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Four Setbacks to Western Credibility in Ukraine
Within the last three weeks, a series of decisions by leading Western powers seem to indicate a downgrading of Ukraine on the scale of Western policy priorities. These decisions risk demotivating Ukrainian reform efforts and eroding Western credibility in Ukraine.

Vladimir SOCOR

02/06/2021 Region: Black Sea Topic: Geopolitics

Part One

Laying of Nord Stream Two pipeline (Source: AFP)

Within the last three weeks, a series of decisions by leading Western powers seem to indicate a downgrading of Ukraine on the scale of Western policy priorities. Taken partly in deference to Russia, these decisions risk demotivating Ukrainian reform efforts (hesitant though these are) and eroding Western credibility in Ukraine.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has scrapped the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia commissions that had been envisaged to be held during the Alliance’s upcoming summit in Brussels. United States President Joseph Biden’s administration has decided to exempt the Russian-owned Nord Stream Two subsea pipeline from US sanctions, thus effectively greenlighting that project as a favor to Russia and Germany and at the expense of other countries’ interests, first and foremost Ukraine’s. The German and French governments have given Kyiv reason to conclude that their position is weakening in the “Normandy” negotiations with Russia on the war in Ukraine’s east. And US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave Ukraine’s concerns the short shrift when meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Reykjavik, preparatory to a Biden-Putin summit.

Some of those decisions seem to be in line with preexisting Western policies, but mostly they seem related to the launch of a new “reset” of sorts in US-Russia relations—the second such reset in Biden’s career. This initiative also tends to redefine the transatlantic consensus on a low common denominator that would accommodate Germany first and foremost, along with German-Russian special relations.

Prior to Biden’s overture to Putin, the US president himself as well as Blinken and the administration generally had repeatedly asserted that the Nord Stream Two project was “a bad deal for Germany, for Ukraine, for our Central and East European allies and partners… As multiple U.S. administrations have made clear, this pipeline is a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security. The Biden administration is committed to complying with that legislation [US Congress–mandated sanctions]. Any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline” (State.gov, March 18). Washington had defined this issue all along not merely as a Ukrainian but as a European and transatlantic issue; and the administration had acted in alignment with a bipartisan majority in Congress.

On May 19, however, the Biden administration announced its decision to “waive” those sanctions—i.e., exempt the Gazprom-owned Nord Stream 2 AG project operating company from sanctions. Timed exactly to the day of the Blinken-Lavrov meeting that “set the table” for the Biden-Putin summit, the exemption from US sanctions would allow the final stage of pipeline construction on the Baltic seabed to be completed in a matter of months. This would enable Russia to divert its natural gas export flow away from Ukraine’s gas transportation system (with potentially fatal effects on this national asset), deprive Ukraine of some $2 billion annually in transit fees (see EDM, February 1), and remove a restraining factor against Russian or proxy military operations into Ukraine’s interior (see below).

Washington had not provided Kyiv with advance notice of the decision to greenlight Nord Stream Two. A writing on the wall could have been discerned when Blinken, in Kyiv on May 6, toned down the objections to Nord Stream Two, apparently reflecting the Biden administration‘s reconsideration of the issue (see EDM, May 610).

The Ukrainian state authorities and civil society (often critical of the authorities) share a sense of alarm over the Biden administration’s decision; and they view it as an unwarranted political concession to Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy regards the lifting of sanctions on Nord Stream Two as a “defeat of the United States, a personal defeat of President Biden in terms of standing up to Russia […] a major Russian geopolitical victory, and a redistribution of power and influence [in Europe].” Zelenskyy is “personally worried about possible tradeoffs” at the Biden-Putin summit affecting Ukraine, he admitted during the press conference on the second anniversary of his presidency. He had asked Blinken during his Kyiv visit for Washington to coordinate with Kyiv regarding Ukrainian issues ahead of the Biden-Putin summit (Ukrinform, May 20, 21).

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba regards it as “a defeat of American diplomacy if Nord Stream Two is completed after all.” Kuleba has announced that Kyiv “will fight on to stop the completion of this project” (Interfax-Ukraine, May 21; Ukrinform, May 26). According to Kuleba’s immediate predecessor as foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, the US decision came as “a blow to the gut” to Ukraine. Nevertheless, “any signs of a crisis of confidence between Ukraine and the United States would be the worst thing that could happen at this time” (Facebook.com/PavloKlimkin.ua, May 20).

According to a widely shared view among Ukrainian officials and analysts, Ukraine’s gas transit system functions not only as an economic asset, but also as a political deterrent to full-scale Russian military aggression inside Ukraine beyond the existing conflict theater. Once this gas transit system no longer carries large volumes from Russia to Europe, serving both sides, Western Europe’s direct material stake in Ukraine’s security could decline, and Russia could become less inhibited about using its own or proxy forces to advance into Ukraine’s interior or destabilize it (Novoye Vremya, May 21; Ukrinform, May 22)

On May 20, a large representative group of Ukrainian political, cultural, and civil society figures, “gravely alarmed by the decision to waive the application of sanctions on Nord Stream Two,” appealed to the United States to reconsider this decision (Kyiv Post, May 20). On May 21, the Ukrainian parliament’s plenum appealed to both chambers of the US Congress “to use all the legislative instruments at their disposal for a full and irreversible stop to the Nord Stream Two project… The only mechanism to ensure that Russia does not use Nord Stream Two as an energy weapon is to fully block its completion and commissioning” (UNIAN, May 21). Ukraine’s just-arrived ambassador, Oksana Markarova, is consulting with members of Congress on possible steps to block the Nord Stream Two project (Ukrinform, May 26).

The eminent analyst Mikhaylo Honchar reflects a widespread view in Ukraine’s pro-Western civil society: “They are rubbing their hands in Russia. They feel that the US White House’s sanctions-lifting is another display of weakness, after Biden took the step to call Putin… Given that the Biden administration declared the fight against transnational corruption as a priority, it looks strange that they lifted the sanctions on this Russian company [Gazprom-owned Nord Stream 2 AG] that promotes the Schröderization of European politicians” (Ukrinform, May 21).

Blinken demonstratively downplayed Ukraine’s (and others’) concerns when meeting in Reykjavik with Lavrov, so as not to risk jeopardizing Biden’s meeting with Putin. The US State Department’s readout puts Ukraine in the third place among the issues Blinken raised, after the Arctic and climate agenda and requesting the release of two US citizens held in Russia. (As Russian opposition members noted, Blinken requested the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, but merely and curtly registered concern for the health of Alexei Navalny further down the readout.) Blinken expressed “deep concern regarding Russia’s continued military deployments in and near Ukraine”; he failed to mention, however, the occupation of Crimea, the ongoing low-intensity war in Ukraine’s east (and Russia’s ceasefire breaches there), or Russia’s obstructions to commercial navigation in the Black Sea near Ukraine (State.gov, May 19).

According to the “senior official’s” briefing after the Blinken-Lavrov meeting, the US side raised these issues, in this order: Arctic, Climate Change–Paris Accords, Syria, Karabakh and Armenia-Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iran (nuclear anti-proliferation), Korean Peninsula, and Cyber security. “Moderator: Ukraine? Senior State Department Official: And Ukraine, yeah” (State.gov, May 19).

Part Two

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Source: Emerging Europe)

Along with United States President Joseph Biden greenlighting Gazprom’s Nord Stream Two project, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken giving Ukraine’s concerns the short shrift preparatory to Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has unexpectedly toned down its endorsement of Ukraine’s ambition to join the Alliance in the future; while Germany and France have given Kyiv reason to conclude that their position is weakening vis-à-vis Russia in the “Normandy” negotiations on the war in Ukraine’s east.

NATO has scrapped the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia commissions that had been envisaged to be held during the Alliance’s June 14 summit in Brussels. The North Atlantic Council on the ambassadorial level decided, on May 6, against inviting partner countries to attend the summit. Kyiv has pleaded in vain with NATO to reconsider this decision. Ukraine was prepared to submit yet again its case for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at this summit. Ukraine’s MAP application is now postponed indefinitely.

This decision is hurting NATO’s collective credibility (as distinct from that of certain individual member countries) in Ukraine. Membership via a MAP had been officially promised since 2008, and repeated annually since then with diminishing intent to deliver. The United States traditionally led a minority group of member countries supporting Ukraine’s aspirations; but this year, the Biden administration has toned it down. Blinken communicated this change while in Kyiv in early May, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his closest entourage did not or could not register the message. Instead, they raised public expectations unrealistically ahead of NATO’s summit. Failing expectations management generates disappointment and, potentially, NATO-skepticism in Ukraine, playing into Russia’s hands (see EDM, May 610).

NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană omitted the standard references to MAP, membership prospects, or even the Alliance’s 2008 promise when receiving successive Ukrainian delegations at NATO Headquarters, ahead of the summit. Geoană, a senior Romanian diplomat, has for many years promoted NATO’s enlargement and presence in the Black Sea region. NATO’s readouts of those Ukrainian visits (Nato.int, May 18, 27), however, dropped those standard references, apparently reflecting a negative rethinking in the Alliance at this time. The scrapping of the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia commissions’ meetings also raise questions about the North Atlantic Alliance’s willingness to establish more than a token presence in the Black Sea region. Reinstating the open-door pledge in the summit’s final communique will not, in itself, suffice to shore up credibility unless specific actions are indicated toward that end.

Ukrainian officials committed to the Euro-Atlantic agenda are expressing their disappointment publicly in unprecedentedly strong terms: “Thirteen years have passed since the 2008 summit’s decision, and no step has been made to open NATO’s door to Ukraine. That decision has been gathering dust for 13 years,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has remonstrated (Ukrinform, May 26). As he observed, this year would have been the most appropriate timing for NATO to approve a Ukrainian MAP, considering that Ukraine is standing up to Russia’s threats. And against that background, “How can you not invite Ukraine [at least] to attend this summit? We cannot understand at all: how could you not find a format for Ukraine’s attendance?” (UNIAN, May 26). And according to Deputy Foreign Minister Vasyl Bodnar, “The story about NATO’s open door to Ukraine is no longer credible in Ukraine. We need a clear timeframe for the signing of a MAP and then a clear membership perspective” (Ukrinform, May 22).

A group of Ukrainian non-governmental organizations promoting Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration (and conscious of the country’s unedifying performance) candidly observes in a collective statement, “NATO lacks a consensus for offering membership to Ukraine even if Ukraine carried out the reforms impeccably.” This is because “some [NATO] countries are afraid of antagonizing Russia or keep trying to appease Russia; some governments are afraid of their own voters’ possible reaction [to NATO enlargement]; and some do not believe in the authenticity of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic choice. Publicly, however, they would only speak about disappointment with the tempo of Ukraine’s reforms” (Ukraiynska Pravda, May 20).

Germany and France are acting within NATO against a Ukrainian MAP, but are acting in their own name outside the European Union as mediators of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the “Normandy” forum. Berlin and Paris do not distinguish between the aggressor Russia and the aggressed Ukraine in the ongoing war. They even equivocate on whether Russia is a party to the conflict. This official equidistance has made it possible for Berlin and Paris to tilt de facto in Russia’s favor in the quadripartite negotiations. But the tilt does not suffice to meet Russia’s appetites, the Franco-German mediation has consequently failed, and Kyiv has lost confidence in the Normandy process.

At his recent press conference on the second anniversary of his presidency, Volodymyr Zelenskyy argued that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron “ought to support Ukraine more strongly… Their position has become weaker vis-à-vis Russia of late.” Zelenskyy attributed that weakening to the general economic situation and pressure from business interests on Berlin and Paris to ease the sanctions on Russia. (President.gov.ua, May 20).

In a German press interview yesterday (May 31), Zelenskyy complained that Berlin and Paris are sticking to a “diplomacy of caution […] afraid to acknowledge that Russia is a party to this conflict.” Zelenskyy called yet again for enlarging the Normandy forum by adding countries more apt to meet Ukraine’s concerns. Unprecedentedly, he asked Germany to sell defensive military equipment, including lethal, to Ukraine. And he called for the first time on Germany and France to exert “strong pressure on Russia in the Normandy format” in order to end the war on the basis of a German-French-Ukrainian plan (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 31; Ukrinform, June 1).

Such complaints and pleas may be deemed unrealistic and futile. They may also serve as alibis for Zelenskyy’s own quest to negotiate bilaterally with President Putin (see EDM, April 222829May 3). But one way or the other, appeals of this sort do speak for Ukraine, testifying to its loss of confidence in the Normandy process.

Ukraine must focus on alternatives to the ever-elusive NATO MAP and the failed Normandy process. The United States, United Kingdom and Canada have been acting as an informal group providing invaluable assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces. This effort has grown in the last few years without requiring NATO’s collective political approval. Ukraine can, thus, seek the continuing expansion of military assistance from this informal coalition of the willing. Ukraine also needs US political engagement for conflict-settlement in Ukraine’s east in line with Ukraine’s interests, therefore to discard the Minsk and Normandy processes. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has unpredictably swerved to another “reset” of relations with Russia. Pursuing this reset while still practicing de facto containment will be a test on this administration.

NOTE: The article was first published in Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18, Issue: 85 (Part One) and Issue: 86 (Part Two)