US foreign policy was tumultuous under Donald Trump. It isolated itself from its allies and principles. Since the Euromaidan protests in 2013, Ukraine has been eagerly approaching the US and western countries. It is also strategically critical for the US/NATO-Russia rivalry in Eastern Europe. However, the Trump administration mistreats the bilateral relationship. It provided little support and forced the country to back Trump’s election, leading to his impeachment. After Biden’s inauguration, the new administration slowly reconnected its partners and rebuilt its international image. Under this, a new US-Ukraine relationship is predictable.
On April 02, 2021, Biden called the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. According to the White House statement, Biden’s call “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.” Although security is the priority, Biden also commits to support Ukraine’s anti-corruption, democratic reform and Covid-19 management. On his Twitter, Zelenskiy passionately commented, “we stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to preservation of our democracies. My commitment to transform Flag of Ukraine, improve transparency & achieve peace is strong”.
Biden’s rhetoric has been much more attractive to the international community than Trump, and the administration is winning reputation from it. Through countless commitments to overturn Trump’s policies, people assume Biden will strengthen its allies and rules-based international order. Biden has narrated himself as someone what “America should be”. A Ukrainian freelance journalist, Askold Krushelnycky, wrote Why Ukraine loves Joe Biden before the US election. He argued that Biden could restore the American reputation in Ukraine that Trump diminished. Brookings analyzed that “there is little reason to doubt that the Biden presidency will be good for Ukraine. The incoming president knows the country, and he understands both the value of a stable and successful Ukraine”.
However, the problem is it’s still too early to judge how the Biden presidency will behave to match its commitments. Until now, there is little information on how the US will move forward to ensure its “unwavering support.” When Trump met the then Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in 2017, he said they had “very, very good discussions” and “a lot of progress” on the US’ engagement to a peaceful solution of border issues anti-corruption and reform agenda. Poroshenko also optimistically called Trump’s America “one of the most reliable supporters.” These words are like a mirror of the Biden-Zelenskiy call. Following Trump’s disappointing policies, there is no guarantee that Biden will follow his words. To prove the “unwavering support” is not a rhetorical game, Biden needs detailed plans and actual efforts.
Biden needs to do the most crucial thing to treat Ukraine as a real partner, not a tool to counter Russia. US’s concerns over Ukraine are connected with Russia’s movements, especially military movements. The Biden-Zelenskiy call is a result of Russian troop movements near Donbas. According to Reuters, Biden is watching Ukraine’s borders because it is concerned about Russian disinformation. This hostility to Russia will further push Ukraine away from a normal relationship with Russia. Protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is essential, but not with hostility. Suppose the US wants a more stable and prosperous partner. In that case, it needs to promote reconciliation and encourage dialogue between Ukraine, Russia and secessionist groups instead of exploiting Ukraine’s geopolitical advantages to benefit the US’s rivalry with Russia.
There is much more to do than Russian troops movements or other security issues. The US needs to engage in Ukraine’s domestic reforms positively. The Trump presidency mentioned anti-corruption and democratic transition but did little. Biden has many challenges if he wants to make actual achievements. Firstly, Zelenskiy’s government holds ambiguous views on reforms. In the 2020 local elections, Zelenskiy lost a lot of supports because of few reform policies. This means Biden will face Zelenskiy’s pressures if the US accelerates the country’s reforms. Secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic has damaged the country’s economy and stability. On the one hand, it needs budget supports to balance the Covid-19 damages. On the other hand, the country has strong vaccine skepticism. In early March 2020, the government cited that nearly half of Ukrainians rejects to inject AstraZeneca vaccines. The country’s immunity might be later than other countries. Therefore, the US will help Ukraine gain more access to economic support and manage the pandemic more effectively.
Biden is speaking aspirational words. This is positive, but clever words are not enough. They need to match actions. It is too early to say how Biden will behave in the future. Biden needs immediate plans and actions to provide his words. Moreover, the actions shouldn’t be solely military or diplomatic supports against Russia. We can only hope Biden is more committed to his words than his predecessor.
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