Biden picks Antony Blinken: Good news for Ukraine?

Antony Blinken speaks following his nomination for Secretary of State by US President-elect Joe Biden. November 24, 2020. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

As he prepares to take office in January 2021, US President-elect Joe Biden has nominated longtime ally and advisor Antony Blinken as his pick for Secretary of State. The decision was greeted with cautious optimism in Kyiv, where Blinken is seen as a supporter of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression and someone who has a deep understanding of post-Soviet geopolitical realities.

Much of this Ukrainian enthusiasm is due to Blinken’s prior record during the Obama administration, where he served as a national security advisor to both President Obama and Vice President Biden before becoming Deputy Secretary of State. Within the Obama White House, Blinken played an influential role in the imposition of sanctions against Russia over the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and subsequently led ultimately unsuccessful calls for the US to arm Ukraine.

Blinken’s strong ties and long association with Biden mean his foreign policy is expected to be closely in line with the president’s own vision. Indeed, according to one former State Department official quoted by CNN, “it’s difficult to know where one person’s policy vision ends and the other’s begins.”

During his time as Vice President, Biden handled the Ukraine portfolio and paid numerous visits to Kyiv. He backed Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against the Kremlin, and was also a prominent advocate of the anti-corruption reforms undertaken by the Ukrainian authorities following the country’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Many now expect these two areas to serve as the twin focuses of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy.

As the countdown continues towards the January 2021 inauguration of President Biden, the Atlantic Council invited American and Ukrainian experts to share their thoughts on what the selection of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State might mean for the future of US-Ukrainian ties.

John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: Tony Blinken is a well respected foreign policy professional with substantial experience, including service as Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama administration. He is close to President-elect Biden, who will define the major lines of foreign policy. Blinken will implement and refine Biden’s vision. The Biden administration will provide major support for Ukraine as it withstands Kremlin aggression. This support will include military supplies and lethal weapons. It is worth recalling that Biden supported sending Javelins to Ukraine during the Obama administration. The Biden administration will also encourage reform in Ukraine with economic aid set to be linked to serious reform steps. Biden himself took on this task as Vice President. Blinken and other subordinates will play this role during the Biden presidency. Blinken will also implement a Biden policy of pushing back hard against Kremlin provocations, not only in Ukraine, but elsewhere. An important part of this will be strengthening NATO and pursuing closer relations with the EU and key European states. This cooperation will mean more effective sanctions and other steps to limit and deter Kremlin aggression.

Lisa Yasko, Ukrainian MP, Servant of the People party: Firstly, it is important to note that Tony Blinken possesses considerable foreign policy credentials. Secondly, he has vast experience of collaboration with President-elect Joe Biden. Thirdly, Blinken is deeply informed about the specific situation in Ukraine and well versed on Eastern Europe in general. In March 2015, Blinken visited Kyiv and made an inspirational speech at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, where I was working at the time. I believe that he can be called a genuine friend of Ukraine. Blinken is also one of the architects of the US sanctions regime against Russia, which bodes well for Ukrainian interests. Looking ahead, the post of US Ambassador to Ukraine has been vacant for a relatively long period. A new US Special Envoy for Ukraine may also be appointed to fill the position formerly held by Kurt Volker. These two issues will be among the first challenges for Blinken as he looks to address US-Ukraine relations.

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Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: The Biden administration will view Ukraine not as Trump did, from the strange perspective of his personal political fortunes, but from the perspective of US interests. This means support for a successful, sovereign, democratic, and prospering Ukraine drawing closer to the West. Like Biden, Tony Blinken knows Ukraine. Both regarded the Revolution of Dignity with respect. Both supported the sanctions that the Obama administration imposed after Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, without Blinken’s support, there might have been no sanctions; as Deputy National Security Advisor, he gave me the backing I needed (as Sanctions Coordinator at the State Department) to negotiate those sanctions with the Europeans. Biden and Blinken also know Vladimir Putin and will not regard him with the cloying affection Trump displayed. They will, I suspect, push for a diplomatic solution that gets the Russians out of Donbas first and then Crimea. Both also understand that Ukraine will not succeed without transformation at home. The iron ring of corruption and oligarchic control (through which Putin seeks to dominate Ukraine) can damage the country’s future just as much as direct Russian pressure. Biden and Blinken will push Ukraine’s leaders to step up and deliver on better, cleaner governance that serves Ukraine’s people and provides the necessary foundation for the country’s European future.

Oleksiy Goncharenko, Ukrainian MP, European Solidarity party: The nomination of Tony Blinken as US Secretary of State is a very positive signal for Ukraine. Blinken is a supporter of a more active role for the United States in world politics, so we can expect the Biden administration to move away from the isolationism of the Trump era. Blinken also knows Ukraine very well. He has considerable experience of cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities and has, it can be said, a clear and unambiguous pro-Ukrainian position when it comes to the Russo-Ukrainian War. This stance was reflected in his 2017 New York Times op-ed entitled: “Time for the Trump Administration to Arm Ukraine.” Blinken has also consistently recognized Russia’s responsibility for the conflict. I am therefore hopeful that the appointment of Blinken will be good for Ukraine. We can expect the United States to take on a more active role in efforts to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine and end the Russian occupation of Crimea. Additionally, we will likely see an increase in US support for Ukraine’s reform agenda and the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

Solomiia Bobrovska, Ukrainian MP, Holos party: The nomination of Anthony Blinken for US Secretary of State is welcome news for Ukraine. We know Blinken for his strong support for a liberal, rules-based world order. Ukraine also remembers and appreciates the fact that he has previously acknowledged the presence of regular Russian military units in eastern Ukraine. His foreign policy approach towards Ukraine is likely to entail help in fighting Russian aggression alongside support for a continuation of the anti-corruption reforms that began following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. In light of Blinken’s solid position on Russian disinformation and his inclination to hold Russia accountable for meddling in US elections, it would be reasonable to expect an increase in the fight against Russian information warfare and cyber attacks. Blinken may also seek to reinvigorate Ukraine’s drive for closer Euro-Atlantic integration.

Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: Tony Blinken is a consummate professional who understands that Vladimir Putin is a punk and menace to the world order. Blinken is absolutely committed to ensuring that Ukraine finally becomes a member of the Euro-Atlantic community and eventually joins NATO. But he’s not a softie. Don’t expect him to give Ukraine a pass. Guided by a strong Ukraine bench, the United States will hold Zelenskyy’s feet to the fire and insist the country deal with domestic corruption and reform its courts before receiving massive foreign aid. Experience, professionalism, and wisdom may have returned to Foggy Bottom, and it couldn’t come sooner.

Daria Kaleniuk, Executive Director, Anti-Corruption Action Center: Antony Blinken’s appointment inspires hope for an improvement in the US-Ukraine relationship following significant damage to bilateral ties inflicted over the past two years by pro-Kremlin and oligarchic forces. Blinken visited Ukraine back in 2015 and knows the country well. He has a deep understanding of the need for reforms, good governance, and the rule of law in Ukraine, and appreciates the complex challenges presented by ongoing Russian military and hybrid aggression. Authoritarian Russia is working hard to make sure Ukraine fails as a democracy, but if we are able to build strong democratic institutions here, then the liberal democratic idea will be revived across Eastern Europe and into Central Asia. With this in mind, I hope Blinken will target the financing of pro-Kremlin political forces in Ukraine, particularly Vladimir Putin’s personal friend Viktor Medvedchuk. Policies that cut off funding to Kremlin agents in Ukraine, along with visa bans and other personal sanctions against corrupt officials who undermine the rule of law, could have a game-changing effect in Ukraine.

Volodymyr Dubovyk, Associate Professor, Odesa Mechnikov National University: Nobody on President-elect Joe Biden’s shortlist for Secretary of State would have been bad news for Ukraine, including Susan Rice, who wasn’t the first choice for many Ukraine watchers. There is a certain consensus with regard to Ukraine policy within Biden’s inner circle. Blinken is most definitely part of that consensus. Both Biden and Blinken understand the significance of Ukraine and share an appreciation of the need to continue helping Ukraine in a variety of ways. Blinken knows Ukraine personally and is well acquainted with the wider region. He shares Biden’s perception of Ukraine fighting on two fronts simultaneously-against Russia and against domestic corruption. We should expect no major changes here. Blinken has a record of being tough on Russia. He advocated stronger sanctions against Moscow following the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, for instance. Blinken also came out early in support of providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, but ended up on the losing side of that particular debate alongside Biden himself. Now that Biden is in charge, we can expect Blinken to work closely with the president and with US Congress to drive US policy towards Ukraine forward with a renewed sense of purpose.

Peter Dickinson in the Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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