As vice president, Joe Biden ran point for the Obama administration on Ukraine, pushing to assist the beleaguered ally in ways President Barack Obama was not always comfortable with. Now, as the next president, Biden will call the shots.
Biden will face ongoing war in eastern Ukraine and worsening corruption that threaten to give Russian President Vladimir Putin new ways to undermine democracy in the country — problems that have already pushed the president-elect to pledge to give U.S. military support to Ukraine, including the types of lethal weapons Obama was loath to give.
“Biden was deeply involved in Ukraine during the Obama years. He visited many times and called the president repeatedly,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, and a former economic advisor to Russia and Ukraine. “There is no significant American political figure who took care of Ukraine the way Biden did.”
But any increased aid to Ukraine, which was at the center of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, also comes with potential political complications for the next president.
Biden’s son, Hunter, is under investigation by the Justice Department for tax fraud relating to Hunter’s involvement with Ukrainian oil and gas company Burisma Holdings, where he served on the board. The president-elect has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by Hunter.
Biden explained in his memoir "Promise Me, Dad" that his own involvement in the region was the result of his volunteering to take the lead on Ukraine when others in the White House were not keen to do so.
He wrote that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which followed the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, he urged Obama and America’s western European allies to intervene.
Biden recounted: “President Obama’s sympathies were all with Ukraine . . . but he would caution me about overpromising to the new Ukrainian government. ‘We’re not going to send in the Eighty-second Airborne, Joe,’” he said.
Biden wrote that he pushed hard to provide the Ukrainian government with military assistance in the form of training and weapons, but it was clear that Obama would go no further than sending the Ukrainians non-lethal equipment, such as radar used to detect the source of mortar fire.
This reluctance became a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign. During an October debate, Trump belittled the Obama administration’s support for Ukraine, saying they sold the Ukrainians “pillows and sheets” while Trump had sold them “tank-busters.”
In fact, Trump did approve military aid to Ukraine, selling 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers to Kyiv in March 2018. But Biden was a proponent of sending the Ukrainian government lethal weapons and was disappointed when European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel also declined to do so, according to his memoir.
“The issue was, we didn’t know if the Ukrainian military was ready for that kind of weaponry at the time,” said Jim Townsend, who worked as deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO under Obama. “They just weren’t organized enough for us to hand them some of those weapons — so we led with sanctions against Russia.”
But some experts say there is still plenty of time to supply Ukrainians with military hardware.
“The Javelin missiles helped for sure, and other weapons would be welcome,” said Hanna Shelest, the director of security programs for Ukrainian Prism, a security studies think tank based in Kyiv. According to Shelest, the Ukrainian navy badly needs to be modernized and expanded, and drones and intelligence-gathering technology would both be useful on the front lines against Russian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists.
And the front line is an active one, with fighting flaring every day. In the past week alone, a mission from The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) documented hundreds of ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine.
As of February 2020, over 13,000 people had been killed in the war, a quarter of them civilians, according to official statistics from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
What about Putin?
Biden has indicated that he will be tough on Russia.
In an August statement released by his campaign, Biden said he will “make it clear to the Kremlin that it must end its aggression toward and occupation of Ukraine." Biden pledged to give Ukraine military support, including lethal weapons, while urging Ukraine to pursue the essential reforms that are vital to its success.
Experts say the key to containing Russian aggression against Ukraine lies in how Biden will approach negotiations with Putin.
“We’re worried that Biden could be tempted to negotiate directly with Putin,” Shelest said. “The issue is, that’s what Putin wants. He wants to sit at the big table and talk about big things with the Americans. He then goes to the Russian press and uses such negotiations to legitimize his rule with the Russian people.”
Others echoed this sentiment.
“Putin is the dictator of a third-world country; he’s the head of a mafia-run gas station with nuclear weapons,” said Tim Morrison, who served as Trump's deputy assistant for national security, paraphrasing the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
“I think giving him anything until he stops his malign behavior would be a mistake,” Morrison said.
According to Shelest, one approach would be to reduce the level of negotiations with Putin, leaving the talking to the secretary of State rather than Biden himself.
Furthermore, rolling negotiations with Putin into a multilateral format, with other nations participating, would take some of the spotlight off of Russia, leaving Putin with less leverage when polishing his own image on the world stage.
Jim Townsend said he is confident that Biden’s foreign policy team — Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser — will be up to the task.
“These folks are foreign policy veterans,” Townsend said. “They watched the reset policy under Obama, the revolution in Kyiv and all the way through the war in Crimea. They realize Putin respects the use of force, and that they can’t trust what he says.”
“They’re not coming in with visions of unicorns and butterflies. We have some grim work to do to protect our allies and deal with this frozen conflict in Ukraine,” Townsend added.
Shelest also highlighted filling the role of special representative to Ukraine, which has been vacant since Kurt Volker’s resignation in September 2019.
“That would be a strong signal to us that the Biden administration takes the peace process here seriously,” she said.
Corruption, and democratic reforms
But some of Ukraine’s troubles come from within, particularly the issue of corruption.
“We’re seeing a backsliding on commitments on key anti-corruption reforms, and people in positions of power within the Ukrainian government who are not committed to stamping out corruption,” said Jonathan Katz, a former deputy assistant administrator in USAID’s Europe and Eurasia bureau.
One issue is Ukraine’s constitutional court. According to the Atlantic Council, in October the court struck down a key anti-corruption reform that forced civil servants to publicly declare their assets.
The move undermines Ukraine’s ability to investigate illegal self-enrichment by government officials, experts say.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the ruling a “devastating blow” to the country’s anti-corruption efforts, but has been met with fierce internal resistance from oligarchs and the country’s political elite when proposing reforms.
“These are painful issues for Ukrainians,” Shelest said. “But many of the mechanisms to address them, like anti-corruption courts, have already been thought out. They just need to be implemented.”
Ukrainian officials have assured their allies that they are working through their corruption issues.
“We have corruption, but so does any other state,” said a Ukrainian embassy official in Washington who asked to remain anonymous to discuss policy matters, “and obviously anti-corruption reforms will continue, but we can’t just round up the oligarchs and kill them — that’s not how a civilized regime works.”
“There are also other issues: war, COVID-19 and financial issues all need our attention,” the official said.
The official said that for the Biden administration to make progress on the issue of Ukrainian corruption, condition-based aid should continue. “It works, obviously,” the official said.