U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Reykjavik earlier this week. The two sides cautiously expressed their willingness to explore possible venues for cooperation despite deep-seated policy differences, though the joint press conference did not bring any concrete bilateral announcements. Some Ukrainian politicians and commentators, however, saw an altogether different subtext. Ukrainian politician Maksim Buzhanksiy reportedly likened the Lavrov-Blinken meeting to the 1944 Percentages Agreement, in which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin divided parts of eastern Europe into spheres of influence. “... I remember what the reports of the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov reminded me of,” he wrote, displaying a photo of the agreement. “77 years later, nothing has changed.”
The meeting was preceded by reports that the Biden administration has decided to waive sanctions on the company overseeing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, prompting alarm from Kyiv. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba noted that the launch of Nord Stream 2 would amount to a “defeat for U.S. diplomacy.” Ukraine’s gas industry says that Nord Stream 2 will cost the country up to six billion dollars per year in direct and indirect losses. In a rare moment of visceral disagreement with Washington’s foreign policy direction, dozens of Ukrainian politicians published an open letter denouncing Biden’s sanctions waiver. “...We found ourselves gravely alarmed by the decision to waive the application of sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, its CEO Matthias Warnig, and Nord Stream 2 AG’s corporate officers. This is a wrong signal to send when Ukraine has just faced a major military buildup on its border, and the peacemaking process to end the occupation of Crimea and stop the war in Donbas has stalled,” the letter read.
The Reykjavik meeting came on the heels of Blinken’s visit to Ukraine earlier in May. Whether on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO accession or potential revisions to the Minsk agreement, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky failed to secure any meaningful commitments or concessions from Washington. Rather, it was Blinken who asked for Kyiv’s commitment to expedite domestic reforms and step up ongoing anti-corruption efforts. Blinken likewise demurred when asked about the concrete punishments, up to and including military action, that Washington is prepared to levy on Moscow over the ongoing Donbas crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian concerns are being amplified by Kremlin opponents who maintain that Washington failed to adequately respond to Russia’s recent build-up of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border. Ukrainian-born emigre and political commentator Vadim Seidman described Washington’s perceived lack of action as “yet another betrayal of Ukraine and, generally, ideas of human rights, democracy, and freedom on which western civilization is founded,” adding that any possible agreement between Putin and Biden can only come at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty.
Many in Kyiv share the underlying concern that, over the course of normalization talks, Washington and Moscow could bilaterally decide issues of existential importance to Ukraine. Zelensky explicitly acknowledged these fears when asked about the possible Putin-Biden summit at a recent press conference. “Are there risks that they [Putin and Biden] will raise certain issues without paying attention to our agreements? I am sure that there are such risks. What are the main risks? For example, there is a major risk… that Russia can pressure the United States, or reach some type of agreement, to lift sanctions from Nord Stream. I believe that would be a loss for the United States and a personal loss for Biden.” Zelensky said that he previously conveyed to Biden that issues pertaining to Ukraine should be discussed with Ukrainian participation. It is unclear if, as of the time of making that statement, Zelensky was aware that the Biden administration had already granted the Nord Stream 2 waiver.
Kuleba gave a starkly different answer when asked by Ukrainian media about the Putin-Biden summit. “I would say it is a very big simplification… to believe that everything can be decided over the course of one meeting and that the United States will betray Ukraine. This is because the game is much more complex, and Ukraine is a very important partner to the United States. This is why I am unbothered by all the conspiracy theories,” he said.
As the Biden administration pivots to a policy of partial deconfliction with Moscow, the scope and content of Washington’s commitment to Ukraine will come under growing scrutiny-- not least of which by Ukrainian observers. Kyiv’s ongoing attempts to leverage western pressure against Russia have been met with rising reluctance in Western European capitals from Paris to Berlin. Biden’s recent effort to stabilize US-Russian relations could be yet another blow to the prospect of a united western front to confront and contain Russia, further weakening Ukraine’s geopolitical hand against its eastern neighbor.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.