by Janusz Bugajski
July 21, 2021
After surrendering ground to Moscow in the hope that Vladimir Putin would respect the independence of neighboring states, President Joe Biden now has an opportunity to strengthen the security of Russia’s primary victim. Ukraine.
During the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House, Biden needs to announce a concrete action plan and not simply issue the customary verbal support. In recent weeks, the U.S. administration has made several missteps over gas pipelines, naval power, and cybersecurity that enable Putin to claim the upper hand.
For a start, Washington allowed the Nord Stream II gas pipeline to proceed despite the fact that it will enable Moscow to blackmail European Union states and strangle Ukraine’s economy. The canceled deployment of two U.S. warships in the Black Sea when Russia was building up its forces along Ukraine’s borders was greeted as a victory in the Kremlin. And the ransomware attacks on U.S. companies by Russian hackers, despite Biden’s warnings to Putin, underscore that Kremlin commitments are worthless.
Putin also posted a propagandistic article on the Kremlin website in early July. It was designed to justify Russia’s appropriation of Ukraine’s history, identity, and territory. It was also intended as a message for the White House not to interfere in Ukrainian affairs. To demonstrate that Moscow possesses no veto powers over Ukraine’s independence and pro-Westernism, a three-pronged U.S. plan of action is urgently needed, involving energy guarantees, territorial reintegration, and bolstered security assistance.
The Nord Stream II pipeline, built to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, endangers Europe’s energy security, corrupts Western companies, and damages Ukraine’s economy. Washington waived sanctions against German businesses involved in the project, sparking fears that Ukraine would lose Russian gas transit fees, amounting to $2.5 billion annually, and its status as a critical natural gas corridor between Europe and Russia. The United States and Berlin must engage directly with Ukraine to preserve some of its transit revenues, while German companies invest in Ukraine’s highly valued green energy sector.
To avoid U.S. sanctions, Berlin has already offered Ukraine greater economic support, particularly in hydrogen gas production, with estimates that Ukraine can produce one-sixth of the hydrogen gas needed for Europe’s green transition by 2030. Washington must make sure that the German ally it so treasures delivers on its pledges.
Zelensky also wants Washington to join the negotiations over reintegrating the Russian-occupied Donbas territories in eastern Ukraine, either through the Normandy format that only involves Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany or by launching a more effective process. Biden needs to signal that the previous “Minsk agreement” is obsolete, as it was skewed by Moscow against Kyiv. It also failed to involve Washington, and in effect, legitimized the occupation of parts of Donbas. Washington cannot allow the Kremlin to maintain a divided Ukrainian state resembling Moldova or Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which autonomous regions disqualify the country from meeting the criteria for EU and NATO entry.
Russian officials are banking on concessions that will subjugate Ukraine without the need for war or full-scale occupation. Washington must be firm that any agreement necessitates the monitored withdrawal of all Russian units, including special forces and contracted volunteers, and the reintegration of Donbas in Ukraine’s administrative structure.
The third essential element for both U.S. and Ukrainian interests is to expand military assistance and enable Kyiv to defend itself from further military attacks. There should be no more delays in providing congressionally mandated aid and selling lethal weapons that Ukraine needs for self-defense, such as armed patrol boats and counter-artillery radar, and the deployment of already delivered Javelin missile systems as Russia’s military threats escalate. At the same time, Ukraine urgently needs to reform its defense system, including an overhaul of the senior officer corps and the repeal of outdated laws in which NATO states can offer assistance.
Ukraine is the largest country in Europe after Russia and straddles two regions that are vital for European security – Central Europe and the Black Sea. NATO committed itself at the 2008 Bucharest Summit to Ukraine’s membership, and Moscow’s attempts to carve up the country have convinced Ukraine’s political leaders and the majority of citizens that NATO accession provides the only long-term guarantee of statehood.
The Biden administration says it is committed to promoting democracy. Well, Ukraine provides a potent example that national independence is indispensable for building a democratic state. Securing Ukraine’s independence and integrity would simultaneously thwart the Kremlin’s authoritarian expansionism.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is titled Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.