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Man-to-Man Talk, $277 Billion Plan. How Zelenskyy and Biden Met in Washington
3 September, 2021
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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, September 1, 2021 Photo: AP Photo / Evan Vucc

It's stuffy and sultry in Washington. Until the evening brings the long-awaited coolness, walking through its surprisingly wide streets one risks getting sunstroke. Locals are not used to such weather either - they tend to hide from the heat indoors.

This atmosphere of the American capital - almost empty streets and extreme heat - was strangely reminiscent of the attitude to the two-day visit of the Ukrainian delegation. All the attention in the United States is focused on Hurricane Ida raging in Missouri. But an even more important event here is the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which was the reason for postponing the meeting of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Joe Biden from August 30-31 to September 1.

The Ukrainian delegation is sympathetic to the postponement of the date: they say that the reasons are important and clear, as long as the meeting does go ahead and the parties exchange thoughts. The remark that the end of August is generally a bad time to visit the United States is rejected.

Президент України Володимир Зеленський разом із дружиною Оленою виходять із літака після прибуття до США

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena get off the plane after arriving in the United States. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

"We are having a very successful visit with concrete agreements. And the way the Biden administration treats this visit, we do not see a negative context in this [postponement of the meeting - ed.]," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reassured us.

Our exclusive report from the American capital reveals what the two presidents agreed on in Washington and how Ukraine-US relations will be built in the Zelenskyy-Biden era.

Energy Security and Nord Stream-2

The work of the Ukrainian delegation begins a little after 8 am on August 31. Volodymyr Zelenskyy leaves the Hay-Adams Hotel, located behind the park opposite the White House. He is met by several Ukrainian journalists and six members of the Russia-1 TV channel camera crew, only to be asked about the "oppression of the Russian language in Ukraine." Zelenskyy himself just gives a thumbs up to the camera and leaves.

The Ukrainian delegation includes Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defense Minister Andriy Taran, Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko, Naftogaz Chairman Yuriy Vitrenko, Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, President's Office head Andriy Yermak, and Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Sybiha, and the chief of protocol Ihor Brusylo, among others.

The Ukrainian delegation planned up to two dozen events and meetings for two days - from a visit to the US Department of Energy to the presentation of Ukraine's transformation plan. There were also social functions: like laying flowers at the Holodomor Memorial or participating in an event at the famous Arlington National Cemetery.

Міністр енергетики України Герман Галущенко і міністерка енергетики США Дженніфер Грьонхольм підписують спільну заяву в присутності президента України Володимира Зеленського

Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko and US Energy Minister Jennifer Granholm sign a joint statement in the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

It is symbolic that Zelenskyy first met with US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, who represented the country at the Crimean Platform summit in Kyiv on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's Independence Day and held tripartite consultations (along with Germany) on Nord Stream 2.

It seemed that after the American-German agreement, the story with the Russian gas pipeline for Washington was over. But Kyiv still believes that it is possible to prevent the completion of the construction of the Russian gas pipeline. Or at least minimize the risks.

"There may be disagreement between the strategic partners - the two countries that work together on many issues," the former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor diplomatically explains the situation to us. According to him, the US Congress, like Ukraine, does not believe in the irreversibility of Nord Stream 2 and is trying to stop it with sanctions.

READ MORE: No Time for Hugs, but Nobody Wants a Cold War Either. What Biden and Putin Agreed On

During the meeting, Granholm and Halushchenko signed a cooperation agreement, which includes, among other things, the diversification of energy sources that will ensure the country's energy security. The parties also agree on the construction of another Khmelnytskyi NPP power unit. According to the Ukrainian president, Russian gas is "the dirtiest in the world" due to production costs, "corruption, blackmail and manipulation."

Міністр оборони США Ллойд Остін йде з президентом України Володимиром Зеленським у Пентагон

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is walking to the Pentagon with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Photo: AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

$30 billion for the agricultural and digital hub

Within hours, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin spoke of $60 million in military aid provided by Biden the day before. He assures: the United States will support Ukraine in defending its sovereignty from Russian aggression. They will also promote NATO integration. The Ukrainian side plans to raise this topic later.

In the US Department of Defense, Austin and Taran signed one of the key agreements between Ukraine and the United States - on the strategic foundations of the defense partnership. The five-year document provides for in-depth cooperation between the defense ministries of the two countries in the field of cybersecurity, security of the Black Sea region and intelligence, as well as defense sector reform.

Ukraine and the United States also agreed to exchange advanced developments and customs information, establish a secure communication channel and cooperate in the aviation and space spheres.

But the highlight of the program was the announcement of Ukraine's transformation plan, a ten-year project worth up to $30 billion that will help turn the country into an energy, agricultural and digital hub and security outpost.

"This is what the expert community has been talking about for a long time - that Zelenskyy had to go to Washington with a specific strategy of action," said Oleksandr Krayev, an expert at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”. "When we can't show concrete results of reform, when they are mostly in plans, such a strategy is a [clear indicator] that we have not abandoned reforms and it is an irreversible process."

Президент України Володимир Зеленський виступає з промовою в Маунт-Верноні — садибі першого президента США Джорджа Вашингтона

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech in Mount Vernon, the estate of the first US President George Washington. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

The Ukrainian president announced his transformation plan in Mount Vernon, the estate of the first US president, George Washington, which now operates as a museum. Upon hearing that Washington had led the struggle for US independence for about eight years (and won), Zelenskyy said: "Unfortunately, our country has been at war for eight years. We also strongly believe in victory, and the fact that we are here is perhaps a good sign."

Zelenskyy also announced that the plan for Ukraine's transformation includes more than 80 projects worth a total of $277 billion. It is about attracting international aid programs, loans and investments. The president said he hoped that American partners "would be actively involved in the implementation of this ambitious plan."

Concrete steps to implement this plan should be shown in the fall - before the meeting of the commission on strategic partnership headed by Kuleba and his American counterpart Antony Blinken. This commission, incidentally, has not convened since 2018. And this fact, as well as the mention of the "transformation plan" in a joint statement by Zelenskyy and Biden, shows that Washington has approved the initiative.

During the presentation of Zelensky's plan, Myroslava Gongadze, host and editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian Voice of America service, asked the president about the fight against corruption, a topic that has been repeatedly raised in Ukraine-US relations. Zelenskyy stated that this struggle depends on judicial reform and the full operation of the program "State in a smartphone" (application "Diia", an electronic service of public services, developed by the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine - ed.). It minimizes the influence of officials on various processes and, accordingly, will curb corruption schemes.

"These are fundamental things. In this respect, in the fight against corruption, I believe that we have already won. And the next people, the next presidents, will assess and use it," Zelenskyy said.

The Ukrainian delegation is taking part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

Meeting at the White House

The second day in Washington is spent in anticipation of the most important part of the visit - the meeting between Zelenskyy and Biden. During the first part of the day, the Ukrainian president takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the famous Arlington National Cemetery, presents a "transformation plan" to American business and delivers a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Admission to the White House is subject to PCR testing, even if you are fully vaccinated and masked.

At this time, in the warmth of the Oval Office, Biden and Zelenskyy exchange canned lines and unveil the meeting agenda to the press. The American president notes that relations between the countries are stronger than ever and will be even stronger. He recalls his speech in the Verkhovna Rada in December 2015, where he said he hoped to "return" to Kyiv "one day."

Zelenskyy, in turn, emphasizes Biden's desire to meet "at this difficult time," amid the evacuation of US troops from Afghanistan and Hurricane Ida, which hit the east coast of the United States. He expresses his condolences to the 13 US servicemen killed in the August 25 terrorist attack in Kabul. "We understand this pain," the Ukrainian president added.

Президент США Джо Байден вітає президента України Володимира Зеленського в Овальному кабінеті Білого дому

US President Joe Biden greets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

Negotiations between Zelenskyy and Biden commence with the participation of delegations, and later continue one-on-one. Instead of the planned 40 minutes, they last a little over two hours.

"Classical diplomacy says that if a planned meeting was extended unexpectedly, either common points were found, with further progress, or problem points that need to be discussed. Both cases are positive for us,” explains Oleksandr Krayev.

"Our relationship serves as a cornerstone for security, democracy, and human rights in Ukraine and the broader region. We are committed to Ukraine’s implementation of the deep and comprehensive reforms necessary to fulfill its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations... Ukraine’s success is central to the global struggle between democracy and autocracy," the joint statement reads.

The statement is longer than expected and consists of five blocks: security and defense; democracy, justice and human rights; energy security and climate; economic growth and prosperity; pandemic response and humanitarian assistance. It reiterates the agreements already reached (for example, the defense framework agreement) and has new ones (for example, $12.8 million in financial assistance to Ukraine to fight the pandemic).

While the media were reading the statement, Zelenskyy traveled to Congress to meet with representatives of the group of more than 30 American parliamentarians who support Ukraine. There were only eight of them at the meeting - it is holiday season now, and the congressmen are not in Washington. But even this number, William Taylor assures us, is a good sign.

"This is a testament to the importance that congressmen attach to this meeting. They were ready to return from vacation, even in a hurricane, and meet with Zelenskyy and his delegation," explains the former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Президент США Джо Байден і президент України Володимир Зеленський розмовляють на території Білого дому

US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk at the White House. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

READ MORE: A Blow to Political Opponents, a Message for Biden

Better than expected

After this meeting, Zelenskyy goes to the opening of the Ukrainian House - the center of Ukrainian culture in the US capital. There he talks to Ukrainian journalists and mentions a "man-to-man conversation" with Biden, which "was not all sunny." Zelenskyy assures that on the part of the American president "there was no negativity about him, his team, or the President's Office."

The main topics discussed by Zelenskyy and Biden are obvious: Crimea and Donbas, Nord Stream 2, NATO. The Ukrainian president handed over to the American counterpart possible formats of participation in the settlement of the war in Donbas, in particular with the help of the Normandy format. He states that the word "Crimea" came up a lot in the conversation.

As for Nord Stream 2, Zelenskyy speaks of a "great victory" - guarantees of US sanctions against the Russian pipeline if Russia "creates energy problems for Ukraine." Apparently, these are the "concrete things and guarantees" that the Ukrainian president promised to fight for the day before. Although a similar commitment was made by Washington and Germany in a joint statement a little over a month earlier.

READ MORE: Joe Biden Wants to Make Ukraine a "Foreign Policy Priority"

However, the US position on NATO has remained unchanged: they support Ukraine's accession to the Alliance, although no specific dates have been set. Earlier, Zelenskyy said that for Ukraine, NATO membership is a "matter of tactics", while for the United States and Europe - a strategy. "But we can’t [afford to] wait," he said.

In general, both the talks and the final statement of Biden and Zelenskyy were better than expected, says Oleksandr Krayev: "It shows that Ukraine is perceived not just as a pit that needs to be filled with money and aid to make it work. Ukraine is perceived as a partner; not as a problem, but as a potential solution to the problem."

"I think the Ukrainian delegation arrived well prepared. They had a presentation of their diplomatic, political, economic, investment and security strategies ready. It was important to present it in the media, and through them to Americans and Ukrainians, to show that there is a partnership between Ukraine and the United States," adds William Taylor.

To reaffirm this, the American president can be expected to visit Ukraine as early as 2022, according to Taylor.

/ With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange