White House meetings with foreign leaders are a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance. And the newly scheduled meeting between President Biden and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is surely meant to send the right message at the right time — not just to Ukraine but to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
It will, however, take more than warm handshakes and a tete-a-tete in the Oval Office on Aug. 30 to get the US-Ukraine relationship back on solid footing and to reassure this democratic ally, now facing renewed existential threats from the Kremlin, that the alliance remains steadfast.
Putin, who managed to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and openly backs “separatists” claiming a large part of Eastern Ukraine, last week in a lengthy article insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.”
“I am convinced that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” the article posted on the Kremlin’s website in both Ukrainian and Russian said. “Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties have formed for centuries and have been rooted in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements, and victories.”
The statement was surely enough to send shivers down the spines of Ukraine’s leaders and left wide open the question of even more direct Russian intervention in the Donbas region — the conflict in the east that has claimed 14,000 lives in the past seven years.
“I have become increasingly convinced that Kyiv simply doesn’t need Donbas,” Putin wrote in the article. “Because, firstly, the residents of these regions will never accept the rules they tried and are still trying to impose by force, blockade, and threats.”
So says the man who would like nothing better than to restore the glory days of the old Soviet Union — a time when Ukraine was under Moscow’s rule.
And just when Kyiv could have used a friendly embrace from the West, the Biden administration this week cleared away the last remaining obstacles to the Nord Stream 2 undersea natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany — something opposed by Ukraine, other European countries, climate activists, and a lot of Russia hard-liners in Congress. Critics fear the pipeline will not only increase Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas, thus strengthening Putin’s hand, but also deprive Ukraine of the transit revenues it currently collects on gas pumped through the land-based, Soviet-era pipelines that pass through Eastern Europe. But German leaders, lured by cheap gas and anxious to retire the country’s nuclear power plants, were all too willing to ignore those geopolitical implications.
Germany’s refusal to budge put the United States between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The pipeline is 90 percent completed. Trying to kill it with admittedly justifiable US sanctions against Russia would also punish Germany — driving a wedge between the United States and another close ally. That too would have given Putin a win.
So the Biden administration managed to eke out a lemonade-from-lemons solution that reportedly will include a commitment by Germany to create a $1 billion green technology fund for Ukraine. The fund is aimed at promoting renewable energy and helping Ukraine make the transition away from coal.
The joint agreement announced Wednesday also insists, “The United States and Germany are united in their belief that it is in Ukraine’s and Europe’s interest for gas transit via Ukraine to continue beyond 2024” — the date the gas transit contract between Ukraine and Russia is due to end. Germany further committed to use its leverage to keep the contract operative for the next decade.
The pipeline agreement also gave the United States and Germany a chance to put into writing its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and its promise to “push back against Russian aggression and malign activities in Ukraine and beyond.”
So before he even walks through the White House doors, Zelensky has gained something. But his is a nation that knows from long experience that words don’t always get the job done — they certainly didn’t save Crimea from the Kremlin’s long reach.
So there is more the president should offer:
▪ It would, of course, be helpful to have a permanent US ambassador in Kyiv. The embassy has been operating with an interim ambassador since President Trump recalled career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch in 2019, part of the chain of events that led to Trump’s first impeachment. Biden has not yet even nominated anyone for the post.
▪ It’s also long past time for the United States to take a leadership role in negotiating an end to the conflict in the Donbas. Certainly Putin in his latest statement has made his intentions clear. He won’t stop until he makes it Russian territory. Ending the conflict peacefully deserves more US time and muscle.
▪ The council, in a policy paper, also recommended that the United States support enhanced security in the Black Sea in consultation with NATO and designate Ukraine as a Major Non-NATO Ally under US law — a now 17-member group that includes Japan, South Korea, and Israel. That too would put some muscle behind the fine words and bring Ukraine closer to that strategic partnership. It would also demonstrate to Putin the seriousness of US intent.
These are all significant steps the United States can and should take to help a democratic ally ward off the threatened advances of its acquisitive authoritarian neighbor. They make both strategic and political good sense — and there can’t be nearly enough of that these days.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.