Biden and Ukraine: A strategy for the new administration

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Executive summary

Since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine in 2014, the United States has been an essential partner for Kyiv. Now that President Joe Biden has taken office, he has a real chance to move past the difficult detour that US-Ukraine relations took under his predecessor. In Biden and Ukraine: A strategy for the new administration, top experts and former US ambassadors to Ukraine lay out a plan for how the Biden team can repair relations with Ukraine, encourage President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s team to commit once and for all to lasting reform in the country, and how to engage in the peace process to end the conflict in the Donbas.

Resetting relations with Kyiv will not be simple. As vice president, Biden oversaw Ukraine policy, visited the country six times, and knows most of its players and personalities, which is an obvious advantage. But Zelenskyy is different from his immediate predecessor. He hails from Ukraine’s Russian speaking east, was not an active participant in the Revolution of Dignity, has had little contact with the West, and took a battering during Trump’s first impeachment in which Ukraine was front and center. However, Zelenskyy is keen to engage with the new Biden team and seeks recognition as a global leader. The Biden administration would be wise to seize this opportunity.

The first priority for the new Biden team should be to get to know the players in Ukraine and Zelenskyy’s inner circle (Zelenskyy’s team and his ministers are not household names in Washington) and to establish a relationship of trust after the turbulence of the Trump years. The second priority should be to strengthen Western support for Ukraine’s defense against Kremlin aggression. And the third priority should be to craft a strategy to encourage Zelenskyy to embrace a real reform agenda, especially to establish and enforce the rule of law and bolster civil society and independent media. Elected on a platform to make Ukraine rich, end corruption, and bring peace to Ukraine, Zelenskyy has much work to do to live up to these promises. His inner circle doesn’t seem to comprehend these issues. Ukraine’s backtracking on reforms has been swift since Zelenskyy dismissed his reform-minded government in March 2020, but there is still time in the president’s term to turn things around. Several recent positive signs have been apparent that the United States and Ukrainian leaders can build upon.

This paper outlines a strategy toward Ukraine for the Biden administration. It includes sections on US interests in Ukraine, the domestic situation in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine, and new approaches to resolving the conflict in the Donbas. It concludes with recommendations for the Biden administration and Congress.

Biden and Ukraine: A strategy for the new administration, is authored by Dr. Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Ambassador Daniel Fried, Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs at the US Department of State, Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Ambassador John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, Ambassador William Taylor, vice president of the United States Institute of Peace and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former US ambassador to Russia.

Key recommendations

Once the Biden administration has reestablished close relations with Ukraine, Biden’s team should:

  • Appoint an ambassador as soon as possible.
  • Take leadership of Donbas diplomacy. Play an enhanced role in the negotiations to end the war.
  • Work with Congress to increase military assistance to Ukraine to $500,000,000 per year.
  • Enhance security in southeast Europe and the Black Sea in consultation with NATO allies and partners.
  • Deepen Ukraine’s integration with NATO. Grant Ukraine the status of major non-NATO ally under US law. Warn Russia that if it remains intransigent in Ukraine, Washington will consider additional steps, including establishing a permanent US military presence at a Ukrainian training center close to the occupied territories and launching a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine.
  • Strategic approach to sanctions. Work with the EU, European allies, and G7 partners to establish the concept of conditional sanctions on Russia if it continues its aggression in the Donbas. But make clear that sanctions aren’t forever.
  • Stay the course on ending Nord Stream 2.
  • Support the government of Ukraine’s efforts to organize the “Crimean Platform,” as it keeps occupied Crimea on the international agenda and reminds people, including in Russia, that Crimea is still Ukraine in the eyes of the international community.

On the issues of domestic reform in Ukraine, the Biden administration should:

  • Empower a senior official as the US point person for reform.
  • Prioritize the establishment of independent courts.
  • Take action against the major corrupt figures undermining reform in Ukraine. Energetically pursue the US request to Austria to extradite Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, and pursue legal processes against Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky in the United States.
  • Press for reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
  • Work to re-empower the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).
  • Push for abolition of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) economic department.
  • Push to restore the competitive and transparent appointment of state officials on the basis of competence. Non-reformers seemingly loyal to various vested interests are currently being selected.
  • Work for a return to a reform program in the health sector.
  • Urge the completion of the liberalization of energy markets.
  • Help establish full transparency of the ultimate beneficiary owners of major media and prohibit not only Russian television but also television channels owned by figures working in the Kremlin’s interests.
  • Reiterate strong support for the independence of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU).
  • Champion anti-monopoly legislation to limit the influence of large businesspeople on Ukraine’s economy and political system.
  • Outline a program that would stimulate US corporate investment in Ukraine if Ukraine proceeds with substantial prosecutorial and court reform.

Fixing relations between the United States and Ukraine will not be easy, especially given the turbulence experienced during the past administration. But close ties and a successful Ukraine are squarely in the interests of the United States and firmly in-line with the foreign policy goals of the Biden administration.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to promote policies that strengthen stability, democratic values, and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe in the West to the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia in the East.

Related Experts: Anders Åslund, Melinda Haring, John E. Herbst, Alexander Vershbow, and Daniel Fried

Image: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (front C) addresses deputies at the parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, December 8, 2015. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko