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01/31/2021

What Biden’s election means for Ukraine

What Biden’s election means for Ukraine

Located in a critical geopolitical place in Eastern Europe, Ukraine has always attracted attention of great powers and very often in history became a battlefield between them. In its history, Ukraine has sometimes benefited from its critical geographical location, but more often, this has been a disadvantage, since neither Russia, nor western countries can afford to ignore such a strategic location. As I have written in some of my previous articles, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova became a buffer zone between Russia and the West (the US and the EU) after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the domestic politics of those three countries are largely determined by the struggle between Russia and the West.

In Ukraine, until the revolution of 2014, there was a relative balance between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces. Supporters of either side were almost equal in numbers, thus, in some elections, the winners were the pro-Russian forces, while in the others, the winner was the pro-Western side. However, as a result of the turmoil that followed the 2014 revolution – toppling of the then President Victor Yanukovych by pro Western activists and politicians, his escape to Russia, the subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia, the break out of armed conflicts in Donbass region of Ukraine between the pro-Russian armed groups and Ukrainian government forces – the political landscape has changed dramatically. Consequently, pro-Russian political parties have lost their former political influence.

The pro-Western elite obviously attaches great importance to relations with the US. However, not all US presidents have attached importance to Ukraine. For instance, George Bush senior visited Kyiv in 1991, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union and in his speech in Kyiv (which would be called “the Chicken Kyiv Speech”) he had blamed Ukrainian nationalism and told Ukrainians not to seek independence. This speech led to a strong reaction among Ukrainian nationalists. The Bush administration had done everything for the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the socialist order, but they were not so eager to see the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and wanted to cooperate with the reformist Gorbachev fearing that a sudden, uncontrolled collapse would lead to unpredicted results). This “Russia first” policy would also continue during the first term of the US President Bill Clinton, however, as a result of emerging tensions between the United states and the Russian Federation in the second half of the 1990s’, the US would abandon this policy and focus more on the peripheral countries of the former Soviet Union.

Since 1991, some US presidents attached importance to the relations with Ukraine, while others considered the country of secondary importance, disappointing pro-Western politicians. For instance, previous US President Donald Trump was largely a disappointment for the anti-Russian forces in the country. However, new President Joe Biden is a source of major hope for these people.

Quickly following his inauguration on January 20, Biden started to demonstrate that his policy concerning the former Soviet countries differs from Trump’s policies. Biden used to perceive Russia as the primary threat for the US and advocated rendering full support to ex-Soviet countries in conflict with Russia. Biden, in his first telephone speech with Putin on January 26, also tackled the Ukrainian question and reiterated that “US strongly supports Ukraine”.

Biden has always had a policy of supporting pro-Western forces in the ex-Soviet countries and helping pro-Western forces to come to power by any means necessary.

Joe Biden’s interest with Ukraine has a long past. During the presidency of Barack Obama (‪2009-2017‬) Biden was the Vice President and the issues related with Ukraine were mainly in his competency. During the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 when the then President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovych was toppled by the pro-Western activists and forced to flee the country, it was Joe Biden, who phoned Yanukovych and told him to leave his office (Biden, in his memoirs which were recently published, tells in details about those days). After Yanukovych was toppled and Russia anexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine and pro-Russian seperatists forces in Donbas region came into conflict with Ukrainian security forces, Biden advocated a harder line in relations with Russia, including export of lethal weapons to Ukraine, but as he recalls in his memoirs, such attempts of him were rejected by Obama. Moreover, Obama’s reaction to Crimea’s annexation by Russia was considered by many in the US to be too weak (at that time, Obama had declared that such a move of Russia “would not herald a new cold war”). Donald Trump had also reiterated this attitude of Obama, and he had even said that Obama allowed a very large part of Ukraine to be taken by Russia. The policy of the US during the turmoil in Ukraine is a very wide issue and much will be clear in future, but it should be noted here that the US administration apparently supported the revolution in 2014 ( the then US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland had visited Kyiv during the demonstrations and she had visited the Independence Square in Kyiv, where the protesters had camped, she distributed them food, and during the later stages of the events, the US had expressed full support to the protesters). Victoria Nuland had even declared that the US since 1991 had spent more than 5 billion US Dollars “to support democracy in Ukraine”. During the days of revolution, both the European Union and the United States had exerted open pressure on Yanukovych’s administration and they had created such an image that the West would support the pro Western forces in Ukraine in every question. However, after the pro-Western forces toppled President Yanukovych and Ukraine entered into an actual warfare with Russia, the reaction of the West was very weak. This had caused a disappointment among the pro Western political elite of Ukraine. Most Ukrainian experts at that time used to emphasize that the success and survival of the 2014 revolution depends on the support of the West.

Three months after the revolution, early presidential elections were held and Petro Poroshenko won the elections in the first round. In October the same year, early parliamentary elections were held and five pro-Western political parties, all of whom were the supporters of the revolution, formed a coalition government. During that period, Biden frequently visited Ukraine. When the pro-Western forces came into conflict among themselves and when the existence of the coalition government was threatened, Biden visited Kyiv to convince the president and the prime minister to refrain from such conflicts (this urgent visit of Biden would prolong the life of the government for one more year).

“Son of a b…”

During his visits to Ukraine, Biden dealt with questions such as who would be nominated to which position and who should be removed. The most sensational case was in 2015, when Joe Biden insisted on removal of the Chief Prosecutor of Ukraine Victor Shokin. As he later on told in his speech in Council of Foreign Relations, Biden at that time talked with the President Poroshenko and the Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, urging them to remove Shokin at once, and said that otherwise the US will not give Ukraine an additional credit of $1 billion. He gave the Ukrainian government 6 hours to make a decision and said that he would leave the Ukraine in 6 hours, and if the chief prosecutor was not changed until then, the Ukraine would not receive the credit. Ultimately, he achieved his goal. Biden in his speech would talk about the dismissal of Shokin in this way: “Well, son of a bitch. He got fired”.

A Ukrainian deputy, Andrei Derkach, last year published audio records, which were claimed to be between Biden and Poroshenko. According to those records, Biden’s insistence for the removal of Shokin was related to his son’s business in Ukraine. In particular, according to those claims, removal of Shokin was related to his investigation of an energy company called Burisma, where Hunter Biden served on the board of directors. Biden still claims that this is just “Russian disinformation” today.

Trump’s Victory and Disappointment in Kyiv

In 2016, when the presidential elections in the US were approaching, Poroshenko’s team in Ukraine apparently sided itself with the Democrats in the USA (namely, with Hillary Clinton, the then candidate of the Democrats). Trump said things such as that  “the people of Crimea would rather be with Russia than where they were”, which caused strong reactions in Kyiv. Moreover, the Interior Minister of Ukraine Arsen Avakov said that Trump was dangerous for Ukraine and called the words of Trump “shameful”. However, after all of that, the elections were won by Trump, which was a real shock for Poroshenko’s team. Yes, during his presidency Trump did not recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia, nor did the American government come to an agreement with Russia over Ukraine, but Trump did not have a special sympathy to Ukraine either. Several times, he claimed that Ukraine is one of the most corrupt states in the world. In addition, he perceived Poroshenko as a close ally of Biden and did not support Poroshenko. The coexistence of Trump and Poroshenko lasted only two years: In 2019, the presidential elections in Ukraine were won by Volodimir Zelensky. Unlike Poroshenko, who during the last two years of his presidency mainly advocated Ukrainian nationalism and addressed the pro-Western and anti-Russian oriented electorate of Western Ukraine, Volodimir Zelensky was supported mainly by those who opposed the values propagated by Poroshenko. Zelenski used to advocate “immediate peace in Ukraine ” and started to negotiate with Russia on the Donbas problem. He never adopted a pro-Russian stance, but in his first year, he adopted a more moderate attitude on foreign policy and on the issues related with Ukrainian national identity. On the other hand, many criminal files started to be suited against the former President Poroshenko. It was being claimed that in the case that Trump is elected for a second term, Poroshenko will have no choice other than packing his luggage and leaving Ukraine.

However, the victory of Joe Biden has given Poroshenko a great chance to survive in politics.

In the last presidential elections in Ukraine (2019), Poroshenko was strongly defeated by Zelenski (in the second tour of the elections, Poroshenko had got 25% of the votes, while his rival got 73%). Nonetheless, Poroshenko managed to remain the leader of that nationalist electorate. Today, Zelensky’s rating is still the highest in Ukraine. However, according to the latest survey, the rating of Zelensky has fallen to 19.8% (with the pro-Russian politician Yuriy Boyko in second place with 16.6% and in third place, Petro Poroshenko with 13%). Moreover, although the rating of Poroshenko is lower than Zelenky’s, his electorate is much more active than Zelenky and they often organize protests in Kyiv. The dramatic fall of the rating of Zelensky has made him more vulnerable towards the electorate of Poroshenko. For this reason, since last year, he has sided himself more and more with the nationalists.

Ukraine, unlike Belarus, is dependent on the US when it comes to financial issues. For this reason, political developments in the US immediately affect Ukrainian politics. With regard to the harsh course that Biden adopts towards Russia and Zelensky’s choice to approach the electorate of Poroshenko, we have reason to believe that Biden’s victory in the elections will result in a more hard line position in Ukraine towards Russia.

Deniz Berktay
Turkish journalist and expert on Eastern Europe. He graduated from Ankara University Faculty of Political Sciences, International Relations Department. Since 2007, he has been living and working in Ukraine as a journalist. Completed graduate study in Kyiv Slavistiv University in 2017, International Relations Department with the thesis on Ukrainian-Russian Relations 2004-2014. He has worked for many media organizations, including Cumhuriyet Newspaper, TRT Turk, BBC Turkish Service, DW Turkish Service, Al Jazeera Turk, TRT Haber, Dogan News Agency. He specializes on Eastern Europe and Orthodoxy, and speaks English, Russian and Ukrainan.

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