Huge media attention, three signed agreements and declared success – this is how the political summer in Ukraine ended with the visit of President Volodymyr Zelensky to the United States. A lot of time has passed since then and its just the right monent to begin analyzing the achievements of this visit.
A political meeting is not an accomplished fact in itself. Its real value is both the previous work that shaped the leaders’ agenda and the practical implementation of the decisions made. These decisions, signed under the lenses of dozens of cameras in a more than formal and inherently “friendly” atmosphere, can remain only an interesting topic for discussion on political talk shows and additional topic for me and my colleagues for writing new articles – if they are not followed by implementation. Or at least some attempts to benefit from them. It should be understood that the higher the level of the meeting is, the more relevant the axiom about the need to implement solutions above anything else become. There were times in history when high-level meetings were truly decisive for the relations between states and the future of the international arena. Of course, this was the era of monarchical empires and “L’etat c’est moi” autocratic power. Over time, summits have increasingly become a purely declarative expression of agreed, adopted and jointly developed strategies. And so the only salvation from pure political science sophistry was the analysis of the implementation of decisions.
Zelensky’s visit to Washington in late August, in terms of his own political agenda, can already be considered a success. Indeed, we still live in the paradigm that every Ukrainian president who has reached the United States deserves some praise and has already achieved something as a politician. The defining practical results of this visit were three presented and signed bilateral documents:
• Framework agreement with the United States on strategic principles of defence partnership;
• “Ukraine Transformation Plan”;
• Statement on strengthening bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy and climate.
Each of these documents contains a set of declarations, strategies and intentions, which together form quite an interesting complex for the development of bilateral relations. In addition, the resumption of the Strategic Partnership Commission, which has already been presented by the Ukrainian president as perhaps the greatest success of the meeting in the long run, cannot be overlooked. So what is the real meaning of these agreements?
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The new framework agreement with the United States on the principles of defence partnership can indeed be considered a practical result of the visit, which is already finding its niche in Ukraine's foreign policy and is being worked out on both sides of the negotiating table. The agreement itself provides for the development of three key areas:
• continuation of Ukrainian reforms in the military sector and bringing the Armed Forces and military leadership up to NATO standards;
• cooperation for security in the Black Sea region;
• countering the aggression of the Russian Federation.
An agreement on projects in the field of research, development, testing and evaluation was also signed within the framework agreement. Currently, this document is in the work of two Ministries of Defence – it was discussed in detail and worked out at the last meeting of Deputy Minister of Defence of Ukraine Oleksandr Nosov with a delegation of the Institute of Defence Analysis. The agreement is fundamental for the implementation of the next agenda points of the framework agreement, especially in the field of Ukrainian defense reforms.
After the first results are achieved (and these can be considered conditionally considered successful autumn exercises with the participation of the American and Ukrainian military, in particular “Joint Efforts-2021” and Rapid Trident-2021, and the beginning of the first joint research projects), US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is scheduled to visit Ukraine to detail and expand existing agreements. According to the long-standing tradition of Ukrainian authorities, the visit will be successfully linked not only to the public relations “successes” of the military and political leadership, but also at least to some progress in the implementation of agreements – even if it was mentioned only during the Cabinet report.
The track on military cooperation is still actively advancing and already shows, if not results, at least some work for them. But in other areas there is more bitter realism.
“More justice and opportunities – building a prosperous and sustainable Ukraine.” Such an ambitious name was chosen in the President’s Office for a document that was supposed to show the steps of Ukraine’s transformation into a democratic, free from corruption and working state. It includes 80 projects totaling $277 billion (almost two years of Ukraine’s current GDP). The plan is a conditional list of tasks and projects to be performed by the Cabinet of Ministers in the coming years, the relevant state-owned monopolies in the field of infrastructure and energy, and related government agencies. The ranking of these tasks can be really impressive – from the basic improvement of gas storage and increased investment in agriculture to introduction of biofuel production technologies and high-tech pharmaceutical industry and even including Ukraine’s participation in the lunar exploration program and the flight to Mars.
The first reaction to this plan may be the most successful and accurate one – “so what?”. Yeah, the plan is good, in some respects even promising and well thought out. But it drastically lacks many aspects to transform it into a successful strategy. The parameters and tools for its implementation are not fixed, there are no clear deadlines and responsibilities for certain projects, there is no indication of a clear understanding of how exactly the money will be allocated for the purpose. After all, the vague wording “We will provide funding from the state budget of Ukraine, as well as attracting programs of international assistance, loans, investments” does not seem a reasonable economic response based on at least sone analysis.
And the most interesting aspect – this plan was seen only in the United States. He still penetrates the public info-field in small pieces – photos from the presentation, slides, posts of individual politicians from both camps, etc. But no more. It seems that the American establishment is more interested in the transformation of Ukraine than the domestic civil society and expert community, which can really influence certain processes and ultimately accelerate the achievement of mentioned goals.
But yes, at the moment this plan is no more than another part of Ukraine's extremely ambitious investment image. Which, for some reason, no one wants to strengthen either by the functioning judiciary system, or by the reform of anti-corruption bodies, or by increasing confidence in the government.
Another no less painful issue, the story of Nord Stream 2, is far from over. Ukraine is still facing difficult legal battles, a lot of political pressure and competition from influence groups and coalitions. The issue of the Russian pipeline is already extremely problematic in relations between Ukraine and Germany. As for the United States, everything is far from unambiguous.
We need to understand the difficult and very delicate political game that US President Joe Biden must play in this situation. On the one hand, it is necessary to maintain adequate economic and political relations with Germany, which in the run-up to the election of the new Bundestag and Chancellor is in fact forced to follow its previous commitments – which means to play along with Russia. On the other hand, Biden must restrain the Kremlin in one way or another, because it is not only part of his broader global strategy to oppose autocracies, but even part of his important struggle with China. Therefore, the President of the United States is forced to negotiate with Germany and allow some misbehaviour from Russian side, and he is also forced to support Ukraine and oppose Moscow. And this situation forces him to use hybrid methods and tools.
It is necessary to perceive new energy agreements within the same paradigm. They relate to nuclear energy (thus keeping all complex topics in parentheses), which for Ukraine is tied to Russia (so Washington knocks Moscow out from the strategic market), aimed at the environment and alternative sources (again a soft and common topic), which will have a strategic priority for our country (because the Biden-Merkel memorandum is tied to “green energy”, but it is the EU environmental norms that will become a barrier to the launch of “Nord Stream 2”).
What is being done on this track? So far, we can only hope that the prescribed consultations and expert cooperation at the level of ministries have already been launched and we will have the first successes at the beginning of next year. However, in this case, time is playing against Ukraine – and not only because the Russians are worried about launching the pipeline this year. Therefore, public success and advancement in this area can actually become a powerful information weapon of Kyiv.
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A strong and promising tool from the past, the Strategic Partnership Commission can be a real breakthrough for Ukraine-US relations. It has some potential to become the hub of practical solutions on the ground, which are often lacking among declarative statements and visits. It is not surprising that President Zelensky presented it as the main achievement of the visit and the growth point of our relations.
The first meetings of the commission are scheduled for October this year. Until now, it is difficult to talk not only about the success of the commission, but also about some of its prospects – we have neither the composition nor long-term goals. Yes, there are the first topics on cybersecurity and strengthening the ability of our state to repel cyber threats. But in 2021, this already sounds like a fairly general and worn-out topic, and Ukraine itself already has quite significant practical experience in this area. And so that the work of the commission does not turn into a lot of noise from nothing, it is necessary not to hurry with the conclusions and give the opportunity to start this project.
Oleksandr Kraiev, expert of Foreign policy council “Ukrainian Prism”.