The much-anticipated gathering could have high-stakes implications for Zelensky, who has vied for American support since he took over in 2019. His ascension to office led to a congratulatory call from then-President Donald Trump,
who pushed Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter. The call was at the heart of Trump’s first impeachment by the House before the Senate acquitted the then-President, finding him not guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Now, some two years after both Zelensky and Biden were ensnared in that historic first impeachment, the Eastern European leader has an opportunity to set a new tone with a new administration in person. But the shadow of the impeachment inquiry is still sure to loom large over the visit.
Questions about the US’ long-term foreign policy approach are sure to be in the air as well.
Trump challenged America’s long-standing diplomatic role in the world, building a nationalist platform he assured would put “America first” and often siding with Russia despite its escalating aggressions with Ukraine in their ongoing dispute over Crimea. And though Biden has asserted that American diplomacy is back, even allies are wondering how long it’ll last — especially in the wake of the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Details of Wednesday’s visit
Biden senior administration officials said the White House meeting is designed to demonstrate the US’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, saying on a call with reporters on Monday that “in the 30 years since Ukraine achieved independence, our strategic partnership has never been stronger than it is now.”
Biden will announce $ 60 million in new security assistance, including new Javelin anti-armor missiles, and will get an update on the security situation in the region amid continued acts of Russian aggression. He’ll also press Zelensky to make reforms in his country targeting corruption.
“We believe this meeting comes at a pivotal moment in the bilateral relationship as we continue to build on ties that bind our two countries together and really seek to take our strategic partnership to an elevated level,” a senior administration official said.
A source at a US-based firm that engages closely with the Ukrainian government said the Ukrainians are seeking a substantive Defense Security Cooperation Agreement — including more lethal assistance from the US — as a way to counter Russia both practically and symbolically. They also want affirmation from the US about a potential pathway into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The White House has previously affirmed its support for Ukraine’s pursuit of membership in NATO.
The two leaders, who spoke over the phone in April and June, will hold an expanded bilateral meeting in the White House before meeting one-on-one, according to the administration official.
Aside from defense cooperation and Zelensky’s reform agenda, energy is another major topic of discussion that will arise. Biden hopes to boost support for Ukraine’s energy sector after completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Ukrainian leader previously said he thought the US’ easing of Nord Stream 2 sanctions
would be a victory for Russia and a personal loss for Biden.
The US will also expand its Covid-19 assistance to Ukraine, providing “cold chain storage support and an additional $ 12.8 million in Covid-related assistance,” according to the administration official. The US has already donated nearly 2.2 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the country.
The US government will provide an additional $ 45 million in humanitarian assistance to help address Ukrainians impacted by the crisis with Russia, the official said.
Zelensky’s visit to the White House will come after earlier meetings in Washington.
On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and her Ukrainian counterpart, Minister of Energy Herman Galushchenko, signed
on to a strategic energy and climate dialogue alongside Zelensky. Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andrii Taranto also visited the Pentagon on Tuesday, where the US and Ukraine signed
on to a strategic defense framework.
A long-awaited meeting
Earlier this summer, Zelensky implored
Biden to hold an in-person meeting before the US President’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. Ultimately, the White House rejected the request, opting instead for a summer meeting in Washington.
During his time with Putin in Geneva, Biden indicated that Ukraine would be top of mind during the summit and said later that he had “communicated the United States’ unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The meeting between Zelensky and Biden was originally scheduled to occur on Tuesday, but was moved as it became clear that August 31 would be consumed with the final day of the war in Afghanistan.
The source at the US-based firm said there had been some unhappiness in Kiev about the shifting calendar for the visit, which had originally been eyed for late July, as well as some concern about the strength of US support for Ukraine in light of its moves on Nord Stream 2 and Biden meeting with Putin prior to meeting with Zelensky.
“Bringing two heads of state together is a complicated and fast-moving process,” a Biden official said on Monday’s call. “We want this meeting to receive the attention that it deserves. There is a wide range of issues for the two sides to discuss, and we’re really looking forward to having the time and space to do that on Wednesday.”