- The Washington Times
Thursday, February 25, 2021

President Biden‘s early words in support of Ukraine in its clash with Russia have been strong, but he has only a short window of opportunity to back up those words with actions that will impress the Kremlin, Ukraine‘s top diplomat said Thursday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the Biden administration has an opening to play a larger role in the stalled diplomacy over a Russian-backed separatist war in eastern Ukraine that has killed some 13,000 people since 2014.

In a video briefing organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis, Mr. Kuleba welcomed Mr. Biden‘s statement at last week’s Munich Security Conference that Ukraine‘s sovereignty and territorial integrity are “a vital concern for Europe and the United States.” But he quickly added that Washington “cannot wait” to act on his words.

“One of the lessons since 2014 is that, if you want to motivate Russia to make a move, you have to act fast and you have to be very well-targeted,” he said. ” … The more you wait, the more chances Russia gets to get adapted to the new reality.”

Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany make up the Normandy Format, a diplomatic grouping that has made little progress in ending the stalemated conflict in Ukraine. Mr. Kuleba suggested the U.S. could play a bigger role and burnish Mr. Biden‘s claim that “America is back” on the international front after the Trump years.

European powers, he said, prize stability and peace in Ukraine, “but we need more political power to change the status quo,” the minister said. “In our view, the source of that political power is the United States of America.”

The window for action may be closing for another prime Ukrainian concern — the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine‘s traditional role as the gateway for Russian energy exports to Europe.

The Trump and Biden administrations have both echoed Kyiv’s concerns that the pipeline will give the Kremlin too much control over Europe’s energy supplies, while dealing a major blow to Ukraine‘s economy in the process. But there are questions over how hard Mr. Biden will fight to block the project, which is more than 90% completed and has been consistently supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.

“I hate being at odds with Germany over this project,” Mr. Kuleba said, “but they have their national interests and we have ours.”

Noting talk of a compromise in which Russia would agree to ship some natural gas through Ukraine for a period of time after Nord Stream 2 comes on line, Mr. Kuleba said, “The problem with that is, we cannot believe in any Russian guarantees since 2014.”

On another delicate issue, Mr. Kuleba said it would be a “top assignment” of former Finance Minister Oksana Markarova, Kyiv’s new ambassador to Washington, to extend an invitation for Mr. Biden to visit Ukraine to mark the 30th anniversary of its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We haven’t had the pleasure of hosting a U.S. president since 2008,” Mr. Kuleba said. “Given the dynamics of our partnership and the role of the United States has played in Ukraine since 2014, I believe it is high time to do that.”

There was no word from the White House on a possible trip. Mr. Biden held his first “virtual” summit with a foreign leader just this week, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Both Kyiv and Washington may have some sensitivities about a face-to-face meeting.

Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s persistent efforts to secure a White House meeting — in large part as a signal to Russia of U.S. support — became entangled in Mr. Trump’s push for more information on Mr. Biden‘s own dealings with Ukraine as vice president and the business interests his son Hunter Biden had in Ukraine.

Mr. Zelenskiy’s June 2019 phone call to Mr. Trump after the U.S. put a freeze on a major arms package was the spark for an investigation that led to the first of Mr. Trump’s two impeachments, both of which led to his acquittal. Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelenskiy eventually had a brief, one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the September 2019 U.N. General Assembly in New York.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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