The Biden Inauguration: What does it mean for U.S.-Ukraine Relations?

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The Biden Inauguration: What does it mean for U.S.-Ukraine Relations?

Just hours before Joe Biden was to be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine held a webinar “Witness United States History with American Chamber of Commerce Ukraine – Inauguration”. Participants were Andy Hunder, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, Nadia McConnell, co-founder and President of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, Brian Mefford, owner and founder of Wooden Horse Strategies in Kyiv, Melinda Haring, deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Brian Bonner, Editor-in-Chief of the Kyiv Post, and Andrew Mac, a lawyer with Asters law firm, head of the firm’s Washington office and a non-government advisor to the President of Ukraine.

Andy Hunder from Kyiv started the session by asking Melinda what it was like on this day in Washington. “Actually, it is a little weird”.  Melinda went onto describe the fact that this is unlike any past inauguration day because of the disruptive mob at the Capitol a couple of weeks ago, the Covidvirus, the crowds are absent, security is very high, it is very different.

In a back-and-forth, it was agreed that the crowd attending will be very small in comparison to all other inaugurations but, even though some cherished traditions will be missed, the transfer of power will take place peacefully and the United States will move on.

The primary focus of the discussion was to look at the prospects of U.S.-Ukraine relations with the incoming Biden Administration.

In general, all saw the incoming U.S. Administration as a positive - opportunity for improved relations between the two governments in both policies and diplomatic gestures.  But there were no illusions that the relationship would be uncomplicated or easy. Everyone understood that, among other things, Ukraine’s systemic corruption would not be ignored or accepted.

McConnell cautioned that Ukraine would be making a mistake simply to expect American support and be passive in its own efforts.  Ukraine must be proactive and strategic in its efforts to strengthen the bilateral relationship.

Brian Bonner noted that years ago then-Vice President Biden very directedly told Arseniy Yatsenyuk that people (certain oligarchs) need to go to jail.  And Bonner added, “No one has gone to jail”.

The notion that Ukraine might enjoy a “honeymoon” and that it could take a sabbatical from worrying about how efforts on reform might look were completely repudiated by all discussants.  The relevant incoming Biden officials, including the President, know Ukraine and will support Ukraine but will demand Ukrainian action.

McConnell, quoting one of the members of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN), said that the history has been that “Ukraine pretends to reform, and the United States pretends to support Ukraine”. The panel strongly believes that the pretending will need to stop.

Mac referenced the Giuliani “investigations” and the Trump-Zelenskyy phone call were a part of a situation that never really allowed what might be called a “normal” relationship.

Brian Bonner made the point that while all indications were that President Trump did not like Ukraine, was predisposed to Russia, he and his Administration did any number of things favoring Ukraine – sanctions on Nord Stream 2, increased sanctions against Russia, and provided javelins.  And, at the same time, it was noted that the Obama Administration left a lot to be desired in its relations with Ukraine.

The Biden Administration though presents genuine and significant opportunities.

Biden personally has been to Ukraine six times, has clearly shown significant interest in Ukraine and knows a lot about Ukraine.  In addition, people already known to be coming into his administration know Ukraine and Russia – Secretary of State-designate Anthony Blinken and Victoria Nuland, nominee to be Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, for example.  And it was noted Blinken recently said that in the Obama Administration they did not take the Russian threat seriously enough.

Haring emphasized the critical need for reforms and prosecutions because they are needed and because Ukraine’s progress in this regard needs to be seen by the Biden Administration.

Brian Mefford noted Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s new Ambassador to the United States, is well-known among the relevant people in and out of government in Washington, well-liked and respected. Mefford also indicated he understood serious consideration is being given to Ukraine hiring lobbying help in Washington which would be consistent with what most countries do in order to have professional help supporting their Embassy’s efforts.

Mefford’s raising the subject of lobbying led to an interesting exchange about a subject often talked about by American supporters of Ukraine in Washington.

Mac saying that he is not a fan of lobbying firms and only knows of one effort on Ukraine’s behalf that was successful – Naftogaz’s hiring of Yorktown Solutions to lobby against Russia’s Nord Stream 2.  [Certainly, Yorktown’s connections to, among others, Senator Ted Cruz who sponsored legislation for sanctions against the pipeline were critically important.  However, using my pen as the author of this article I must note that in over 100 communications with Congressional offices in 2020 – at least 50 of which were telephone conferences regarding FOUN’s recommendation for action in support of Ukraine – the FOUN urged sanctions and in those calls and follow-up from Congressional offices provided timely updates on the Nord Stream situation, where critical Europeans were on the issue and how to deal with issues being debated within congressional committees and conferences. I will also note that Yorktown just renewed its $960,000 annual contract with the Federation of Employers of the Oil and Gas Industry of Ukraine to continue lobbying against the pipeline.]

As for the issue of Ukraine lobbying McConnell suggested there are many other examples of successful lobbying campaigns citing FOUN and the javelins as a singular example.

McConnell did note though that Ukraine has had registered lobbyists in the past, but they were hired by individuals – individual Ukrainian officials – to represent their personal interests and not the country’s.  She also noted that routinely these officials would come to Washington become infatuated by a big Washington name firm that had no real understanding of Ukraine or understanding of the decades of U.S.-Ukraine relations.  She recalled numerous telephone calls from Members of Congress saying someone had just been in to see them about Ukraine and asking who they are and where they fit.

She added that with strategic lobbying efforts the client needs the right lobbyists and needs to manage those lobbyists.

Setting aside professional lobbying the panelists agreed Ukraine must not look to others to be the source of all its troubles or its salvation noting Ukraine has the means within its own powers to do what is necessary to strengthen itself. If Ukraine seriously acts in its own interests Western and American support will be there.

Several panelists commented that Ukrainian officials need to understand who they are dealing with in Washington.  Haring emphasized that the people in and out of government involved with Ukraine and Ukraine issues know Ukraine and know what is going on.

Concern was voiced about Ukrainian officials too often dealt with Washington as if they were dealing with people with no understanding of the Ukrainian reality.

McConnell noted that very high-level officials from a previous Ukrainian government stated at a private, high-level meeting in Washington, ”There are no more oligarchs in Ukraine” and once that was said he obviously had no credibility at all.

Bonner mentioned Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur who probably knows Ukraine better than anyone else in Congress. And McConnell used Kaptur as an example of this current Ukrainian Administration not dealing appropriately with people in Washington.  Kaptur and other members of the House Ukraine Caucus sent President Zelenskyy a private letter last year expressing concern about the removal of respected reformists from several key positions.  The Members did not want to be public but wanted to express their concern privately.

The response they received was almost insulting as if the President's office had no idea who these Members were or how much they knew about Ukraine or had done for Ukraine.

McConnell noted that the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act includes a requirement that the Secretaries of Defense and States develop a multi-year strategic plan regarding Ukraine’s military needs.  She mentioned this to make the point that the thinking in Kyiv and in Washington needs to be strategic.

She also noted the Biden Administration is not the only thing new in Washington.  There is a new Congress, the 117th Congress and there are new faces including a new chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

McConnell recalled that right after the elections Adam Smith (D-WA), chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services warned that there are serious divisions within his party regarding defense spending. Support and support levels cannot be expected or assumed, there is work to be done.

In conclusion, the panelists generally agreed that President Biden and his administration have a huge agenda ahead of them with many domestic issues demanding attention and will have to look at the “big picture” in the area of foreign relations there will be opportunities presented for Ukraine and they must be taken advantage of strategically while internally Ukraine must address the known Biden concerns about reform.