November 25, 2020
Kyiv should prepare for Washington’s increased attention to reforms in all areas, especially in fight against corruption .
Democrat Joe Biden, who de facto won the U.S. presidential election but has not yet been formally approved, has already begun forming his new cabinet. He stated that the new team will include experienced specialists who are ready to perform urgent tasks from the first day. Importantly, of the whole list of key ministerial posts, Biden began with the foreign policy and national security bloc. These two areas are the most important to Ukraine. Given the names of the candidates already announced, it is already possible to predict how the next administration in Washington will form the Ukrainian vector.
FIRST, BIDEN HIMSELF
It is known that Biden, as U.S. Vice President in the Obama administration, actually headed the Ukrainian direction of Washington’s foreign policy. He was responsible for most contacts with Ukrainian leaders, visited Kyiv several times, and studied in detail the names of oligarchs and corrupt officials who prevented the country from leaving the “post-Soviet” model of existence. He received President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in Washington. He promised to support Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression but demanded reforms in return. Biden was one of those who advised President Obama to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons.
At a forum in Washington, during the visit by the Ukrainian prime minister, Biden called him his friend from the rostrum, but mentioned the word “corruption” a dozen times in his public speech. Even then, he clearly distinguished between two main challenges for Ukrainians – Russian aggression and the need to dismantle corruption schemes. And he still keeps this understanding.
Already after the election, when world leaders started greeting Biden on his victory, he was the first to raise the issue of Ukraine, at least in a phone call with the leaders of France and Britain.
So, Joe Biden keeps the focus on the Ukrainian issue. And this is extremely important, because the personal position by the U.S. president largely forms Washington’s political course.
For Ukraine, this means that support from the United States against the background of Russian aggression will remain strong, given the consensus in both chambers of the U.S. Congress. At the same time, the new White House team will not stop pointing to corruption in Ukraine and will focus even more on reforms.
Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose role is now seen as slightly larger than that of her predecessors, has so far made no significant statements about Ukraine other than condemning Russian aggression. She blamed Trump for his inexplicable desire to get closer to Putin and clearly called the Russian regime a threat to the United States.
FOREIGN POLICY VECTOR
There are at least two key figures in the U.S. administration on whom the president relies in foreign policy-making: the secretary of state and the national security advisor. The secretary of state heads the entire apparatus of American diplomacy and needs approval from the Senate before being appointed. The national security advisor is appointed without Congress, but has no less influence on the president’s final decisions, depending on the level of confidence of the president.
Biden sees Tony Blinken as head of the State Department, who knows in detail how the agency works, since he served as deputy secretary of state under Obama. He is familiar with the Ukrainian question and personally visited Kyiv.
Blinken has a negative attitude towards the Putin regime in Russia. During Biden’s presidential campaign – as his personal advisor – he worked on developing a strategy for Russia. His vision encompasses opposition to Russian aggression; strengthening NATO’s deterrence; investing in new capabilities to deal with challenges in cyberspace, in outer space, as well as giving robust security assistance to Ukraine, Georgia, and the Western Balkans with simultaneous democratic reforms in these countries.
Blinken sees “leadership, cooperation and democracy” as the main mission of U.S. foreign policy. That is, the main focus will be on uniting the Western coalition against China while countering challenges from Russia, Iran, North Korea and other threats such as international extremism and terrorism. Thus, the new potential secretary of state thinks in global terms, and Ukraine has a clear place in his worldview.
Biden wants to see his longtime foreign policy aide, Jake Sullivan, as National Security Advisor. He has little experience in the issues of Russia or Ukraine. On the other hand, Sullivan is well up in the Middle East issues and was one of the architects of the Iranian nuclear deal buried by the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, a whole team of other specialists in the U.S. administration will be responsible for forming the Ukrainian policy vector. In particular, working in this direction at the State Department is the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, which is currently headed by Philip Reeker and his deputy, George Kent. In addition, experts responsible for Ukraine also work in the National Security Council. One such adviser, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, became widely known during President Trump’s impeachment process. He later paid for his principled position, but proved that U.S. policy in support of Ukraine is multilevel and solid.
Thus, the formation of the Ukrainian vector of U.S. policy will largely depend on whether a team of real specialists will remain at the executive level in the new administration.
In the realities of Russian aggression, the position of the U.S. Department of Defense also remains important for Ukraine. The lion’s share of annual assistance to Ukraine in the field of security is envisaged in the defense budget. At the same time, the Pentagon’s assessments of Ukraine’s implementation of reforms play a significant role. In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense organizes the supply of military equipment to Ukraine, joint exercises, training, and even the flight of strategic bombers and UAVs over the territory of Ukraine.
Joe Biden has not yet announced his candidate for defense secretary. According to U.S. media outlets, he is considering the two most likely candidates – Michele Flournoy and former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson. Both contenders previously held senior positions at the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies. They once criticized Trump’s decision to suspend defense aid to Ukraine, which later led to the House of Representatives launching the impeachment inquiry into the U.S. president.
Of course, there may be other candidates for senior positions in the Department of Defense. However, given the positions of these two candidates, the Pentagon’s policy of supporting Ukraine and implementing reforms in the defense sector is likely to continue.
Thus, with the arrival of the new U.S. administration under Joe Biden, the Ukrainian vector of American policy may intensify. At least Biden and his entourage – unlike Trump – do not express support for Vladimir Putin and, apparently, will not “trade” aid for Ukraine in exchange for political preferences.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easier. The Ukrainian government also needs to prepare for Washington’s increased attention to reforms in all areas, especially in the fight against corruption. And in this matter, Washington will pay attention to real results and achievements, rather than declarations.