US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Ukraine undoubtedly became one of the benchmarks in the development of Ukraine–US relations. That said, it is to be noted that the visit itself coincided with several very important milestones: the second anniversary of Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidential victory and certain significant events in the political life of the Ukrainian president.
Which events are we talking about?
1.Strengthening of the president’s rating at the level of 27-28% after a several months decline. Almost every sociological research, including the one conducted by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, agree on these figures. At the same time, the closest competitor lags behind the sitting president by almost two times. The stabilization itself happened due to several essential developments.
The first one is the consensus achieved with the oligarchs. It means several rules were established, including governmental non-interference with their businesses in exchange for tolerant attitudes on the TV channels they own. The second is the sanctions policy, which led to the blocking of three channels owned by Medvedchuk, which were the main sources of negative information regarding Zelensky. Finally, such a policy demonstrates that the president is actually doing something. These developments made it possible to halt a multi-month decline and stabilized Zelensky’s presidential rating.
2.The current world market conditions and prices for iron ore and grain, which form the basis of Ukraine’s exports, are positive. In fact, they look so good for Ukraine that today, none of the reputable economists doubts that the country’s economy will be able to survive without help from the IMF in 2021-22. It allows the president team to feel more sure while in international negotiations with Ukraine’s biggest donors.
3.In the anti-corruption policy, the decision was made to keep the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, Artem Sytnyk, in office until the end of his term (April 2022). Thus, all attention is now paid to the selection of a new head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SACPO). In the future, it might lead to several scandals, including the possible cancellation of the current competition to fill the vacancy. At the same time, amendments to the Law On the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine were prepared, with the key point being the veto right granted to the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC) to block a candidate appointment. It is a fundamental point for the Office of the President but at the same time, it raises a red flag to international donors, which resulted in the corresponding memorandum of the Anti-Corruption Center). However, it is these issues, namely the appointment of a new head of the SACPO and the veto right of the NSDC, that show the changes in approaches to personnel policy in the president’s office.
- On the eve of Blinken’s visit, the head of Naftogaz Ukrainy was replaced without any previous talks with the international donors. This move might be seen as the desire of the president’s office to demonstrate that in his future moves, it will rely on itself and the opinion of its advisers, without additional approvals, when deciding on matters.
- The office of the president believes that it is possible to change the tone and subject of negotiations with the G7 slightly as Ukraine is not facing financial difficulties at the moment. According to the office, the negotiation narrative should be focused not on reforms and corruption but security and war in the east of Ukraine. Simply put, internal issues fall within the exclusive competence of the office of the president, and security issues should be resolved together with Ukraine’s western partners.
- White House information sheet on Ukraine-Russia relations
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Ukraine aimed at accomplishing several essential tasks:
- Express US dissatisfaction with Ukrainian political leadership due to non-implementation of several institutional reforms that have been required by Western partners since 2014;
- Demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine against the background of military and political escalation with Russia;
- Re-consolidate the US political influence on Kyiv after the Trump four years in the Oval Office and before the beginning of the strategic dialogue with Moscow.
- Mr. Blinken’s visit took place a week after notorious senior positions appointments in Ukraine’s key state corporations, Naftogaz and Ukroboronprom. These moves triggered an unfavorable reaction in the United States, with the State Department criticizing these appointments on its Twitter. Washington has long demanded Ukraine to put in place a series of institutional and economic changes to establish an appropriate political environment that will make it easier for Washington to manage processes and tighten its control over the ruling elites in Kyiv. These changes include:
- Strengthening anti-corruption institutions founded with the direct input of the United States, such as the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption, and the High Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine, through which Washington will be able to influence the political situation in Ukraine and control part of Ukrainian elites.
- Liberalization of the Ukrainian economy, weakening the influence of national oligarchic groups and monopolies to create a competitive environment and facilitate access for transnational (including American) corporations.
- Reformation of the legal system to reduce corruption, strengthen the responsibilities of judges, improve their qualifications and eliminate control of financial and oligarchic political forces, transferring this control to external organizations.
- It is no coincidence that the US Secretary of State’s visit came after a military and political escalation from Russia — within three weeks, it had deployed 150,000 of soldiers close to the Ukrainian border and threatened new outbreaks of hostilities in several areas. It is crucial for the Biden administration to demonstrate support for its allies in Europe and Ukraine, which has been receiving financial, political, diplomatic, and military assistance from the United States since 2014. The lack of support demonstration might be taken by the US international rivals (Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, etc.) as a call for challenging Washington more actively.
- The visit of the chief of the US diplomacy was also intended to revive the influence of Democrats in Kyiv that was lost after the Trump four years in the Oval Office. The Joe Biden administration is interested in putting 2017-2020 unpleasant issues to rest and giving a fresh start to relations with Kyiv. In addition, the Department of State needs to re-establish its damaged Pompeo-era ties with the US Embassy in Kyiv, which was at the epicenter of the Trump impeachment scandal and resulted in expulsion of two American ambassadors. That is why during the visit Blinken met with the embassy staff.
It is important for Washington to reinvigorate its political stances among the main Ukrainian pro-Western parties. At the same time, the United States seeks to ‘filter out’ those Ukrainian politicians who sided with Trump or assisted his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, prosecuted in the United States. The Biden administration has not forgotten the impeachment story. That is why it does not have complete confidence in Ukrainian politicians. Moreover, The Biden administration has specific claims to Ihor Kolomoisky, Andriy Yermak, Oleksandr Dubinsky, Andriy Derkach, etc, and believes that these people could be involved in backstreet schemes with Giuliani and his business partner Lev Parnas. In this context, the Servant of the People party is new to the US leadership, and Biden administration sees it as a cauldron of various political influences. Therefore, it will seek to liaise with it directly and apart from both the Office of the President and the Government. There is a good reason why Blinken spoke about the “reinvigorating our partnership” during a joint press availability with President Zelensky, thus hinting that something went wrong with this partnership and it would take some time and some steps from both sides to re-establish it.
Finally, it is crucial for the Joe Biden administration to demonstrate Kyiv its willingness to play tough, be decisive and shatter illusions that this administration will be as loyal and gentle as the Obama team was. Blinken’s visit showed that the United States values the result, thus any “bonuses” from now on will be awarded only if Ukraine enforces concrete steps.
Analyzing the US Secretary of State’s interviews and comments given to the Ukrainian and American media, his press conference with President Zelensky and published abstracts of talks with the Prime Minister of Ukraine and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as White House statements, we can highlight several important messages Mr. Blinken brought with him from Washington.
Message 1: Ukraine will not get NATO Membership Action Plan in the coming years.
Before and during the visit, the United States officials avoided any loud statements on Ukraine membership in NATO, actively raised by Kyiv for the past three weeks. In his interview with the BBC on the eve of the visit, Mr. Blinken did not elaborate on the question regarding Ukraine’s NATO prospects, simply saying that aspirations “had been discussed”.
During talks with the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, the American diplomat did not say anything about the Alliance. At a joint press availability with President Zelensky, Mr. Baiden simply said that they “discussed” Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic plans. Even in the Q&A portion, there were no comments from Blinken about NATO.
Blinken mentioned NATO only in an interview with Olena Frolyak of ICTV Channel. Answering the question, he said some general things like “we’ve been very clear that NATO’s door remains open” and did not focus on the Ukrainian case. He only reminded that “for anyone who aspires to NATO, the criteria involve making sure that you can meet the necessary standards and add to the alliance’s security” — things that Kyiv has apparently not yet accomplished.
It is interesting to note that after the visit, the White House edited its transcript. It crossed out the words that had expressed support for Ukraine joining NATO, leaving only the general phrase: “NATO’s door remains open to aspirants when they are ready and able to meet the commitments and obligations of membership”.
Message 2: Whether Ukraine needs something from the United States, it must meet the requirements of Washington.
During the visit, the United States paid a lot of attention to the internal transformations in Ukraine and its dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reforms. During talks with Zelensky, Blinken named two main threats Ukraine is facing, namely “aggression from outside coming from Russia, and aggression from within coming from corruption, oligarchs, and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people.” Moreover, Mr. Blinken emphasized the equal importance of these threats and repeatedly called on Kyiv to implement judiciary reforms, strengthen the fight against corruption and anti-corruption institutions, weaken the influence of oligarchs and continue to introduce “corporate governance” (here Blinken mentioned Naftogaz case). In an interview with ICTV, the Secretary of State stressed that the management shifts at Naftogaz sent “a bad message, a bad signal” that might be “damaging to Ukraine’s reputation internationally.”
Sending messages to American audiences in an interview with Andrea Mitchell, Mr. Blinken again talked about the “aggression against Ukraine from within” thus expressing concern about corruption at the national level that “destroys democracy.” Using these words, he showed that for Washington, the issue of fighting corruption in the context of a broader confrontation with the national oligarchy is of top priority, perhaps even more important than containing Russia.
The Secretary of State apparently demanded visible results from Ukrainian politicians rather than implementation of changes on paper. At the end of his speech at press availability with Zelensky, Blinken noted that “laws are very important, but their implementation is just as important.” This shows an increased firmness and severity of the US position towards Ukraine: the Administration is no longer satisfied with the adoption of dozens of decisions, which are blocked at the stage of their implementation — the Administration needs visible changes. Only in this case, the US will give Kyiv what it wants.
Antony Blinken illustrated this approach when he answered a question about the possibility of Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine to mark the 30th anniversary of independence and participation in the Crimean Platform summit. The Secretary of State did not promise anything, saying “I’ll share [much appreciated invitation] with the President”, noted “he will welcome the opportunity at the right time to come back to Ukraine” but added that “we continue to face challenges with COVID-19 and that makes travel challenging.”
Mr. Blinken also did not promise anything regarding providing Ukraine with additional military and financial support. In his interview with Olena Removska of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he answered her direct question whether the USA considers providing any additional means helping Ukraine defend itself, saying that “it would be helpful to Ukraine right now” and Pentagon “is in very active consideration”.
Message 3: The United States will do everything it can to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia but Ukraine has to fight on its own, the same way it should fight internal enemies and implement reforms.
As far back as the US election campaign, Joe Biden made it clear he would continue the US strategic course to solving domestic problems. In foreign policy, the new administration has decided to focus on global rivalry with China and the development of regional alliances. By strengthening these alliances, Washington wants to transfer some of its police functions the Americans cannot or do not want to continue taking on. Ukraine is not a priority of US foreign policy, and it falls into the category of those issues the USA does not intend to get in. Therefore, the US keeps emphasizing that Ukraine will receive support from Washington but the country must act independently and strengthen itself instead of waiting for “the cavalry from abroad.”
In his interview with British BBC Radio 4 before his visit to Kyiv, Antony Blinken claimed “we thoroughly follow the situation at the Ukraine-Russian border,” admitted that Russia “has not withdrawn all forces from the border,” however said nothing regarding the additional military support for Ukraine that is being considered or prepared. This is despite the fact that official Kyiv several times requested the United States to increase its military and financial support to counter Russian aggression.
In his interview with the American television channel MSNBC, the Secretary of State also discussed US support for Ukraine. But when asked whether the United States would defend Kyiv in the event of a Russian invasion to Ukraine, Blinken avoided giving a direct answer, saying “what we’re doing is making clear our commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself with security assistance, with advice, other allies and partners are doing the same.”
Moreover, in his comments, the US Secretary of State explained that the United States is ready to respond (but not come forward) to Russia’s aggressive actions only if they directly affect American interests. Those hostile acts, as exemplified by Blinken, include Russia’s interference in the US elections, hacker attacks like SolarWinds cyber intrusion, and the assassinations of US military personnel. In other words, everything that does not apply to other countries, including Ukraine. The US sanctions imposed against the Russian Federation in January 2021 relate exclusively to domestic American security and not to Ukraine, Donbas, or Crimea, as stated in the explanatory note issued by the US Treasury.
Mr. Blinken even mentioned the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny case as a problematic issue that the States are analyzing and ready to respond to but within their mechanism of sanctions for violation of human rights and not much else.
As for the internal policy in Ukraine, Blinken made it clear that the Ukrainian government can count on the US support but additional assistance will be provided only if US requirements regarding strengthening democracy and fighting corruption are met and if Kyiv does want to implement the necessary transformations. The very same thing the Secretary of State said after talks with the Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.
Message 4. The United States does not intend go to war with Russia, to bust it up or overthrow Putin, their goal is strategic containment and discreet dialogue, and nothing more.
In the 8-minute speech on April 15 2021, under a real threat of military escalation between Russia and Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said he would prefer a “more stable and predictable relationship” with Russia. In his interview with British radio, Antony Blinken repeated these words. Before he arrived in Ukraine, Blinken and his team were in the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in London. Although the participants condemned Russia’s actions during the last weeks they decided not to take any confrontational steps (new sanctions, diplomatic restrictions, or increased aid to Ukraine).
In his interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Antony Blinken refused to answer the question on the possibility of excluding Russia from the SWIFT payment system in the event of a new escalation. He said he doesn’t want “to get into hypothetical questions about what we might do in the future” but Washington “considers every reasonable option.” Thus, the Secretary of State made it clear that Washington is worried about Russia’s behavior, condemns it, and ready for limited actions. However, if there is no full-scale invasion, the Administration will not opt for large-scale confrontation, especially before the potential Putin-Biden meeting in Europe. It is interesting to note that the issue of new anti-Russian sanctions has been paused, suggesting the States will bargain with Putin. Therefore, according to Blinken, Washington hopes that “we don’t see any more [sanctions on Russia].”
As for Russia itself and its geopolitics, Blinken clearly stated that Washington does not intend to engage in a dialogue using dated post-war concepts such as ‘sphere of influence’, ‘area of interests’, etc. In the same interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Secretary of State said they don’t accept the principle of spheres of influence. However, they want to find a reasonable compromise but not the one related to the Realpolitik of the 20th century. According to Blinken, their “red line” in discussions with Putin is “territorial integrity, democracy and sovereignty of Ukraine” — that is, preventing a full-scale invasion and division of the country as a result of the occupation of new territories. Everything else, one can assume, will be the subject of debate.
One can assume that the Biden administration might make a political compromise with Russia regarding the conflict in Ukraine from Blinken’s interview with ICTV. He said, “He [Putin] can decide … to try to have a more predictable and stable relationship. And part of that, I hope, would involve engaging realistically and meaningfully with Ukraine to end the occupation, to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to restore the border.”
Ukraine’s priorities and results of meetings
After the inauguration of Joseph Biden, Ukraine–US relations have been dual:
- There is still a cross-party consensus in the US regarding support for Ukraine. The reason being the US interests in the given region, particularly strengthening the position of the Three Seas Initiative and containing Russia, Turkey, and China, control and influence on key groups of commodity exports (like grain and ores), and control over transport corridors.
- On the other hand, in recent years, Ukrainian elites have been trying to establish “personal relationships” with the American authorities, pushing the issues of institutional cooperation to the background. With this approach, it was quite logical (from the point of view of Ukrainians) to attempt “providing some favors”, such as to team with some representatives of US political groups in their internal political struggle. These actions were taken against both Democrats and Republicans by various Ukrainian politicians. The information about such “favors” was made public and created problems for US partners. As a result, by 2020, the development of relations with Kyiv had become toxic for representatives of both parties.
In the short term, the situation can be seen with a certain degree of optimism as any decision by the US authorities to change the scale of support for Ukraine will be criticized by the opponents. That is, the current military, economic and political assistance remains the same. At the same time, there is no chance of its expansion: any (!) decision will meet criticism.
Moreover, the issues of the support policy effectiveness have been becoming increasingly urgent for the United States. We are talking about both the continuation of old programs and the evaluation of the results considering invested resources. The US wishes to minimize future risks from its cooperation with Kyiv, transferring contacts with the Ukrainian leadership to a more predictable field while keeping increasing US influence. The issues regarding anti-corruption policy, corporate governance, increasing influence on the Ukrainian elite (both politicians and oligarchs) are coming to the fore. Against this background, the new problems some Ukrainian businessmen and political leaders face in the United States look logical and predictable.
In Ukrainian internal political processes, the support of the US government is perceived by the local elites as confirmation of their legitimacy and level of influence. This thesis is actively supported by a network of NGOs funded by the USAID and other US sponsors as well as many Ukrainian media both belonging to oligarchic groups and “liberal” online publications.
Against this backdrop, Kyiv saw the limited contacts between President Zelensky and the Biden administration as a problem. There were several reasons for concern. Here are the key signals:
- Amid the scandals of the pre-election period, American elites were in no hurry to establish “personal contacts” with representatives of the Ukrainian government.
- The US Embassy in Ukraine has been managed by temporary Chargé d’Affaires since July 2019. The situation has not changed after Joe Biden’s inauguration — the issue of appointing an ambassador has not yet been resolved.
- Long wait for the first telephone conversation of the new US President with President Zelensky and related information waves in the Ukrainian media.
Goals (expectations) of the Ukrainian part
For the Ukrainian leadership, the visit of the US delegation led by Antony Blinken was important simply as proof of the success of relations with the United States. In addition to the general importance of this visit, there were five key tasks for Kyiv.
1.Get out of the toxic zone. Demonstrate the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between Washington and Kyiv. Resolve questions raised by US partners regarding the top positions policy enforced by President Zelensky’s office, and explain the logic behind the tactical alliances with Ukrainian IGFs. Argue US allies into predictability and reliability of the new Ukrainian government despite scandals related to the Trump impeachment and individual claims the US has against Dubinsky, Derkach, Yermak, Kolomoisky, and others.
It is also worth mentioning the expected investigative movie by Hristo Grozev (Bellingcat) on Russian PMC groups, one or several parts of which will cover the operation to detain Wagnerites in the summer of 2020. Since the cancellation of the filming or its premiering is impossible, Zelensky’s inner circle is interested in minimizing the information on Ukraine in the movie and postponing the premiere date for as long as possible.
- Searching for coherent mechanisms of interaction with Washington. Personal contact policy is unlikely to become a working mechanism for the years to come. The US leadership is looking for opportunities to influence the situation in Ukraine, namely on its elites, regardless of their names and party affiliation. Therefore, US officials have emphasized the anti-corruption policy, independent courts, and further expansion of support for NGOs. Kyiv wants Zelensky’s office to be the center of almost all contacts, which is impossible in the current situation. Therefore, Bankova has to come up with a system of interaction with the USA that would combine both personal contacts (which is typical for Ukraine) and institutional mechanisms — but in a version that is safe for Zelensky’s office.
- Increasing US support and getting (updating) a security umbrella.Against the background of the continuous threat from the Russian Federation, Ukraine needs to maintain and expand the level of cooperation with the United States in the field of security. The essential task is to nurture Washington’s narrative on defending the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Ideally, this direction can develop in two spheres:
- A) Increase in military and technological assistance from the United States
- B) Washington’s foreign activity and the US “diplomatic” security umbrella.
- Involvement of Washington in the negotiation platforms on Ukrainian issues (to strengthen Ukrainian position). For Kyiv, the Crimean Platform initiative is pivotal. The question is not only and not so much in coming with quick and effective mechanisms for the de-occupation of the peninsula, but in demonstrating the potency of Zelensky’s foreign policy. Therefore, in discussing the Crimean Platform, the emphasis being on the list of potential participants but not on the key focus areas. Hence US participation is one of the main factors that can either facilitate the idea of the Crimean Platform or bury it.
The second essential aspect is negotiations on the Donbas. Kyiv needs to involve Washington in the negotiation process since, from a tactical point of view, this will help buy some time. It might also create the preconditions for the transformation of (withdrawal from) the Minsk agreements.
- Obtaining support (or assurance in non-interference) in the attempts of President Zelensky to alter the landscape of power in the economy. At the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, the president’s office started altering the landscape of power in Ukraine. A change in the configuration of cooperation with oligarchic groups is currently going on. Moreover, Bankova launched an offensive against uncontrolled economic flows, including a part of the shadow business and state corporations whose management is not completely controlled by the president. Another direction is the intent of the president’s office to increase influence on the anti-corruption bodies and law enforcement agencies to strengthen control over the Ukrainian political and business elites. This process affects the US sphere of interests and in some cases, it runs counter to the policy pursued by Washington. Therefore, Zelensky needed to explain the logic behind his actions and obtain if not approval, then certain guarantees of non-interference from the United States.
The results of the meeting and the reaction of President Zelensky’s team
The schedule of the visit, meetings held by Blinken and his delegation as well as the press availability after the talks with Zelensky suggest that the results for the Ukrainian side are rather negative.
Coming out to meet journalists, Ukraine’s president and part of his team were clearly at a loss. The US delegation, on the other hand, projected self-confidence. Ironically, Biden was more specific talking on Ukrainian issues than Zelensky. Ukrainian president got lost in words, tried to get by with general phrases and avoided answering straight questions (i.e. the question on Naftogaz). Against this background, Zelensky’s phrase that US colleagues are well aware of the situation in Ukraine looked symptomatic, and this fact is both a plus and a minus.
Analyzing results of the meeting regarding the accomplishment of abovementioned tasks by the office of the president, we see the following:
- Get out of the toxic zone. Not accomplished. The actions of the Ukrainian leadership are incomprehensible and illogical from the point of view of the United States. Moreover, it is critically important for Washington to maintain control over the processes in the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption as well as supervise judicial reform. The change of top management in state corporations also caused a negative reaction. At this stage, President Zelensky’s inner circle did not give an impression of a united foreseeable team.
The only positive thing (for the Ukrainian part) that happened at a time of a meeting was the news that the Bellingcat investigative movie premiere had been postponed to the end of the summer/autumn of 2021.
- Increasing US support and getting (updating) a security umbrella. Partially accomplished. Antony Blinken reaffirmed that Ukraine would continue to enjoy support from the United States and its political “security umbrella”. However, this is not Kyiv’s achievement but rather a part of the US policy to contain the Russian Federation. In terms of military assistance, there will be no gaps in volume. On the contrary, Ukraine can look to a gradual increase in the scale of cooperation. At the same time, no breakthroughs are expected so far as all new programs will depend on internal political processes in Ukraine.
- Obtaining support (or assurance in non-interference) in the attempts of President Zelensky to alter the landscape of power in the economy. Not accomplished. The opposite is more likely: Kyiv has got a list of requirements to meet. US delegation did not hide their dissatisfaction and irritation with the personnel policy of the Ukrainian leadership and the pace of anti-corruption and judicial reforms implementation. It can be argued that instead of “assurance in non-interference“, the president’s office got a list of requirements in the following areas:
- Fighting against corruption (work of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption, anti-corruption court, including personnel policy)
- State corporation’s top management — returning to the system of participation of external experts in supervisory boards, agreeing on personnel appointments.
- Policy towards some influential Ukrainians. We are talking here about relations with Ihor Kolomoisky, other FIGs, getting rid of toxic members of the Servant of the People party, and in the office of the president (some demands regarding Andriy Yermak are possible).
Blinken made it clear that the United States expects visible steps and actual results from Ukraine shortly.
- Searching for coherent mechanisms of interaction with Washington. Partially accomplished (from the US perspective). New mechanisms of interaction and political contacts were not developed. Instead, the US part:
- Outlined areas for transformation that would be an indicator for the further style and scope of interaction with Zelensky’s team
- Confirmed that the US was going to scrutinize developments in Ukraine and, for the most part, rely on information from sources independent of the office of the president. These sources, among others, include a network of partner NGOs, political opponents of Zelensky, and organizations over which the US embassy maintains its influence.
Moreover, the role of the US Embassy, the representatives of Ukrainian politics, the third sector, and journalists associated with it is going to increase. We can assume that the US gave Zelensky tasks, allowed some time to accomplish them, and assured it has mechanisms to monitor the effectiveness of the Ukrainian leadership.
- Involvement of Washington in the negotiation platforms on Ukrainian issues. Partially accomplished. Antony Blinken agreed that the US might participate in the Crimean Platform. However, the way he responded, the diplomatic subject drift from the topic of a face-to-face meeting of Zelensky and Biden (Blinken referred to the COVID-19 problem), and the vague wording on the degree of involvement in the Platform — all these suggest it was not a promise Ukraine can rely on. In the realm of Donbas developments and the threat from the Russian Federation, Blinken sent a signal that the United States would continue to support Ukraine. However, so far, within the framework of the existing formats, the US has no intention to enter into a military confrontation with the Russian Federation because of Ukraine.
Three scenarios for Ukraine’s reaction
The Ukrainian authorities are faced with requirements that can be grouped as follows:
- The US continues taking part in the formation and operation of anti-corruption bodies, primarily the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption
- Implementation of effective judicial reform, strengthening the role of the anti-corruption court
- Corporate governance and control over state corporations. The United States is dead set against the complete control over these organizations by the Ukrainian leadership
- Personnel purges in president Zelensky’s team and a change in approaches to the dialogue between the authorities and the largest oligarchic groups in the country.
Meeting all these requirements, on the one hand, can institutionally strengthen the state. At the same time, it will also strengthen the influence of the United States on processes inside Ukraine and soften the stance of President Zelensky.
We can also talk about the timing allowed. The release date of the Bellingcat movie is a kind of deadline for Kyiv. It means Zelensky has time until August-September 2021. Until this deadline, he needs either to demonstrate results or formulate a new policy towards the United States.
There is not much time, and Zelensky’s team response options can be arranged into three possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: Give up and agree
Ukraine agrees to the right of the United States (represented by the embassy) to influence appointments to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. The role of the anti-corruption court is strengthened. Judicial reform continues with full consideration of US recommendations. Office of the President and the Servant of the People party face a personnel shake-up, and several well-known politicians are deprived of their posts (and influence). Supervisory boards at state corporations are back, they are formed of people who the US Embassy considers to be “non-toxic”. People approved by the US Embassy are appointed to manage these corporations. The Ukrainian government fully cooperates with Washington in cases concerning Kolomoisky, Firtash, and other Ukrainian oligarchs.
Under this scenario, Ukraine can count on an increase in US support by 2022. On top of extended financial or military support, the Ukrainian president will meet with his US counterpart. In foreign politics, Ukraine might witness the improvement of relations with US partners in Europe (primarily with Poland and Hungary).
At the same time, the United States is taking control (or influence) of the Ukrainian anti-corruption bodies and the courts. It means the ability to influence the behavior of Ukrainian elites explicitly.
The second negative result is additional restrictions in foreign policy, which will only grow stronger. Ukraine finds itself on the “tripwire” in several directions at once, for example, in cooperation with Turkey, China, India, Iran, and Belarus.
President Zelensky loses a significant share of influence on processes within the country.
Scenario 2: Pay no attention
The conflict scenario provides for the own policy on issues important to the United States and the absence of any compromises. In a nutshell, this attitude can be put as “Thank you very much, we’ve heard you, but we will manage by ourselves from now on.”
In this case, Bankova may significantly increase its influence on state-owned companies over the coming summer months, reshape relations with oligarchs, and, through control over the anti-corruption bodies, try to put pressure on political opponents and local elites.
At the same time, Ukraine can count on further US support in protecting its independence and territorial integrity since this is the objective interest of the United States in the policy of containing Russia.
However, the apparent strengthening of the presidential team could turn out as a complete failure for Zelensky and his inner circle. They could expect several bombshell effect coverages in media aimed at Zelensky’s allies. These information bombs include the abovementioned Bellingcat investigation, data on contacts of representatives of the Ukrainian elite with US politicians, possibly financial investigations. US-funded NGOs will activate their work. Finally, Zelensky’s political opponents (including some of the oligarchs) will start attacking the office of a president and the majority in the Verkhovna Rada. All these developments night result in a dramatic decline in the scale of influence of Zelensky’s office on the processes in the country.
Scenario 3: some concessions and a “scapegoat”
The third option provides for strengthening of president’s positions by prioritizing and making compromises on minor issues. At the same time, a demonstration of the policy’s success on issues that are important for the United States is essential.
In this case, the president’s office would aim to prevent a complete loss of control over the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. Simply put, Zelensky will make compromises on the cases where the US insists on top positions appointments but only in one or two governmental bodies. The same goes for the work of the anti-corruption court.
Regarding the state corporations’ management, Zelensky can also compromise. For instance, to budge on appointments in Naftogaz but retain his influence on the processes in the Ukrainian Railways.
In personnel matters, Zelensky will need to “sacrifice” some of the people but keeping those who are key ones for him. For example, to agree to cooperate on the Kolomoisky case but aim to keep the presidential office team intact. The other option includes launching personnel shake-ups at the office of the president in exchange for the choice options (and pressure on) potential allies in domestic policy.
This approach might be effective, but under one essential condition, which is a demonstration of the successful results — for example, several high-profile anti-corruption investigations brought to a close. That is, not just detention and following long-term investigation, but the final point: a prison sentence or a plea agreement. In this case, the presidential office will have a strong enough argument in the dialogue with the United States, something like “We have the result, and we know how to achieve similar success in the areas discussed with you”.