Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Europe and Ukraine in the focus of the priorities of the new US President Joe Biden

On January 20, Joe Biden has officially become the 46-th President of the United States. Biden's first executive orders as a president were aimed at repealing a number of resolutions of his predecessor Donald Trump, in particular: halting the country's exit from the WHO, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and halting the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the wall on the border with Mexico. In total, shortly after being worn, the newly elected president signed 15 executive actions and two directives. However, the question that worries the majority of Ukrainians is what strategy the new administration will choose and what level of support will be provided for Ukraine? The new Ukrainian approach is not still outlined, however, analyzing the first appointments and statements, it is already possible to draw some conclusions about the contours of the future foreign policy of the new administration.

The newly elected president chose Antony Blinken, Biden's former national security adviser when he was a vice president, as a secretary of state. After serving as an adviser to the Vice President, Blinken was promoted to Deputy Secretary of State under President Barack Obama.[1] In addition, Antony Blinken has Ukrainian roots. Answering questions from Republican Senator Ron Johnson, he said he supports the initiative to provide military assistance to Ukraine. At the same time, Blinken first wrote about the need to provide lethal weapons for defense purposes to Ukraine 3 years ago in The New York Times. An important point for Ukraine is the position of the new Secretary of State on the importance of strengthening ties and cooperation with allies, and deterring opponents of the United States, including Russian Federation. This approach is very different from Trump's policy who was trying to establish personal relationship with the Russian president, and has worsened the United States' relations with NATO member states.

Newly appointed United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin shares Antony Blinken's views on the Ukrainian issue. Austin praised the current combination of lethal and non-lethal components in US assistance to Ukraine and spoke in support of continuing to provide lethal weapons. He also stressed that he would «strongly support efforts to train, provide equipment and advisory support to strengthen the capacity of the Armed Forces to protect the country's territorial integrity from ongoing Russian aggression». Austin noted that Ukraine needs a variety of non-lethal equipment, in particular, means of communication, which are provided through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI)[2].

Ukraine hopes for comprehensive support from the new administration. In addition to defense cooperation, Kyiv aspires the United States participation in the Crimean Platform, which will certainly increase the weight of this initiative. On the Donbass issue, Ukraine is also counting on US assistance to strengthen its own position in negotiations with Russia. Commenting on Biden's concept of a global strategic vision of security in Europe in an interview with the New York Times, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed the US role in the global security system and expressed hope that a possible US participation in the Normandy format could step up the negotiations and accelerate the end of the war in Donbas. Also, President Zelensky noted that he hopes US will restore the position of special representative of the State Department of the United States for Ukraine, which was occupied by Kurt Walker in 2017-2019.

Ukraine is almost the only country in the world that is under external aggression and at the same time builds democracy and fights corruption. According to experts from the New Europe Center, Ukraine's unique history of how to build democratic institutions, even in the face of external aggression, provides grounds for Ukraine to be invited - both at the level of political leadership and civil society - to the global Summit for Democracy, announced by Joe Biden during the presidential campaign.

Increasing support and protection for Ukrainian democracy should be an important direction of Biden's foreign policy. This opinion is actively circulating both within Ukraine and directly in the United States. A successful, democratic Ukraine will inspire new democratic possibilities inside Russia and other former Soviet republics – just as a failed Ukrainian democracy and economy will serve Putin’s narrative about the futility of revolutions allegedly sponsored by the United States. The Biden administration should therefore increase U.S. military, political, and economic support for Ukraine to help its stalled reform efforts succeed – writes a former US Ambassador to Russia under Obama Michael McFaul in his article for «Foreign Affairs». Mr McFaul also spoke in support of maintaining and strengthening sanctions and warned that lifting them before Putin reverses course in Ukraine would send a terrible signal.[3]

In the context of Russia's deterrence, coordination with NATO and EU allies will be an important component of the new administration's foreign policy. Biden's rhetoric reaffirms expectations of the new president's intentions to strengthen the unity of member states and reaffirm the role of the North Atlantic Alliance as a stabilizing element in the regional security system.

How will US policy towards Europe and the EU change under Biden? According to John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasian Center, the most annoying issue in European affairs will be the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Herbst is convinced that Biden will continue tough policy on Nord Stream 2. «Biden doesn't like Nord Stream 2, and he'll be happy to see this project dies», Herbst said. At the same time, experts expect Washington's tone in their discussion with Berlin will change to a «politer» one, while Trump did not listen to Germany's position on Nord Stream-2 at all.[4]

During a phone call between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin on January 26, the President of the United States reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and «made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies».[5] At the same time, the parties agreed to extend urgently the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3). As expected, Biden will pursue a tough policy against the Russian Federation, but at the same time Washington will conduct a dialogue with Moscow on issues of a strategic importance.

Joe Biden is a president who has an excellent knowledge of Ukraine. During his vice-presidency, Biden was deeply involved in Ukraine and visited Kyiv several times. Recent appointments to key positions indicate that Biden's team is determined to support Ukrainian democracy and is ready to provide the state with the necessary assistance. The level of the United States support will largely depend on the actions of Ukraine itself. The government must show its readiness for effective reforms, in particular, in the area of ??fighting corruption and the defense sector reforms.  At the same time, the Ukrainian state must determine its own strategic priorities for greater transparency and understanding of Kyiv direct needs on the part of American partners. It should be noted that the Ukrainian issue will not be Biden's top priority in foreign policy, given the US-China standoff. However, the new administration's plans to strengthen cooperation with the European partners in NATO and the EU to deter Russia, and the intention to strengthen the Euro-Atlantic security system in general, is a positive signal for Ukraine in the context of countering Russian aggression.