Blinken’s debut in Ukraine: A case for managing expectations (Part 2)

Polish paratroopers holding the United States and Ukrainian state flags during the NATO military exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013 in Poland. (Source: Sgt. A.M. LaVey via Wikimedia)

Polish paratroopers holding the United States and Ukrainian state flags during the NATO military exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013 in Poland. (Source: Sgt. A.M. LaVey via Wikimedia) 

International

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

To read Part 1, please click here

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his closest entourage sometimes raise public expectations of what the United States can deliver to Ukraine to unrealistically high levels. Furthermore they tend to discount the close relationship between what the US is actually delivering to Ukraine and the latter’s own performance on economic and governance reforms. These twin tendencies of Zelenskyy’s team can generate public disappointment after undue expectations, confronting the US with a problem of expectation management in Ukraine (see Part 1 in EDM, June 6).

President Zelenskyy has decided that Ukraine would ask the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to initiate the process of adopting a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine at the Alliance’s upcoming summit (June 14). Zelenskyy publicly asked the visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for Washington to support Ukraine’s move at this summit. Zelenskyy’s closest adviser, Andriy Yermak, announced after the talks, “We have received again today [May 6] the confirmation of full US support for Ukraine to receive a MAP” (Ukrinform, May 6). This goal, however, remains unrealistic due to entrenched opposition in much of Western Europe, which US support, no matter how persistent, is unlikely to overcome any time soon. Taking this fact into account, Blinken as well as the State Department’s briefings on his visit used the general term “Euro-Atlantic aspirations” (State.gov, May 5–7) rather than referring specifically to a Membership Action Plan. Unduly raising public hopes in a MAP year after year can only result in another disappointment and, ultimately, NATO-skepticism in Ukraine, playing into Russia’s hands.

Fortuitously, on May 6 (the day of Blinken’s Kyiv visit), the North Atlantic Council at the ambassadorial level decided that NATO’s June 14 summit in Brussels will be held without the attendance of partner countries such as Ukraine (Ukrinform, May 8). The US and a few member countries are set to promote Ukraine’s aspirations at the summit in Ukraine’s absence. Meanwhile, Kyiv has left the post of Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO vacant since August 2019. For their part, NATO officials suggest that Ukraine should make best use of its recently (since June 2020) gained status as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner (EOP). This is no substitute for a MAP, however; neither has EOP’s relevance to Ukraine been fully tested in practice. Ukraine’s main source of military equipment, assistance and training is not NATO as such, but the United States on a bilateral basis as well as a coalition-of-the-willing comprised mainly of the US, the United Kingdom and Canada. These arrangements outside NATO’s official framework (thus, not requiring its collective political approval) look set to continue and potentially expand.

According to Blinken in Kyiv, the United States is prepared to expand security cooperation and defense assistance to ensure that Ukraine has the means to defend itself against Russian aggression (RFE/RL, May 6). Ukrainian officials submitted specific requests, including for air defense systems, during this visit. Yermak had earlier ventured to raise the level of expectations, publicly calling on the US to deploy or deliver Patriot missiles to Ukraine, apparently without prior coordination with Washington (Censor.net, April 13).

The Ukrainian parliamentary leader of the pro-presidential Servant of the People party, David Arakhamia, brought up the possibility of a US-Ukraine bilateral agreement on strategic-military cooperation during Blinken’s visit (Ukrinform, May 6). This may have lifted a curtain’s corner on Zelenskyy’s cryptic remark at the concluding joint briefing: “We discussed the possibility of a very serious bilateral agreement. But this is a matter for the future; it is too early to discuss details” (State.gov, May 6). The option for Ukraine to seek the status of Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States has also come up for discussion in Kyiv. Such proposals may gain added relevance for Ukraine in the aftermath of NATO’s upcoming summit and will deserve serious exploration at the professional level outside the political arena.

It is a worrisome sign for Ukraine (and not only for it) that the US side has stopped short of reaffirming its strong opposition to Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project during Blinken’s visit (see Part 1 in EDM, May 6). Such restraint is another instance of expectations management. The Joseph Biden administration seems to be procrastinating on applying the available sanctions capable of blocking Nord Stream 2. Instead, the administration seems to be deferring to German interests in Gazprom’s project; and possibly also to Russia’s own interests in the run-up to the Biden-requested meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Inflicting a coup de grace on Nord Stream 2 by US sanctions might also kill the summit planned for June. According to Russia’s ambassador in Berlin, Sergei Nechayev, construction work on Nord Stream 2 could be completed by September, if the weather is favorable (TASS citing Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland, May 8). Completion of Nord Stream 2 would heavily hit Ukraine financially and more broadly strategically. The state company Naftogaz stands to lose several billion dollars in annual revenue in that case.

Yet the Zelenskyy administration has hit its own interests and reputation in the run-up to Blinken’s visit (and without regard for it) by purging Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolev and the Supervisory Board for obscure reasons, in violation of corporate governance norms. The president (or his entourage), furthermore, has appointed Herman Halushchenko as energy minister, notwithstanding his ties with Andriy Derkach, who is viewed in Ukraine and the US as an agent of Russian influence and has therefore been sanctioned by the United States (Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, May 7). This move has undermined the Zelenskyy administration’s own arguments (otherwise undoubtedly valid) for the US to block the Nord Stream 2 project.

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