It may not have a place at the negotiation table, but U.S. ally Ukraine, now in its seventh year of withstanding Russian or Russia-backed claims on its territory, will be closely monitoring U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s June 16 summit on the shores of Lake Geneva for signs of what the talks mean for its own future.
The country, long a sticking point for U.S.-Russia relations, will feature broadly on the two leaders’ agenda: President Biden intends to emphasize U.S. support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, while Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has acknowledged that “the topic” of Ukraine will be “touched on, one way or another.”
But Ukraine has a more detailed wish list in mind: clear-cut U.S. support for Ukraine to receive a Membership Action Plan to join NATO; pushback against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which skirts Ukraine en route to Germany; and actions that would prompt Moscow to rethink its annexation of Crimea and support of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The White House has indicated, however, that it sees the summit as part of its attempts “to restore predictability and stability” to U.S. relations with Russia. Ukraine will feature as only one of a “full range of pressing issues,” ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to Russian hacking attacks on U.S. companies, federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations.
Yet, while neither the U.S., nor Russia expect a breakthrough on any of these issues, one veteran Russian analyst believes that Putin already has begun to probe for areas where the Kremlin’s own views on Ukraine can make inroads.
In recent weeks, the Russian leader has revisited longstanding claims that Ukraine tolerates fascism, discriminates against Russian-speakers, and, if it becomes a member of NATO, will pose a direct security threat to Russia.
While many of these statements could be intended for Russian voters ahead of Russia’s September 19 parliamentary elections, Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow for Russia and Eurasia at London’s Chatham House think tank, believes that all of them are aimed at President Biden.
“I think that the general idea is to demonstrate that the support that the United States is providing unconditionally to Ukraine can be corrected; that Russia has its own grounds to worry about what is going on in Ukraine, and, first of all, as it applies to Russians,” Petrov said.
To counteract such maneuvers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had proposed a pre-Geneva meeting with President Biden, but without success. Although he has been invited to the White House at some point this summer, Zelenskiy still regrets this failed encounter, which, he believes, would have strengthened the U.S.’ own negotiating position.
“The No. 1 concern is that there will be no specifics” on issues affecting Ukraine from the summit, Zelenskiy told international news agencies on June 14. “And the situation in Ukraine depends on this very, very much ... Everyone is afraid of solutions to the most difficult issues, final solutions.”
Without the Biden-Zelenskiy pre-meeting, noted Ukrainian political analyst Oleg Saakian, the Ukrainian opposition will now contend that Biden and Putin are discussing Ukraine “behind Ukraine’s back.” As if to counteract that message, Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak stressed on June 9 that resolving Ukrainian issues without Ukraine is “illogical and impossible.”
Primary among those issues are Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. A buildup of Russian forces this spring in Crimea and near eastern Ukraine’s Russian border sparked international alarm about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
To demonstrate U.S. support for Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ukraine this May, and told RFE/RL that a Ukrainian request for additional military aid would be considered as a deterrent to any Russian aggression.
Zelenskiy added to those concerns on June 14, alleging, without evidence, that Russia plans attacks on Kyiv, the eastern city of Kharkiv, and the Black Sea port of Odesa.
Moscow has denied any plans for an attack on Ukraine, but did recently announce the creation of some 20 “military formations and units” in western Russia, near the border with Ukraine, in response to “actions by NATO countries, headed by the U.S.”
Zelenskiy stressed on June 14 the need for the U.S. to decide whether or not Ukraine should receive a Membership Action Plan, seen as a last step in the process toward NATO membership.
But Ukrainian and Russian analysts cautioned that, given the roughly $5 billion in assistance Ukraine has received from the U.S. since 2014, the Zelenskiy administration is in no position to put pressure on the U.S.
Kyiv’s April 28 decision to remove Andriy Kobolyev as the CEO of the state-run energy company Naftogaz for its lackluster 2020 financial results constituted “an enormous mistake,” contended Saakian.
“They didn’t compare the geopolitical and diplomatic realities around them, and to what extent these instances are sensitive for the United States in the overall process of reform in Ukraine …”
According to Naftogaz’s charter, the company’s supervisory board removes its CEO, but it, too, was disbanded by the government. The U.S., which sees anti-corruption measures as critical for Ukraine, criticized the decision for its "disregard for fair and transparent corporate governance practices."
Russian and Ukrainian analysts also contend that Zelenskiy miscalculated his response to the Biden administration’s decision to lift some sanctions against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. In his May 20 annual press conference, the Ukrainian leader predicted the waivers would be “a defeat” for the U.S. and President Biden, and “a serious geopolitical win for Russia.”
But by waiving certain sanctions for the Nord Stream-2 project, scheduled for completion in 2021, Biden removes a topic of contention with “central partners and allies in Europe,” and “lowers the level of confrontation with Russia, makes relations with Russia more predictable,” commented U.S.-Russia-relations expert Ivan Kurilla, a professor of international relations and history at the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Biden, Kurilla continued, “will not heed pressure from even his own senators, much less what the president of Ukraine says” on this issue.
Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the Center for International Studies at Ukraine’s Odessa National University, agreed that Kyiv should not set sanctions on Nord Stream-2 as “the yardstick, the criterion” for its relations with the U.S.
Ultimately, while President Zelenskiy did not receive his desired pre-Geneva meeting with President Biden, the Ukrainian leader’s invitation to the White House for “later this summer” and his June 7 phone call with President Biden ahead of the June 14 NATO summit and June 11 G7 summit “already unequivocally” amount to “a victory for Ukrainian diplomacy,” said Saakian.
Ukrainian analyst Dubovyk, though, advised a sense of pragmatism: “Ukraine has its own interests; the U.S. has its own interests,” he commented. “Often, they coincide; sometimes, they don’t.”
-With additional reporting from AP, Interfax, Kyiv Post, and TASS