Biden vows to resist ‘Russian aggression’ in Ukraine

US president seeks to reassure Ukraine’s leader after re-engaging with Kremlin

US president Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. Photograph:   Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg

US president Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg

 

Joe Biden sought to reassure Ukraine of Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to its sovereignty and opposition to “Russian aggression” at a White House meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The talks on Wednesday came amid rising tensions between Washington and Kiev over the US approach to Russia, with Ukrainian officials concerned the White House had become too accommodating towards the Kremlin.

Mr Biden’s decision to hold a summit with Vladimir Putin in June triggered widespread criticism that the administration was downplaying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in 2014.

The White House move the following month to strike a deal with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, ending its opposition to the Nordstream 2 pipeline, which bypasses Ukraine to deliver Russian gas to Europe, raised similar concerns in Kyiv.

Mr Biden and his top national security officials have attempted to use Mr Zelenskiy’s long-sought White House visit to ease Ukrainian worries over US resolve.

In brief remarks ahead of their discussion, Mr Biden said he wanted “a Europe whole, free and at peace”, that Washington opposed “Russian aggression” and that he hoped to visit Ukraine again.

Mr Zelenskiy said the US was its “strategic partner and supporter of our sovereignty, and our territorial integrity”. He added that the talks with Mr Biden would cover the conflict in the Donbas region and “Ukrainian Crimea occupied by the Russian Federation, as well as security in the Black Sea and security in the Azov Sea region”.

US policy regarding Ukraine has been overshadowed in recent years by former president Donald Trump’s attempt to pressure Kiev to investigate Mr Biden’s son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice-president.

Mr Trump was impeached over allegations that he improperly exerted diplomatic pressure on Mr Zelenskiy in an effort to get a foreign government to assist his re-election effort.

Although Mr Biden had a long record in the Senate as a strong supporter of Ukraine’s autonomy, the Obama administration resisted Kiev’s repeated requests for Javelin anti-tank weapons in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. Mr Trump approved those sales.

Despite the Obama-era reluctance and Mr Biden’s early outreach to Mr Putin, officials insisted that the US relationship with Ukraine had not been downgraded or neglected.

“President Zelenskiy and Ukraine have gotten as much, if not more, attention from this administration than any other European country,” said one US official.

“In terms of visits to the Oval Office, we had chancellor Merkel here several weeks ago,” the official added. “But otherwise, president Zelenskiy is the second European leader that is going to be having a meeting in the Oval Office.”

Mr Zelenskiy had been seeking a White House audience since his election on an anti-corruption platform two years ago.

But the visit came at an awkward time, as several US allies wondered whether Mr Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan was a signal that his administration would take a less interventionist approach in support of its partners abroad.

Mr Biden laid out such a non-interventionist policy doctrine on Tuesday in a nationally broadcast address on the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

However, the president announced a $60 million security assistance package for Ukraine and the Pentagon signed “a strategic defence framework” concerning co-operation on security in the Black Sea, cyber security and intelligence sharing.

The meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Zelenskiy had been pushed back by a day. The original August 31st date coincided with the deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021