Zelensky Walked Away From His Washington Meeting Nearly Empty Handed
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has finally secured his long-sought meeting with President Biden, but what does he have to show for it?
Zelensky arrived at the White House on Wednesday for what was his first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden. The summit accompanied another round of U.S. financial aid to Ukraine, including a $60 million security assistance package, $45 million more in humanitarian aid, and $12.8 million in “Covid-related assistance.” But these numbers are hardly groundbreaking in the context of previous U.S. aid to Ukraine since 2014, with $2.5 billion spent on Ukraine’s military alone.
Zelensky went to Washington not to extract further subsidies that his government likely would have received in any case, but to mitigate the recent tensions that accumulated between Washington and Kiev since President Joe Biden took office and peaked with the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. Zelensky had three overarching policy tasks: 1) to make progress in securing a roadmap for Ukraine’s NATO accession, 2) to convince Washington to join, or at least actively participate in, the Normandy Format of states negotiating an end to the ongoing Donbas conflict, and 3) and to extract meaningful concessions from the Biden administration over the imminent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He left having accomplished none of these goals.
The Ukrainian president did not get the unequivocal “yes or no” answer on Ukraine’s NATO membership that he previously told reporters he would seek from Western leaders. Instead, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated the Biden administration’s long-established stance: “NATO’s door remains open to aspirants,” she said, but there “are steps that aspirant countries like Ukraine need to take in order to meet NATO standards for memberships.” This is the same position as the one taken by State Secretary Antony Blinken during his visit to Kiev earlier this summer, and scores of U.S. officials before that. Zelensky posited that Biden “personally supports” Ukraine NATO’s ambitions, but, despite his efforts to present the results of the meeting as a sign of progress in securing a roadmap, there is no indication that the White House has at all shifted in its thinking on this matter.
Kiev has tried for years to convince Washington to involve itself directly in the Normandy Format—a group of foreign leaders, currently consisting of Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France, working to find a resolution to the war in Donbas. These efforts stem in part from Kiev’s acute dissatisfaction with the Minsk Protocol, a peace agreement that outlines a path for the reintegration of the separatist eastern Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics back into Ukraine. Top Ukrainian officials have insisted that parts of the Minsk agreement are impossible to implement as they are currently written, with Zelensky himself saying earlier this year that “several points [of Minsk] should be updated.”
There is an underlying presumption among some in Kiev that Washington's closer involvement in the Normandy Format could spur revisions to the Minsk agreement or even prompt the rise of a parallel format. But the White House has consistently rebuffed any such invitations, and Zelensky’s recent visit has proven no different. Zelensky told reporters that he proposed “U.S. representation on the level of the president” in the Donbas peace process. “The U.S. will consider my offer because I did not convey these details and I did not discuss these details prior to my meeting [with Joe Biden],” he said. When asked by a befuddled journalist if he is talking about an alternative to the Normandy Format, Zelensky cryptically replied, “some format.” Zelensky’s remarks have sown widespread confusion even in Kiev, with Ukrainian foreign policy consultant Alexander Kraev telling the BBC, “I did not understand him. In expert circles, no one knows what this is about.” Kraev added that neither Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Office of the President have elaborated on Zelensky’s comments.
Washington and Kiev released a joint statement averring that the two sides “continue to oppose Nord Stream 2, which we [the U.S. and Ukraine] view as a threat to European energy security,” but—as of late August 2021—the pipeline is virtually complete and on the cusp being launched. At this stage, Washington’s opposition to the project appears more symbolic than practical. The Biden administration itself conceded in May 2021 with its decision to waive sanctions on the company overseeing construction of the project that there is little Washington can do to stop the pipeline. “The U.S. and Ukrainian governments support efforts to increase capacity for gas supplies to Ukraine from diversified sources,” the statement continued. This, too, reads more like a statement of preference than a declaration of concrete policy intent.
The summit, then, was an exercise in the same desiccated talking points and vain assurances that have governed U.S.-Ukraine relations since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. The two leaders hailed the global cause of democracy, an increasingly hollow exaltation in light of Zelensky’s own authoritarian turn at home. They called for an end to the Donbas War, but the Minsk agreements are no closer to being implemented on eve of their seventh anniversary than on the day that they were signed. Despite Zelensky’s cryptic messaging, vigorous opposition from Russia all but nullifies prospects for a viable alternative format to Minsk. The Biden administration is understandably unwilling to accept Ukraine into NATO given the immense geopolitical risks involved, but lacks the political will to say so outright and thus continues to drag out the issue under the pretense of opaque domestic reform requirements.
Not unlike past state-level interactions between Ukrainian and U.S. officials, the Zelensky-Biden summit lacked what the bilateral relationship needs now more than ever: policy substance and strategic clarity. The administration’s continued insistence on eliding the existential questions confronting U.S.-Ukraine relations risks sending the wrong policy signals both to Kiev and Moscow, muddying an already-difficult peace process in Donbas and raising the likelihood of military miscalculations with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.