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Biden, Zelenskiy Begin Meeting At White House With Talk Of Ukrainian Sovereignty

By Todd Prince September 01, 2021

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy have begun a widely anticipated meeting at the White House in which Kyiv is expected to seek greater U.S. help building up Ukrainian defense capabilities and U.S. participation in peace talks to resolve Ukraine's war with Russia-backed separatists.

Zelenskiy arrived for his meeting accompanied by several members of his government, including Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Defense Minister Andriy Taran.

"The United States is our strategic partner and a supporter of our sovereignty and our territorial integrity," Zelenskiy said at the start of the meeting.

He thanked Biden for the additional military aid, as well as COVID-19 vaccines.

The U.S. president responded that he wanted to see "a Europe whole, free and at peace," and said he would like to visit Ukraine again.

He said "the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression."

But he also hinted at Washington's desire to see deeper reforms to shore up democratic gains in post-Soviet Ukraine.

"Today we're going to discuss how the U.S. can continue to support Ukraine as it advances its democratic reforms agenda," Biden said.

Zelenskiy had vowed earlier this week that Ukraine needs "not just words" but action from the West to help deter Russian aggression and end a conflict that has raged for seven years.

The Ukrainian president said his country needs to spend at least $22 billion in the coming years just to rebuild its Black Sea fleet and enhance its missile-defense program, an amount equivalent to nearly half its 2021 budget expenses.

"I tell you frankly: cheap money, cheap loans.... This is important for us," Zelenskiy said at a meeting with Washington-based analysts on August 31.

"We want support not only in words," he said, adding he would raise the question of additional financial support with Biden.

Russia seized part of Ukraine's naval forces when it invaded and annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

The Kremlin has used the occupied territory to build up its own naval forces and threaten Ukraine, whose economy is heavily dependent on exports from the Black Sea.

Zelenskiy told the Washington audience that a modern Ukrainian fleet could "curb any desire of the Russian Federation to block" the Black Sea waterway.

Kyiv has limited financial resources and already spends a large portion of its budget on defense against Moscow, forcing it to turn to the West for assistance against its more powerful neighbor.

Ahead of Zelenskiy's visit, the United States announced it would release a $60 million tranche of military aid for Kyiv. The new package, which includes more sophisticated anti-tank missiles, comes on top of the $400 million in annual spending that Washington provides Ukraine. Washington says it's provided more than $2.5 billion to Ukraine since 2014.

"Russia's buildup along the Ukrainian border has highlighted capability shortfalls in the Ukrainian military's ability to defend against a Russian incursion," the White House said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

"Ukraine's significant capability gaps must be urgently addressed to reinforce deterrence in light of the current Russian threat," it added.

During a meeting between Zelenskiy and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on August 31, the two countries signed a new defense framework agreement to boost cooperation.

Zelenskiy said Austin will visit Ukraine in the coming weeks as part of the agreement, saying he doesn't want to "procrastinate" with U.S. assistance.

Zelenskiy said he will use the one-on-one meeting to ask Biden to get involved in the dormant peace talks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The main partners in the effort include France and Germany, along with Ukraine and Russia, but some Ukrainian officials are skeptical of the support received from Berlin and Paris, and have pushed for more involvement by Washington to breathe life into the peace process.

The United States created the position of special envoy for peace talks, but that role has been left unfilled since September 2019. The Biden administration is not expected to fill the position, a U.S. State Department official told RFE/RL ahead of the meeting.

The Oval Office visit is the culmination of a multiyear effort by the Zelenskiy administration to secure the meeting, an effort in large part intended to send a message to Moscow that Washington firmly supports Kyiv.

Shortly after Biden won election last November, Zelenskiy expressed optimism that the new administration would be a better fit for his country than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who had expressed reservations about Ukraine during his turbulent four-year term.

Trump accused Kyiv of interfering in the 2016 election on behalf of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also pressured Zelenskiy in 2019 to dig up dirt on Biden and the work of his son Hunter in Kyiv, triggering an impeachment trial that all but brought bilateral relations to a standstill for the rest of Trump's term.

Under Trump, the United States did keep a range of Ukraine-related sanctions measures, targeting Moscow, in place; the Trump administration also finally authorized the delivery of the Javelin anti-tank missiles -- something that President Barack Obama had declined to do, fearing it would antagonize Moscow.

However, seven months into Biden's term, the bilateral relationship appears just as strained as under Trump.

During his meeting with Biden, Zelenskiy is expected to raise Washington's decision not to block construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline to Germany that bypasses Ukraine.

Critics of the pipeline project -- which is nearly complete -- argue it will strengthen Moscow's energy hold on Europe and cut Ukraine off from lucrative gas-transit fees, amounting to billions of dollars annually.

Zelenskiy has described the new pipeline as a powerful geopolitical weapon.

In turn, Biden is expected to press Zelenskiy to tackle corruption in the country and carry out badly needed judicial reforms.

Zelenskiy won an election in 2019 on a platform of trying to end the war in eastern Ukraine, and also tackle the country's notorious deep-seated corruption, including the undue influence of powerful businessmen known as oligarchs, and clean up the country's court system.

Though Zelenskiy has moved to target some powerful business interests, especially those with Russian ties, the reform effort is seen as sputtering and Western donors have grown impatient.

Zelenskiy told the Washington-based analysts that the recent passage of judicial reform and further digitization of government -- which would reduce interaction between individuals and officials that can give rise to bribes -- will help curtail corruption. The judicial reform passed in July has yet to be implemented.

As vice president under Obama, Biden regularly and openly criticized the administration of Zelenskiy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, for allowing corruption to persist.

With reporting by AP, dpa, AFP, and Reuters

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine -biden-zelenskiy-russia/31437986.html

Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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