Watching closely: U.S. Secretary of State’s Anthony Blinken’s Visit to Ukraine

From May 4th to May 6th, United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken made a visit to Ukraine. The visit is significant, as it is one of the Secretary’s first foreign trips, signaling that Ukraine is indeed a high foreign policy priority for President Joe Biden’s administration. It could indicate a potential for a closer U.S.- Ukraine relationship amidst mounting Russian aggression exhibited through the recent build-up of more than 80,000 troops at the Ukrainian border.

Although US – Ukraine relations were perturbed during the previous administration, due to President Trump’s pressure on Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the Ukrainian President hopes to turn a new page and establish resilient ties between the two nations. Such aspirations have seemed feasible through President Joe Biden’s declared tough stance on Russia, as in February, he proclaimed “that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions [were] over.”

The Biden administration has offered Ukraine its support with military assistance and soft power endorsement through the tumultuous situation in Donbas. Blinken’s visit reaffirmed this stance as he committed to a persistent nonrecognition of Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as pledged continued military aid. “We stand strongly with you,” he told President Zelensky, during his visit to Kyiv. Speaking alongside the Secretary, Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that, “Our intelligence tells us only 3,500 troops have started to withdraw from occupied Crimea,” emphasizing the remnant threat of Kremlin’s further aggression. Blinken aligned with the observation stating that, “Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, and equipment remains there.” He went to assert that the United States is, “monitoring the situation very, very closely.” Although Russia has claimed to take steps toward de-escalation, Blinken highlighted that, “Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive action if it so chooses.”

The United States went to reaffirm their support for Ukraine against Russian aggression as the Secretary pointed out that Moscow was “not engaging in good faith in trying to resolve both Crimea and the Donbas.” This observation proves to be true as Ukraine reported the killing of 2 soldiers in the eastern region on May 7th. The ongoing conflict leaves Zelensky with hopes that the United States commitment remains persistent, as Ukraine seeks to expand its defensive capabilities by acquiring the Patriot missiles and extra Javelin anti-tank busters. Despite Blinken’s ascertaining support for Ukraine against Russia, the Secretary did point to the nation’s internal issues and the need to address them. He highlighted that Ukraine faces two primary challenges, “Aggression from outside coming from Russia and in effect aggression from within coming from . . . oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people.” In his address, Zelensky was urged to hasten corporate governance reforms and anti-corruption efforts, primarily the overhaul of Ukraine’s graft-prone judiciary. These comments come as disbursements from a $5bn IMF program have been frozen due to concerns regarding the reform process, and the United States’ State Department’s concerns over the ousting of a reformist energy official. On April 28th, Naftogaz’s CEO, Andriy Kobolyev, was removed.

As Naftogaz is the country’s largest oil and gas company, and hence its largest taxpayer, Prime Minister Shmyhal’s suspension of its Supervisory Board for two days to fire Kobolyev sounded alarms through the West. Post the Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014, Naftogaz has transformed from draining the state budget, to making up 13% of it; the company has seen the ousting of corruption and a greater degree of transparency in the sector, which has attracted investment. The breach of its corporate governance system risks the reform strides made in the energy security sector; Philip Reeker, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, termed the event as “troubling,” asserting that the United States will push Ukraine’s leaders to “respect transparent corporate governance practices.” Kyiv justified their actions through “unsatisfactory” 2020 financial performance of Naftogaz, although spectators have pointed to Kobolyev’s exuberant executive pay and Zelensky’s desire for control of public companies as the motivation behind his dismissal. As corruption and oligarchy have plagued the Ukrainian political system for the past decades, the administration will continue pushing Kyiv to accelerate reforms and exhibit tangible results; President Biden will be holding discussions with Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists and representatives of the business community this coming Thursday.

While the United States seems adamant on standing and aiding Ukraine against its fight on Russian aggression, internal issues may make it more difficult for Kyiv to seek continuous Euro-Atlantic integration. When asked about Ukraine, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, states that the Biden administration will welcome nations into the alliance “when they are ready and able to meet the commitments and obligations of membership and can contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

The Editor: Miriam Yakobashvili

Miriam Yakobashvili is an international relations BA student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She has focused on research in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, previously interning at the U.S. Ukraine Foundation and researching for a University of Georgetown Professor. Speaking four languages, English, Russian, Spanish, and Georgian, Miriam’s research interests vary with writings concerning Kurdistan Regional Government and occupied regions around the world. 

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