20 years under Putin: a timeline

The recent summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House demonstrated that Washington and Kyiv are ready to cooperate, despite some unresolved issues, including Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO and the future of Nord Stream II. Against the backdrop of Russian aggression, these issues could pose a serious threat to European security.

 

September 1, 2021: Joe Biden meets Volodymyr Zelensky in Washington D.C. Photo: White House (via Wikimedia Commons).

 

The first official meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, took place on September 1. The date was postponed several times due to a number of reasons. Initially, Kyiv requested that the meeting happen prior to Biden’s June 16 summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, but in a phone conversation the U.S. president suggested that Zelensky visit Washington in July. Then the meeting was set for August 31, but this date coincided with the deadline set by the Taliban to withdraw U.S. and other foreign troops from Afghanistan. As a result, the Biden-Zelensky meeting was postponed once again, by one day. 

Even prior to the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva, Zelensky said that he would like to hear a clear “yes” or “no” from the U.S. president on the NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. The same question was raised at Biden’s post-summit press conference, to which he responded that everything depends on Ukraine, as it needed to root out rampant corruption and to meet other criteria before it could join. He also added that the Alliance’s member countries will have to be convinced, and that is not going to be easy. Most likely, this statement is backed by Washington’s attempt to shift responsibility for Ukraine’s European integration and subsequent NATO membership to the EU.

Lately, Zelensky’s team has been subject to harsh criticism, both at home and abroad, for deviating from the pro-Western course. For example, on April 28, the Ukrainian president fired Andrei Kobolev, chairman of the board of Naftogaz Ukraine, the country’s largest national oil and gas company, who had held this position since 2014. According to Zelensky, the decision was made due to the company’s losses amounting to 11 billion hryvnia ($420 million) in 2020. However, the move was received critically in Washington, since it undermines the corporate principles of state company management, which had long been cultivated in Ukraine by Western partners. In May, during his official visit to Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the change in the company’s leadership “a bad signal” that could harm Ukraine’s international image. In early July Blinken sent yet another signal to Kiev, noting that Ukraine loses about 30 percent of GDP, or about $40 billion, due to corruption.

In response to these signals, at the summit in Washington Zelensky presented his plans to transform Ukraine, which includes over 80 projects worth a total of $277 billion aimed at turning the country into “a forepost of security, as well as a digital, infrastructural, and agrarian hub.” It was also crucial for Zelensky to get security guarantees from the U.S. and communicate this to the Ukrainian public. On balance, this task was successful. At the meeting with his Ukrainian colleague at the White House, Biden once again emphasized that “the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression and… support[s] Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” The U.S. administration is also “revitalizing” the Strategic Partnership Commission between the two nations and is allocating an additional $60 million for Ukraine’s military aid. According to a joint statement made after the meeting, the U.S. “does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea and reaffirms its full support for international efforts, including in the Normandy Format, aimed at negotiating a diplomatic resolution to the Russian-led conflict in eastern Ukraine on the basis of international law.”

Despite the positive rhetoric, the questions that directly impinge upon Ukraine’s security, such as the future of Nord Stream II or NATO membership, remain unanswered.

The topic of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine was also brought up in a different context. The construction of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, a joint project of Russia’s Gazprom and Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper, as well as Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands/Britain), ENGIE (France), and OMV (Austria), was one of the summit’s key topics. In May, the Biden administration decided not to extend the sanctions associated with the pipeline, as a result of which Ukraine risks significant financial losses—over $1.5 billion in transit fees for Russian gas transportation to Europe. Besides, according to some estimates, the launch of Nord Stream II may lead to a gas price hike for Ukrainian residents and additional losses amounting to around $2-3 billion.

Experts and politicians underscore the political threats posed by the new pipeline over the economic ones, since Moscow will use it to blackmail Kyiv, e.g. by refusing to extend the current contract on the transit of Russian gas after 2024 (the agreement allows for the transit of around 55 billion cubic meters per year, which is comparable to the Nord Stream II capacity). Earlier, Putin stated that, for the contract to be extended, Kyiv needs to demonstrate “goodwill,” which suggests that the issue goes beyond the framework of a purely economic interest. 

On September 10, just days after the Biden-Zelensky meeting, Gazprom announced that Nord Stream II’s construction was completed. Should it be launched, the project will violate the nihil de nobis sine nobis (“nothing about us without us”) principle, a key tenet of the Ukrainian government, (meaning that decisions of that sort must be made with Ukraine’s involvement). This is causing serious anxiety in Kyiv, especially if one considers the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border during the Zapad-2021 exercises. 

On the whole, the Biden-Zelensky summit showed that both countries are committed to further cooperation, but the White House’s concerns about the Ukrainian government remain the same: Kyiv must keep fighting corruption and do its “homework” when it comes to implementing reforms, including the passing of the proposed law on “de-oligarchization.” Despite the positive rhetoric, the questions that directly impinge upon Ukraine’s security, such as the future of Nord Stream II or NATO membership, remain unanswered. Soon, they will likely become crucial for both Ukrainian and European security, which will determine the course of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship for many years to come.

 

Mykola Vorobiev is a Ukrainian journalist and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University.

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.

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