Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, could be forgiven for cursing his luck as the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of its independence from the former Soviet Union. On Tuesday, Mr Zelenskiy presided over a military parade in Kyiv, attended by an impressive array of dignitaries and heads of state. But in a week when he hoped to concentrate the minds of western allies on Russian bullying and intransigence, their focus is firmly on Afghanistan.
The struggle to stay on the diplomatic radar has become a familiar one. On Monday, Ukraine held an attention-seeking summit on Crimea, illegally annexed by Vladimir Putin in March 2014. The European Union, with which Ukraine signed an association agreement months later, imposed sanctions, and refuses to recognise the territory as part of Russia. At the summit, the European council president, Charles Michel, promised that the EU would continue to “stand tall” against such violations of international law. But in truth, the Russian annexation is a fait accompli that no one now expects to be reversed. Sending late apologies, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel failed to appear at the event.
The frozen conflict in the Donbas region, where Russia-backed rebels have carved off a slice of the country and control Ukraine’s eastern border, is also at an impasse. In the spring, Mr Putin authorised a huge military build-up at the border that, though later withdrawn, was seen as an early test of Joe Biden’s mettle. Mr Zelenskiy is due to meet Mr Biden in Washington next week. Ahead of that meeting, he has voiced his frustration over the west’s reluctance to wave through Ukraine’s Nato membership, which would considerably raise the stakes of any Russian aggression. Ms Merkel, who did meet Mr Zelenskiy in Kiev on Sunday, admitted that talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany over the Donbas region have gone nowhere because of Mr Putin’s refusal to acknowledge Russian involvement in the conflict.
Given this context of blandishments from the west and sabre-rattling from the east, it is understandable that Ukraine has raised bitter objections to the soon-to-be completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Passing under the Baltic Sea, this will allow Russia to eventually bypass Ukraine when exporting gas to Germany, costing Kyiv billions of dollars in transit fees and potentially freeing Moscow to adopt a still more threatening posture towards its neighbour. Mr Biden, who had originally opposed the pipeline, dropped his objections last month, signing an agreement on its completion with Ms Merkel, who views it as an economic priority.
Ukraine thus has legitimate reasons to be critical of the level of support it is receiving from its powerful allies in the west. The debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal – and the continuing weakness of the EU as a geopolitical force – will deepen the sense of insecurity. Last month, Mr Putin published a 5,000-word essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. The response from the west to Mr Putin’s perennial manoeuvring and mind games should amount to more than mixed messages.