Skip to main content
Blog post

Work to Be Done Following Biden-Zelensky Summit

Image: Mark Temnycky


After much anticipation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finally received his White House visit as he met with U.S. President Joe Biden on September 1, 2021. During their two-hour meeting, presidents discussed a variety of issues. These topics included Russian aggression and the ongoing Donbas conflict, Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, various security and defense matters, democratization, human rights, energy security, economic growth, and the coronavirus pandemic. Following the meeting, the White House released a joint statement on the Biden-Zelensky summit.

The discussions were packed with substantive information, but what were the highlights of this meeting? What did the United States and Ukraine achieve during this summit, and what work needs to be done?

Favorable Outcomes for the United States
The summit was positive for the United States. First and foremost, President Biden reiterated that the “United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and that it supports “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” The visit sent a clear message to Russia that the United States is serious about its relationship with Ukraine and will continue to support it. Few world leaders are invited to the White House each year, meaning that the United States holds its relationship with Ukraine in high regard.

Second, both countries announced that they would collaborate on cybersecurity matters. For nearly two decades, Ukraine has been a cyber testing ground for Russia. Russian cyberattacks have ranged from hacking power grids to infiltrating Ukrainian networks and servers. Ukrainians are more than familiar with Russia’s various capabilities, and the United States could learn much from Ukraine’s cyber experts and their experiences. This knowledge sharing could bode well for America’s cyber defenses, given the recent SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline attacks. The United States and Ukraine will hold their fourth “U.S.-Ukraine Bilateral Cyber Dialogue in Kyiv” next month to further discuss these efforts.

Third, the United States prioritized the advancement of human rights. As Ukraine continues to move toward its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, it will “strengthen accountability for violence against all persons regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political views.” Through assistance from the United States, this stance will be enforced in future Ukrainian legislation. President Biden has been championing human rights around the globe, and actions such as this are a top priority for his administration.

Fourth, Ukraine joined America’s climate change initiative. The Biden administration has listed climate change as another top priority, and it is working with its allies and partners across the globe in this effort. Earlier this year, the United States rejoined the Paris Climate Accords. During the Biden-Zelensky meeting, Ukraine reaffirmed its intent to reduce its “national greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.” Ukraine also joined the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate, an effort intended to lead to a cleaner environment and a safer planet. Renewable energy technologies could also provide Ukraine with new job opportunities and new sources of revenue.

Favorable Outcomes for Ukraine
Ukraine also achieved several favorable outcomes. First, the United States announced a new $60 million security assistance package for Ukraine. The security assistance will include additional Javelin missiles and other forms of lethal and nonlethal defense aid. This commitment demonstrates that the United States will take the necessary steps to ensure that Ukraine can deter the Russian offensive on its eastern border. The Strategic Partnership Commission also was revived.

Second, the United States will continue to advise Ukraine on defense and security sector reforms. The U.S. military will train Ukrainian personnel and assist Ukraine as it modernizes its military so that it can become interoperable with NATO. Currently, Ukraine is one of six non-NATO members that is a “NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner,” and it regularly participates in NATO training exercises. Select groups of Ukrainian forces were involved in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

Third, the United States will support Ukraine’s anticorruption initiative and help boost the Ukrainian economy, with “plans to allocate over $463 million.” This financial aid package will be used on programs “focused on democracy, human rights, local governance and decentralization, privatization, and judicial reform.” An additional $45 million in humanitarian assistance will be provided. President Biden previously oversaw more than $2 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine during the Obama administration to support humanitarian efforts. With this previous aid, as well as U.S. backing for crucial anticorruption legislation, Ukraine was able to achieve visa-free travel status to the European Union. Renewed American assistance could lead to similar favorable outcomes for Ukraine as it continues its Euro-Atlantic journey.

Fourth, as Ukraine continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has provided “$55 million in COVID-19 related assistance” to Ukraine and “intends to provide . . . an additional $12.8 million in COVID-related assistance.” The pandemic has overrun Ukraine’s medical system. Although $12.8 million may not appear to be a lot in relief funds, it undoubtedly will help ease the burden on Ukrainian healthcare professionals. Earlier in 2021, Ukraine received 2.2 million donated COVID-19 vaccines. To date, more than 54,000 Ukrainians have died from the coronavirus.

Shortcomings and Challenges
Though the Biden-Zelensky summit had several positive outcomes, the Ukrainians will feel that there were some shortcomings. Several challenges will need to be addressed.

First, the summit did not include discussions regarding a path toward NATO membership or a NATO membership action plan (MAP). Though the United States supports Ukraine’s integration efforts with the West, it is only one of the 30 NATO member states and does not have the authority to unilaterally grant Ukraine a MAP. President Zelensky will need to push this point at future meetings with other Western leaders.

Second, although the statement highlighted defense reforms, cooperation, and assistance, it did not include potential methods for returning Crimea to Ukraine, aside from U.S. support for the diplomatic initiatives of the Crimea Platform. In addition, it did not mention the Minsk Protocol. It is important to note, however, that even though the United States has not been formally involved in these negotiations, it has advised and assisted Ukraine in times of need. Russia has also previously rejected the notion of America joining the Minsk Protocol and Normandy Format discussions regarding the war in Donbas.

Third, Ukraine continues to struggle in its reform efforts. President Zelensky and his team have been backsliding on their anticorruption initiatives, which has delayed Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Implementing and enforcing serious changes, such as judicial reform, would be an important first step in addressing concerns in these areas. These reforms are critical for the future of Ukrainian democracy, and they will aid Ukraine in its quest to join the European Union and NATO.

Fourth, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline remains a complicated issue. When President Biden was sworn into office in January 2021, more than 90 percent of the pipeline was built. Now, after the Biden administration’s decision to waive additional sanctions, it appears the pipeline will be completed. The finished project would lead to Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. Ukraine and Poland would lose substantial revenue as their respective pipelines would become obsolete, and Russia will be in a better position to gain an energy monopoly over the European continent. Although the joint declaration stated that they oppose the pipeline, President Biden and President Zelensky will need to discuss the assurances that the United States can provide to Ukraine once the pipeline is completed. Otherwise, Russia will continue to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors undeterred.

A New Chapter in U.S.-Ukraine Relations
Overall, critics will argue that the summit did not lead to many tangible outcomes or deliverables. The United States provided only a set of small assistance packages, Ukraine did not receive a firm confirmation on potential NATO membership, and there was little discussion about the Minsk Protocol. In addition, Ukraine has a long way to go in its anticorruption efforts. Most of the items listed in the joint statement pertained to future commitments and long-term goals.

The meeting, however, was an important step in U.S.-Ukraine relations. President Biden’s summit with President Zelensky showed that the United States still cares about Ukraine and is interested in its success. There is still a lot of work to be done, but should President Biden and President Zelensky continue these dialogues, and should the United States and Ukraine achieve the objectives listed in their joint statement, Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration will become more feasible. By completing these objectives, Ukraine will have the democratic capital to make a serious bid for joining the West.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.


About the Author

Image: Mark Temnycky

Mark Temnycky

Freelance Journalist
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more