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Fast Thinking September 1, 2021

FAST THINKING: Ukraine’s president finally gets a White House visit

By Atlantic Council


A friend in need is a friend indeed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his long-awaited first visit to the White House on Wednesday to meet with US President Joe Biden, and both leaders can say they walked away with victories. Zelenskyy—whose country is in its eighth year of war following Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine—received a renewed US commitment to help boost Ukrainian security. For Biden, the meeting was a chance to prove the United States is a good partner amid sharp criticism of the way the US withdrew from Afghanistan. What message does the get-together send to Moscow? What further hurdles must these allies overcome? Our expert breakdown is below.


  • Oleh Shamshur (@Shamshur_O): Nonresident senior fellow at the Eurasia Center and former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States.

What Zelenskyy gets

  • Much of the Ukrainian political establishment was rattled by Biden’s decision to lift US opposition to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany—a move seen in Kyiv and by many in Congress as paving the way for Moscow’s weaponization of energy. And the US pullout from Afghanistan, combined with Russian upcoming military exercises with Belarus, may have Zelenskyy worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to escalate his war in Ukraine.
  • But the visit’s parting gifts could help allay those fears. Ukraine gets an extra $60 million in US security assistance—bringing the total this year to more than $400 million—plus the revival of the Strategic Partnership Commission, a mechanism for US and Ukrainian officials to coordinate on security, trade, and energy challenges that hasn’t met in three years. “The results of this visit are a clear signal to Moscow not to escalate in Ukraine. This is exactly what Zelenskyy wanted,” John says.
  • Melinda points out that while Ukraine needs the boost in support, it’s not enough: “$60 million is a drop in the bucket,” she says.
  • And while the leaders’ joint statement mentioned that the US will send additional Javelin missiles, Oleh also wants to see an expansion of the types of weapons provided to Ukraine and “more attention paid to the development of Ukrainian air force, air defense, and naval capabilities.”
  • Still, Melinda adds, there’s also a benefit to Kyiv that you can’t put a price on: “For Zelenskyy, the fact that the White House is paying attention to something other than Afghanistan and China is a real win.”

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What Biden gets

  • An Oval Office sit-down with the Ukrainian president might not generate wall-to-wall cable news coverage to drown out the latest from Kabul. But it does represent a “foreign-policy win,” in John’s eyes, as Russia and China seize on the Afghanistan withdrawal “to sow doubts about the reliability of the US as a partner and ally.” 
  • For both leaders, Melinda says, it’s also “a chance to clear the air and move beyond the taint and tarnish of the Trump era,” during which the Kyiv-Washington partnership descended into toxic political intrigue. 

Where they fell short

  • Despite these wins, certain sticking points in the relationship will remain, including Nord Stream 2 and widespread corruption in Ukraine, which is still struggling to clean up its judicial system.
  • As a result, expect both leaders to continue pushing one another, Melinda advises: Zelenskyy for a clear US guarantee of NATO membership for his country, and Biden for meaningful domestic reforms that would help Kyiv finally shake off the shackles of endemic graft. “There’s a reason why Ukraine’s [foreign direct investment] is zero,” she says, “and blaming Russian aggression only goes so far.”
  • Ultimately, Oleh argues, the meeting “produced no breakthroughs.” He points out that “most of the agreements signed refurbish, enhance, or resuscitate previous arrangements.” They’ll require substantial follow-up and work to implement the measures. If that doesn’t happen, he warns, they risk becoming “those wishful documents that migrate from one summit to the other.”

Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst, Melinda Haring, and Oleh Shamshur

Image: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst