Blinken’s debut in Ukraine: A case for managing expectations (Part 1)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Kyiv, May 6, 2021. Source: president.gov.ua

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Kyiv, May 6, 2021. Source: president.gov.ua 

International, Ukraine

Article by: Vladimir Socor, The Jamestown Foundation
Edited by: A. N.

Antony Blinken is visiting Kyiv today (May 6) on his first bilateral visit as US Secretary of State to a European country (Ukraiynska Pravda, May 6). This choice should have been foreordained in view of Ukraine’s pivotal significance to the power balance in Europe and the containment of Russia.

Should the Joseph Biden administration confirm the containment goal as part of its overall strategy in Europe, it will be able to take the lead in developing a strategic partnership with Ukraine on foundations laid during the Donald Trump administration. The latter supplied lethal military equipment that had previously been withheld to Ukraine and launched major training programs for the Ukrainian army, drawing on bipartisan Congressional backing. The Trump administration also moved decisively with bipartisan support to block Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, adverse to European energy security generally and Ukraine’s national interests in particular.

Developing a full-fledged US-Ukraine strategic partnership under the Biden administration would presuppose continuity with those policies on military assistance and energy security. It also presupposes Washington’s return to mentoring and supporting Ukraine in the diplomatic negotiations aimed at ending Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territories. The appointment of a US ambassador in Kyiv is also long overdue.

Those are the expectations that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the government, and civil society in Ukraine have voiced since the Biden administration took office and that were presented to Blinken in Kyiv today (Ukrinform, Unian, May 6).

Some of Kyiv’s expectations confront the United States with the problem of expectation management. Conversely, Zeleneskyy’s delusional hopes to end Russia’s aggression through bilateral negotiations with President Vladimir Putin (see EDM, April 28, 29, May 3) necessitate hands-on US mentoring in Kyiv before any damage is incurred.

In the run-up to Blinken’s visit, Ukrainian officials from Zelenskyy on down redoubled calls to add the United States to the existing “Normandy” format of negotiations (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France). It is a sign of President Zelenskyy’s nervousness and impatience to “end the war” that he is reaching out directly to the Kremlin while asking the US to join the Normandy format at the same time (The Financial Times, President.gov.ua, April 26).

Adding the United States to the Normandy format is not only impossible but would harm Ukraine’s interests if that move were achieved. Moscow would undoubtedly veto Washington’s entry into this group. Berlin and Paris would also oppose it for reasons of their own. They would not want to end up in Washington’s shadow if the latter joins the Normandy group. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are deeply invested politically in the Normandy process: the exiting Merkel for a career-crowning success, the re-electable Macron for seizing the center-stage from Merkel and playing mediator between Europe and Russia.

Source: president.gov.ua

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Vladimir Putin during Paris summit of the Normandy Four (December 10, 2019). Image courtesy: https://www.president.gov.ua/

On the other hand, should Washington hypothetically be accepted into the group, it would have to take into account Berlin’s and Paris’s cautious, concession-prone attitude toward Moscow. This would require Washington to adjust its position to a lower common denominator with Berlin and Paris. Furthermore, if admitted into the Normandy process, the United States would have to adopt the “acquis” of documents that form the basis of this seven-year process, beginning with the Minsk “agreements” aimed at reinserting the Russian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk back into Ukraine on Russian-imposed terms. Ukraine would be far better off if the United States resumes an active diplomatic role unencumbered by the Minsk “agreements” and the Normandy acquis (Tetiana Sylina, “Non-Format,” Dzerkalo Tyzhinia, April 27).

US diplomat Kurt Volker performed outstandingly as Special Representative in negotiations outside the Normandy format—albeit in consultation with Berlin and Paris—from July 2017 through September 2019. The Special Representative’s post became, however, a collateral casualty to Washington’s political turmoil. Ukrainian officials hope for a US Special Representative to be appointed who might emulate Volker’s performance. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has expressed hope that the State Department would itself select and appoint that special representative (RFE/RL, May 2).

The post of US ambassador in Kyiv has been vacant for the last two years. To speed up the ambassadorial appointment, some Ukrainian officials suggest elevating the current chargé d’affaires, Christina Kwien, to a full-fledged ambassador, so as to obviate the lengthy nomination and confirmation process in Washington. Ukrainian parliamentary leaders proposed this solution during their meeting with Blinken and his delegation today (Ukrinform, May 6).

To Be Continued in Part 2

Read More:

Edited by: A. N.

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