On Tuesday, Aug. 31, President Joe Biden will host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It will be the first White House visit by a Ukrainian head of state in over four years.
Zelenskyy has voiced increasing concern with the lack of Western support in Ukraine’s battles with Russia and has been pushing for a Washington summit for two years.
Seven years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, the armed conflict shows no signs of ending. It now also faces what Zelenskyy calls “a dangerous geopolitical weapon”—Nord Stream 2.
Earlier this year, Biden gave his blessing to NS2, Russia’s $12 billion pipeline under the Baltic Sea. But the completion of the pipeline will deprive Kyiv of crucial gas transit fees, dealing Ukraine a huge financial blow even as it increases European dependence on Russian oil
Clearly, there will be no shortage of topics on Zelenskyy’s summit agenda. Let’s hope Biden listens closely to his concerns.
Ongoing uncertainty over Ukraine’s long-term future undercuts the peace and stability of all of Europe. The sooner and more confidently U.S. and European allies open a path to full Western integration for Kyiv, the sooner that doubt will be removed.
On his visit to Ukraine this May, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “[W]e stand strongly with you … [Our] partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago, and we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.”
Yet, the real question is whether he and Biden will follow through on the promise to “stand strong.”
While Washington should not hesitate to do what it can to provide support, it is clear that the future of Ukraine rests largely on Ukrainian shoulders.
Seven years ago, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (then-National Security Adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden) stated: “Ukraine will only succeed in charting its own course if it can shrug off the yoke of corruption and push back against the anti-democratic forces that have held it back for so long.” He went on observe that success will require “a long-term commitment across the board—from the Ukrainians themselves, first and foremost, but also from American or European partners.”
Continued U.S. support—and continued encouragement to institute necessary economic reforms—will enable Ukraine to defend itself more resiliently. Washington cannot afford to disengage from Ukraine on the economic, political, or security fronts.
It is encouraging that Washington this week dispatched a presidential delegation, led by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, to attend the Crimea Platform Summit. The high-level visit was especially meaningful, considering the regrettable fact that there has been no official U.S. ambassador to Ukraine since 2019. And Granholm’s expression of enduring strong support was most welcome.
However, the Biden administration must take even stronger, more concrete steps to resist Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, reiterating the need for a complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As long as Russia violates Ukraine’s sovereignty, the U.S. should continue economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals who are responsible for the annexation of Crimea and for instigating and fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Equally important is to further incentivize Ukraine to pursue targeted reforms to enhance good governance as well as the country’s economic competitiveness. Overall progress has lagged on many much-needed, but contentious, structural reforms. As The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has pointed out, advancing fiscal discipline, regulatory efficiency, and market openness to generate greater economic dynamism remains a prerequisite for securing Ukraine’s future.
On Zelenskyy’s part, the summit offers a crucial opportunity to showcase why America should care about Ukraine. He will need to demonstrate that Kyiv is serious about eradicating corruption and implementing economic as well as greater institutional reforms. The influence of vested interests has severely hampered his reform efforts, but it is encouraging that Zelenskyy has kept pushing forward his Economic Freedom Act, which aims to improve Ukraine’s regulatory transparency and efficiency.
Certainly, the United States cannot give Ukraine the political will needed to transform its economy according to free-market principles. While the future success of Ukraine depends primarily on the actions of Ukrainians themselves, America’s continuing strategic support remains essential for counteracting Russian aggression and supporting the domestic reform movement.
James Jay Carafano directs The Heritage Foundation’s research in matters of national security and foreign affairs and is a 1945 Contributing Editor. Anthony Kim is the research manager and editor of the think tank’s annual Index of Economic Freedom.