KYIV, Ukraine — After the stunning collapse of Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has a chance to redeem himself and U.S. stature overseas by standing shoulder to shoulder with Volodomyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday when the Ukrainian President finally gets his long coveted visit to the White House.
Ukraine represents what Russia’s President Vladimir Putin finds mortally threatening: a fellow Slavic nation that is a free-market, multi-party, Western-oriented democracy.
“Ukraine’s success is also of vital strategic importance to the rest of Europe,” writes Edward Lucas, the British journalist with almost 40 years of experience in Eastern Europe. “It is not just the country’s size and location. It is a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Where Ukraine is dynamic, Russia is stagnant. Where Ukraine is tolerant, Russia is chauvinist. Where Ukraine is pluralist, Russia is monolithic. Where Ukraine discusses its history freely, Russia manufactures lies and myths. Where Ukraine is open to the world, Russia is increasingly closed.”
Ukraine — long the bread basket and now the brain basket of Eastern Europe — was for two centuries the crown jewel of Russia’s multinational land empire. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-American political scientist, aptly said: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire.”
Putin, who does not hide his nostalgia for the Soviet empire, works relentlessly to subjugate Ukraine through war: 14,000 dead, 2 million refugees, the annexation of Crimea and “passportization” — distributing Russian passports to half a million residents of Ukraine’s occupied Donbas.
Today, Ukraine finds itself in the jaws of the Russian crocodile. To the north, Belarus’ dictator entered into a military alliance with Putin to save his skin in face of a massive, pro-democracy upheaval last year. To the south, Putin has transformed Crimea into a garrison state with a massive warehouse of arms that may include nuclear weapons. And to the east, Russia massed 100,000 troops last May on Ukraine’s borders. Under U.S. pressure, Putin sent the troops home, but kept the tanks in place. Don’t be surprised if they are fired up in two weeks for the Russia-Belarus military exercise “Zapad,” or West.
To soften up Western public opinion, Kremlin propagandists routinely throw the “neo-Nazi” epithet at Ukraine.
Yes, during our six years in Kyiv, I and my Cambodian wife did once stand on a street corner and watch a real live torchlight parade make its way down the capital’s central avenue. But, yes, I have watched Ukrainian elections come and go, with the hard right failing to win a single seat in Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada. Not the same can be said for election results in Germany, Sweden and Denmark.
Two summers ago, “neo-Nazi” Ukraine had both a Jewish prime minister — Volodomyr Groysman — and a Jewish president – Zelenskyy — a rarity only matched by Israel.
Which brings me back to Zelenskyy. A comedian by profession, Zelenskyy was forced to deal with some very unfunny American adversaries in his two-year trek to White House. Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to extort a promise by Zelenskyy to investigate Hunter Biden in return for releasing U.S. defense aid to Ukraine. The aid already had been approved by Congress. That maneuver led to Trump’s impeachment.
As president, Biden has been standoffish about Ukraine. This could partly because he does not want his son’s unseemly behavior dredged up yet again. It also could be partly because he visited Ukraine five times as vice president and is hip to Ukrainians tricks of promising reforms and then not delivering. It also could be partly because President Biden and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan believe they need to “park Russia” — i.e., appease Putin — so they can focus on China.
Moscow already is gloating that U.S. is ditching its allies — and Ukraine is next.
But Ukraine is not Afghanistan. In 2014, Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine had the predictable effect of creating a national backlash. For the first time in 300 years, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church has hived off from control by Moscow. The Ukrainians language has never been stronger. Russian has largely been purged from TV, radio and advertising. A whole generation of Ukrainians have grown up taught only in Ukrainian. That same generation has never been to Red Square. But it has been to Krakow and Berlin.
When I first visited Ukraine 15 years ago, only about half of poll respondents thought Ukraine should be a country. Thanks to Putin — including his recent “one people” essay — the percentage of poll respondents who want to join Russia is down to the single digits.
In the economic sphere, China displaced Russia two years ago as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. The European Union now is Ukraine’s largest bloc trading partner.
And Ukraine now fields armed and paramilitary forces of 300,000 men and women — more than France, Germany or Britain. On Tuesday, I watched the 30th Independence Day parade — a dizzying stream of Ukrainian-made armored personnel carriers, tanks and drones on trailers zooming past.
It remains to be seen if Biden will step up to the plate to defend Ukraine. On Wednesday, the U.S. embassy here gave a rare briefing and assured there will be “deliverables.” But the briefer could not, or would not, say what they were. Although Biden extended the White House invitation to Zelenskyy in early June, the U.S. president scheduled the actual visit for the dog days of summer. At the end of August, Ukraine’s legion of congressional supporters are in their home districts.
After the Afghan debacle, let’s see if President Biden is stirred to defend Ukraine, Europe’s eastern frontier for Western values.