Now that the results of the critical telephone summit on Dec. 9 between U.S, president Joe Biden and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky are known, and the tension and suspense has abated, let’s see what are the main takeaways for Ukraine from this and related developments this week.
Overall, given the country’s predicament as a virtual hostage trapped between an aggressive Russia and dependence on crucial support from Western partners, the outcome has been better than could reasonably have been expected
Ukraine has not been abandoned, sidelined, or dictated to, by its allies. It has been buoyed by a strong affirmation of continuing support not only from the U.S. but other key partners.
Significantly, on this occasion, president Biden proceeded in calling his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to order by first aligning the position of Washington with those of London, Berlin, Paris, Rome and, importantly, Kyiv itself.
After his virtual summit with Putin on Dec. 7, Biden briefed the same capitals on what had been discussed, his impressions and his understanding of where things stand.
Very importantly, in his talk with Zelensky, he assured Ukraine that it could not only rely on the U.S. for the firmest backing in its hour of need, but that no decisions would be made regarding its situation without its involvement.
This should silence those domestic critics of president Zelensky who claimed that Kyiv’s concerns could be overridden in Washington direct dialogue with Moscow and deals hatched behind its back and its expense.
For once, at least in a long time, there was a show of western unanimity in standing up to Russian bullying and saber rattling with the US resuming the lead.
It’s as if president Biden has come out of hibernation and finally seized the Russian bull by the horns.
This time president Biden set another good example especially for Berlin and Paris, and even Paris and even Brussels. He also factored in the countries of Eastern Europe which have been sidelined by the bigger Western powers and yet are the most sensitive to Ukraine’s exposure and security needs.
After his conversation with Zelensky, Biden called the leaders of the Bucharest Nine –a group of NATO countries on the eastern flank of the alliance – to brief them as well and “to hear their perspective on the current security situation.”
What is also encouraging is that Washington has acknowledged that the Normandy Four process has been blocked by Moscow and that the U.S. is willing to play its role in reactivate efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the continuing Russian-Ukrainian war in eastern Ukraine, even if, euphemistically it is termed a frozen conflict.
At this stage it is not clear whether Washington is willing, or sees the utility of, becoming a direct participant in the Normandy process, or engaging in some parallel initiative to synergize efforts.
Russia’s threatening behavior and its intransigence has also led Paris and the new government in Berlin to express not only their dismay, but to emphasize the need to jumpstart the peace-making negotiations with Moscow. Washington’s declared readiness to become actively involved could be the impetus that is has been lacking.
Of course, Moscow pretends that it does not understand why the Americans should want to become involved. But it realizes that it’s bellicose stance and refusal to pursue reasonable diplomatic negotiations have only painted it into a corner.
And this week there were other signs that its self-imposed isolation is doing it no good ranging from London’s robust support for Kyiv to the reaffirmation of Ankara’ willingness to act as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow.
Of course, all this this does not mean that the threat of a new Russian invasion has been averted. But at least this show of unity and resolve by Ukraine’s partners in rallying around it have forced Putin to think again.
Ukraine is not a low hanging fruit for the Kremlin’s taking. It will fight to preserve its independence, territory and European self-identification. It has been reassured that to the extent that the West, with all its own problems and divisions is able, it will be helped to stand its ground.
Needless to say. none of this translates into Ukraine being accepted into NATO or the EU overnight as it would wish. But on the other hand, the developments of the last month, and especially the last week, have shown that the time has come for the West to take another look at Ukraine from a strategic and not only tactical point of view.
For what happens in, or rather, with Ukraine will determine not only the immediate future of Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia but more broadly Eastern Europe and East-West relations generally.