligarchs” who control vast swathes of the economy. Recent events have raised both hopes and fears for the country’s future. Massive protests inaugurated a democratic government in 2014, only to be followed by a Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula and a Russian-backed insurgency in the country’s east. Facing not only Russian aggression but oligarch-inspired corruption, the prospects for Ukrainian democracy appeared challenged at best before Zelensky’s trip to Washington. 

Despite these difficulties, President Biden assured President Zelensky that the “partnership between our nations grows stronger,” and pledged a new $60 million defense aid package for Ukraine. The United States has provided over $400 million in defense aid to Ukraine this year, including continued access to lethal weapons first supplied by the Trump administration. Biden also promised to return Zelensky’s visit with one of his own, which would make him the first U.S. president to travel to Ukraine since President Bush. Nonetheless, the U.S.-Ukraine partnership has its obstacles. President Biden has yet to appoint an ambassador to Ukraine, a post that has been vacant since 2019. The Biden administration has also failed to halt the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Washington and Kiev alike view as a Russian gambit to undercut Ukraine’s energy commerce and security. Supporting Ukraine on its path towards stable democracy is arguably a test case for President Biden’s pledge to center democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

Questions and Background

  • Would negotiating an understanding with Russia stabilize Ukraine’s democracy, or is Russian hostility inevitable for a democratic regime in Kiev?
  • Does Russia have legitimate interests in Ukraine that the United States has violated by supporting its government since 2014?
  • How quickly and how deeply should Ukraine become integrated into Western organizations like NATO and the European Union?
  • What can Washington do to contribute to Ukraine’s external security and anti-corruption initiatives? What are the limits of American action in these areas?

Biden-Zelensky: Seize the Moment
Kurt Volker. Center for European Policy Analysis. September 1, 2021. 

President Biden Must Reaffirm U.S. Support for Ukraine
Luke Coffey. The Heritage Foundation. August 30, 2021. 

President Zelensky comes to Washington
Steven Pifer. The Brookings Institution. August 25, 2021.

The U.S. and Ukraine Need to Reboot their Relationship
Michael McFaul. The Washington Post. August 23, 2021. 

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