The election of Joe Biden raised the welcome prospect of a return to normalcy in the US-Ukraine relationship after his predecessor Donald Trump tried to use it for political advantage. But the first two months of the Biden administration has also demonstrated that this return to the norm is proving to be complicated.
While Kyiv has signaled its interest in starting a relationship with the new US administration at the highest level, there has still not been a phone call between President Zelenskyy and President Biden. It is true, as Ambassador Bill Taylor has observed, that the relationship does not require a presidential call. American and Ukrainian interests can be served without it.
Biden put down a marker in his first call with President Putin that Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine was a major obstacle to an improvement in US-Russian relations. This was a clear signal of strong American support for Ukraine in thwarting the Kremlin’s ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Perhaps if Ukraine had not appeared as an issue in the recent US presidential election, the call between presidents Biden and Zelenskyy might have already taken place. But these unusual circumstances have also yielded some good results.
The Biden administration has indicated that reform and the fight against corruption are a priority. And over the past few months, partly in an effort to hasten the presidential call, the Ukrainian president has taken more reform steps than at any time since he removed his reformist prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, and most of the cabinet, one year ago.
Indeed, the process started before the inauguration, after the US Treasury Department sanctioned seven Ukrainians including Oleksandr Dubinsky, a senior MP in Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party and close colleague of Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, for interfering in the US presidential elections on behalf of Russia. Zelenskyy quickly had Dubinsky removed from his party’s parliamentary faction, and then from the party itself.
More important was the decision taken by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council to ban three television stations controlled by the Ukrainian politician and close Putin associate Victor Medvedchuk. While some argue that this step was a violation of press freedoms, the decision was taken on national security grounds that these stations have been a regular conduit for Kremlin disinformation and were at least partly funded by assets from Kremlin-occupied Donbas.
Washington had sanctioned Medvedchuk in March 2014 because of his role in Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and had thought his relationship with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko peculiar. Zelenskyy has now rectified this.
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