Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s young telegenic president, just sprinted through Washington and many observers are struggling to make sense of the short visit. What was the point, after all?
Partly prestige, partly purse. Zelenskyy had been pressing for an Oval Office visit for years, and he finally got it. Zelenskyy has never hid his ambitions: the inexperienced comedian wants to be a global leader, so getting a photo op in the White House has been a top priority.
Zelenskyy came away with more money. Washington pledged an additional $60 million in Ukraine’s fight to repel the Russians, $45 million for humanitarian needs, and another $12.8 million in COVID-19 related assistance. The paltry defense amount is of course welcome, but a drop in the bucket given the massive needs. Zelenskyy estimated that the country needs $22 billion to modernize the navy, and most analysts see the Black Sea as one of Ukraine’s greatest vulnerabilities.
The visit itself was unusual, and mistakes were made by both Kyiv and Washington, but the bottom line is that both sides benefitted from the meeting and U.S.-Ukrainian relations are once again on firm footing. Zelenskyy needed to clear the air and reset U.S.-Ukrainian relations after the taint and tarnish of the Trump era, and to his credit, he represented his country with charisma, panache, and spring in his step. Zelenskyy’s visit was also an answer to prayer for the pious Joe Biden, who faces the biggest foreign policy crisis to date with the messy withdrawal in Afghanistan. The visit briefly changed headlines.
Like Team Biden, Team Zelenskyy carefully controls the president’s scripted moments, but the Ukrainian president rarely takes interviews or gives press conferences. His two-day visit to Washington was no different. In his on-the-record meeting with think tank experts, Kyiv carefully culled the guest list and kept out experts who have been too critical of Zelenskyy’s thin accomplishments and cut off questions once they got critical. The event was also bizarrely held at the library of Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, America’s first president. The choice of location was never explained, but the fact that the embassy chose to host the event itself speaks to the control with which they oversaw the event and the entire visit.
At Mount Vernon on August 31, Zelenskyy entered the room in his regular get-up—a black suit and tie—and began waving and greeting everyone in English. He brightened and mucked it up when he saw Ambassador Bill Taylor, who had been the U.S. chargé d’affairs when Zelenskyy won in a landslide election in 2019.
Zelenskyy gave unmemorable prepared remarks in Ukrainian from the podium, and then turned things over to presidential advisor Dr. Tymofiy Mylovanov to present “the transformation plan.” Always a professor, Mylovanov debuted three text-heavy slides—on physical security, energy security and infrastructure, and economic growth—that were hardly objectionable. Oddly, this was the first that they had ever been previewed. Ukrainians were a bit surprised when they learned about the new plan—and stumped why it was being shown first to U.S. experts and not the public.
“Justice has not been achieved,” Mylovanov admitted. He said that Ukraine faces fundamental challenges and breaking away from the legacy of the Soviet Union cannot be done overnight. Mylovanov said that Ukraine could have enacted breakthrough reforms years ago if it hadn’t been for Russian aggression—a clever but false talking point since its reform progress was patchy at best from 1991 to 2014 when it did not face Russian aggression.
Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov rounded out the show with a snazzy video showing Ukraine’s real accomplishments in moving government services online in a platform called Diia. Registering a newborn child in Ukraine can be done in minutes on a computer or phone, for example.
The president gave a token bow to the need for rule of law, but it was hardly sufficient or detailed in a country where foreign direct investment is zero. But the comedian president was deadly serious when he and his team stressed the need to invest in Ukraine numerous times, a tone-deaf request given that his audience was impoverished think tank experts and equally impoverished government servants.
Andrii Osadchuk, an opposition MP with the Holos political party, put Zelenskyy’s investment pitch memorably: “Zelenskyy wants everyone to play soccer with us. We have a beautiful stadium. The grass is perfect. We have everything you need but no referees. Come play anyway.”
After the formal presentation, two questions were asked. Myroslava Gongadze, the chief of the Voice of America’s Ukraine Service, pressed Zelenskyy on corruption.
Zelenskyy said there are two ways to tackle corruption, through digitization and the courts, and because of the actions his team has taken, Ukraine’s future presidents “have already won.”
Too bad that claim doesn’t hold up. While the Rada, Ukraine's main legislative body, passed a new judicial reform bill in July, it has not been implemented and stands little chance of implementation.
Still, reformers in Kyiv view the visit positively. In the joint statement issued by the White House, the Ukrainian president promised to enact a number of hard reforms that he promised in his campaign, from reforming the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) to appointing a new Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor. The bill on SBU reform should make its way through the Rada this month, but the process to point a new top prosecutor is stalled because of shenanigans in the presidential white house.
Team Biden also had its fair share of bloopers and exaggerations. A senior Biden administration official told reporters that “in the thirty years since Ukraine achieved independence, our strategic partnership has never been stronger than it is now.” Never mind the ripe disagreement over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or Kyiv’s annoyance that Washington won’t stop lecturing them over corruption. The relationship is good but not great.
Team Biden also bizarrely prioritized human rights concerns over the entire reform agenda. Do human rights concerns top fixing the entire country? Also, the emphasis on climate change, while needed, is not a burning priority in Ukraine.
Will Team Biden hold Zelenskyy to his pledges? Unlikely in a White House focused on Covid-19, China, and climate change, and in an administration that decidedly wants to ignore Russia (the White House mentions China fifteen times, Russia five, and Ukraine zero in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance) but Ukrainians certainly will.
Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. She tweets @melindaharing.