US Secretary of State Blinken in Kyiv with promises of support and veiled rebukes for slow reform progress

US Secretary of State Blinken in Kyiv with promises of support and veiled rebukes for slow reform progress
Bliken gave with one hand, promising "strong support" in Ukraine's fight against Russia, but slapped with the other with veiled rebuke for the slow progress on reform.
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 7, 2021

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ukraine’s top politicians in a show of solidarity in the face of Russian aggression on May 6.  

"We stand strongly with you," Blinken told a joint news conference with President Zelenskiy. "We look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions," Blinken said.

Blinken’s trip was the first high-level physical meeting between the new White House administration of US President Joe Biden and Zelenskiy’s administration. It comes only two weeks after Russia moved some 40,000 troops to Ukraine’s eastern border in a threatening display of military might that sparked widespread speculation over a possible invasion.  

As part of what appears to be a carefully choreographed set of signals to Moscow, Blinken arrived only two days after NATO began its “Defender Europe 21” military exercises involving 28,000 troops, including a strong US contingent, close to Russia’s western border. That will be followed by the “Steadfast Defender 21” military exercises next month in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary that will train the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) Deterrence Operations, also known as the “trip wire” forces that are designed to prevent a Russian invasion of Central Europe by triggering NATO’s article 5 if Russian troops enter a member state.

Ukraine is not involved in any of these exercises and won’t be invited. Blinken did not come with concrete offers of military force, although US has increased its allocation of military aid this year, but more to make the point that the peace and independence of Ukraine features prominently in Biden’s foreign policy. Pointedly Blinken offered to “help Ukraine defend itself.”

“I’m here really for a very simple reason, which is on behalf of President Biden to reaffirm strongly our commitment to the partnership between our countries,” Blinken said earlier at the start of a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “It was important as early as possible to say so in person.”  

After meeting with Zelenskiy Blinken toured a sombre memorial with photographs of some of the more than 13,000 people who have been killed in fighting in Donbas against Kremlin-backed separatist rebels since 2014.  

Russia’s military build-up was seen by some as both a test and a message to Biden, with Russia signalling that it could, and would, cause a lot of trouble if the US sticks with its previous policy of imposing economically damaging sanctions on Russia.  

The build-up began after the US issued new sanctions targeting Russian domestic ruble bonds for the first time on April 15. However, after two weeks Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the troops back to barracks in time for the May 1 holidays. While many of the soldiers have left there are reports that they have left a lot of their equipment behind and at least two new brigades have been stationed in the Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, bringing the total number of Russian soldiers based there to around 30,000.  

It is unclear how many Russian soldiers have been withdrawn, but both Blinken and Zelenskiy say that the pullout has been limited. The New York Times reported, citing officials in Washington, that 80,000 troops remained, but this number must include both the troops permanently stationed in Crimea as well as the circa 25,000 separatist rebels in Donbas, which means a little less than half of the mobile 40,000 Russian soldiers on Ukraine’s border have been withdrawn.  

"We're aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border with Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there," Blinken said.

Zelenskiy said that Russia was still flexing its muscles on the Black Sea coast and only 3,000 to 3,500 new troops sent to Crimea in recent weeks have been withdrawn.  

"The forces that remain along the Ukrainian border permit the Russian side to launch a military operation against Ukraine at any moment," Zelenskiy stressed.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also commented on May 6, saying during statements in Brussels that "tens of thousands" of Russian troops remained in the region and that they had left heavy weaponry despite some reductions.

"Overall, there is a significant Russian presence, and there are many more Russian troops now, in and around Ukraine, than before the recent increase in tensions," Stoltenberg said.

Blinken’s visit comes in the context of the staging of a large NATO exercise called “Defender Europe” that began on May 4 and saw 28,000 NATO forces, including a heavy contingent of US forces, begin an exercise in the region along Russia’s western borders. More exercises, the “Steadfast Defender 21,” NATO exercise are scheduled to start in Romania next month.  

Zelenskiy welcomed Blinken’s promise of “US support” but said that Ukraine "desperately" needed more. Zelenskiy has been touring Europe in the last weeks to drum up support from the surrounding countries and won a surprisingly blunt condemnation by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The Kremlin retaliated to the criticism by banning flights between Russia and Turkey’s popular holiday resorts in a move that could cost the industry up to $3bn in lost revenues.  

However, despite Blinken’s warm words, the US has done little in terms of actions. The first round of sanctions in January connected to the poisoning of jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny was limited to targeting nine officials and the April 15 sanctions, while pregnant with potential pain, were of themselves pure symbolic. The US has also held off from supplying Ukraine with sophisticated weaponry, although it has supplied lethal sniper rifles and Javelin anti-tank weapons. The White House remains cautious about arming Ukraine for fear of getting sucked into a proxy war with Russia.  

A new direction in Ukraine’s foreign policy is that Zelenskiy has been openly challenging both NATO and the EU to commit to a concrete timetable for Ukraine’s accession to both bodies. “We cannot stay in the waiting room for ever,” the president said last month. However, neither organisation was drawn to comment or make any commitment, leaving Ukraine in a no-man’s land between the two sides. Russia has made it clear that Ukraine’s accession to NATO is a red line, although it remains more ambivalent to Ukraine’s desire to tie up with the EU in a deeper trade deal.  

Mixed relations  

But the US military support has been creeping up. The White House has increased its military support to Ukraine, earmarking 440mn this year, slightly less than double what it provided last year.  

Biden has so far been restrained in his actions in dealing with Russia in his first three months in office, which kicked off with a deal to extend the START III missile deal that is also a new direction in US policy of preserving, not withdrawing, from Cold War-era security deals.  

However, Biden also needs to look tough on Russia as a result of former US president Donald Trump’s perceived softness on Russia.

And Biden knows Ukraine well, as he acted as former president Barak Obama’s point man for Ukraine during the Euromaidan revolution in 2014 that saw president Viktor Yanukovych ousted in a popular uprising. Biden travelled to Kyiv several times and gave an impassioned speech in the Rada to Ukrainian MPs calling on them to step up to the challenge of reform and crushing corruption.  

And the US relations with Zelenskiy are mixed thanks to Kyiv’s continued failure to follow through on the reform agenda. Washington was openly critical of the Cabinet of Ministers’ decision last week to dismiss the widely respected former head of state-run oil and gas company Andriy Kobolev on April 29, calling it an attack on Ukraine’s corporate governance reputation.  

Biden has been keeping the door open for talks to walk back from the confrontation that has built up between the US and Russia over the last six years. In his first foreign policy speech Biden mixed tough talk on making Russia “pay a price” for its aggression and wanting to start on arms control talks and jointly tackling the Climate Crisis. At the end of the day after Russia announced it was withdrawing its troops from Ukraine’s border, Putin met with Biden in an online summit to talk about climate change.  

Despite the April 15 sanctions, the Kremlin has also said that the mooted summit with Biden, slated to happen on June 15-16, is still possible, provide the US “behaves.”  

Blinken arrived from London where he joined other foreign ministers from a G7 meeting which condemned Russia's "irresponsible and destabilising behaviour" in Ukraine and elsewhere.

However, the West is powerless to force Russia’s hand to mend its ways, since Putin has spent much of the last decade constructing a fiscal fortress that makes Russia impervious to sanctions. Moreover, many countries in Europe, most noticeably Germany, have tired of the conflict and are seeking a more pragmatic relation with Moscow.  

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas controversially said last week that he is opposed to new sanctions on Russia and that they would not help jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who is serving a two-year sentence on fraud charges.

Moscow is hoping to exploit the lack of unity in Europe and also to use Europe’s reluctance to increase the pressure on Russia to lean on Washington and act with restraint if it chooses to impose more sanctions. It is believed that Biden is more interested in repairing relations with Europe, damaged by Trump’s recklessness, than he is in escalating the fight with Russia.  

Blinken said he had had a "very good, open, direct" conversation with Ukrainian leaders about reforms, but delivered a rebuke by pointedly meeting with anti-corruption activists. Blinken said that Ukraine is "facing aggression from without and from within" Russia as well as "corruption from oligarchs" and vested interests in remarks that were clearly a veiled reference to the sacking of Kobolev the previous week.  

Blinken went on to implicitly criticise the government for dragging its heels with privatisation as well. He called for independent oversight of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), greater transparency in the selection of judges and the strengthening of an anti-corruption board.

Ukraine is planning to restart its privatisation of large-scale SOEs and has put several important companies on the docket. But progress here has also been mixed. About a dozen of the most valuable companies, many of which are in the crosshairs of the oligarchs, were excluded from privatisation by law last year due to depressed asset prices caused by the coronacrisis. The Rada voted to reinstate these companies to the privatisation process this year in a vote in the Rada on April 1, but mysteriously the bill failed to get passed in the second reading on April 15.  

"So just as there are incredibly brave soldiers on the frontlines in the Donbas, in many ways, you are on the frontlines in that second fight against corruption and for a democracy that has strong institutions," Blinken told the anti-corruption activists.

But there weren’t just hidden messages for Zelenskiy, there were some for the Kremlin too. Joining him in Kyiv was his new undersecretary for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, who, as the top State Department official for Europe during the Obama administration, was in Kyiv during the Euromaidan revolution and infamously handed out biscuits to the protesters rallying against the then president Viktor Yanukovych in a move that incensed the Kremlin as blatant US interference in local politics.