WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden used his first meeting with a foreign leader since ending the war in Afghanistan to send the message Wednesday that the United States — unburdened of its “forever war” — is determined to become a more reliable ally to its friends, in this case Ukraine.
Biden played host to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a long-sought Oval Office meeting and tried to reassure him that his administration remains squarely behind the Eastern European nation.
Biden didn't mention Afghanistan in his brief appearance with Zelenskyy before cameras.
But he highlighted his concerns about Russian aggression in the region. Biden, in making his case to end the war in Afghanistan, repeatedly said winding it down would allow the U.S. to put greater focus on combating malevolent acts from adversaries Russia and China.
“The United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression and for Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Biden said.
The Ukrainian leader, who had found himself ensnarled in Donald Trump’s first impeachment, arrived at the White House looking to Biden for increased military aid and backing for his country’s bid for NATO membership.
The meeting was postponed two days while Biden and his national security team were consumed by the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The withdrawal, which concluded Monday, left behind many Afghans who had worked with the Americans and their allies and who now fear Taliban rule. This led to criticism that the U.S. was less than a reliable international partner, something Biden was eager to counter.
The optics of the moment did not go unnoticed by the Ukrainian president. “At a difficult time for the world and the United States … still you found time for us and we're thankful for this indeed,” Zelenskyy said.
In advance of the sit-down, the Biden administration said it was committing up to $60 million in new military aid to Ukraine. The administration said the aid was necessary because of a “major increase in Russian military activity along its border” and because of mortar attacks, cease-fire violations and other provocations.
The package includes more Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Kyiv sees as critical to defending against Russia-backed separatists. The U.S. has overall committed more than $400 million in military aid this year.
Zelenskyy thanked Biden for the aid.
“The war in Donbas is in its eighth year, and we have lost 15,000 people,” Zelenskyy said in a reference to the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
In their private talks, Zelenskyy and Biden also discussed Washington’s decision not to block the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would carry Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The pipeline is vehemently opposed by Ukraine and Poland as well as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, with Zelenskyy describing it as a powerful geopolitical weapon for Russia.
Zelenskyy, a television actor new to politics, took office in May 2019 anxious to firm up his country’s relationship with the United States. Instead, he almost immediately found himself under pressure from Trump envoys and soon Trump himself, who in the phone call that led to his first impeachment asked Zelenskyy to “do us a favor.”
In that now famous July 2019 call, Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Trump’s European Union envoy, Gordon Sondland, later told impeachment investigators that Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explicitly sought a “quid pro quo” in which an Oval Office visit would be contingent on Zelenskyy announcing the politically charged investigation Trump wanted.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland asked. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Besides the coveted invitation to the White House, Sondland also said it was his understanding that Trump had held up nearly $400 million in military aid until Ukraine announced the investigation.
Allegations that Trump withheld congressionally approved military aid while seeking Ukraine’s help for his reelection campaign formed the basis of the the first impeachment case against him. Trump was acquitted by the Senate. The Oval Office meeting with Zelenskyy never happened.
With Biden, Zelenskyy now has a president with a long history of involvement in Ukraine, one who has supported its determination to break free from Russia, shore up its young democracy and be more fully welcomed into the Western club.
As vice president, Biden was the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine and pushed for tougher action against corruption. He once boasted of his success in getting Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, who had blocked some corruption investigations. Trump later twisted this by insisting, wrongly, that Biden had done so to protect his son and the energy company on whose board he served.
Zelenskyy is the latest Ukrainian president to promise to tackle systemic corruption and then struggle once in office. Biden administration officials wanted assurances that Zelenskyy remains committed to following through on various reforms.
To that end, a joint statement issued following Wednesday's meeting highlighted the need for Ukraine to move quickly to select a new specialized anti-corruption prosecutor and pass legislation to enshrine the authority of the head of the country's National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the process for selecting that agency's successor.
Zelenskyy came to Washington saying he wanted a clear statement from Biden on whether he supported eventual NATO membership for Ukraine. NATO members are wary given Ukraine’s simmering conflict with Russia.
Zelenskyy said he and Biden talked about Ukraine's prospects at length during their two-hour meeting. “I feel that the president supports Ukraine’s bid for membership in NATO,” Zelenskyy told Ukrainian reporters, but he added that the time frame remains unclear.
The White House also announced Wednesday that Ukraine agreed to join a secure communications line through the National and Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, which serves to minimize the risk of armed conflict. The center includes 50 international partners.
Nord Stream 2, the pipeline being built under the Baltic Sea, is the most significant issue of tension in the relationship. By allowing Russia to bypass Ukraine, it also could potentially deprive Ukraine of the billions of dollars in transit fees it now earns for pumping Russian gas to Europe.
While the U.S. also opposes the new pipeline, worried that it would give Russia too much power over European energy supplies, Biden agreed in July not to penalize the German company overseeing the project.
The joint statement said the U.S. would work to secure Ukraine's supply of gas and “prevent the Kremlin’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon.” The two countries also agreed to improve corporate governance at Ukraine's state-owned energy companies and attract the foreign investment needed for Ukraine to become energy independent.
Zelenskyy expressed satisfaction at the outcome. He said Biden guaranteed that if Russia creates a dangerous situation for Ukraine or causes energy prices to rise, the U.S. will impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2.
“I consider it a big victory for us,” the Ukrainian president said.