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How Joe Biden repaired a ‘troubled’ relationship with Kyiv and united Nato and the West in defence of Ukraine

Ukraine – A Year of War: Andrew Feinberg speaks to former White House advisers, ambassadors and senior military figures to chart how the US president has dealt with the war in Ukraine

Thursday 23 February 2023 14:03 GMT
Joe Biden has supported President Zelensky, left, while dealing with the fallout from the presidency of Donald Trump, right, and Vladimir Putin’s war
Joe Biden has supported President Zelensky, left, while dealing with the fallout from the presidency of Donald Trump, right, and Vladimir Putin’s war (Getty/EPA/AP)

A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Nato is on a war footing not seen in decades. The alliance is perhaps more united now than it was on 4 October 2001, when the mutual self-defence pact laid out in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty was invoked following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

While a small number of Republicans have continued to repeat what has become an oft-used trope among the political right that it is Mr Biden’s alleged weakness — not Mr Putin’s own avarice — that prompted Russia’s tanks to roll towards Kyiv a year ago, most experienced foreign policy hands and Ukraine experts say the 46th president’s actions over the last year have been anything but weak.

Just this week, Mr Biden’s took a 10-hour train ride from Poland into wartime Kyiv, where he walked the streets of Ukraine’s embattled capital with Mr Zelensky before returning to Warsaw, where he delivered a rousing address celebrating Nato’s unity and Ukraine’s heroic defence efforts before a crowd of thousands.

One major Nato power, Germany, has cast off more than 75 years of postwar pacifism by sending Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, where they will face off against Russian armoured forces for the first time since the Nazi-era Wehrmacht exchanged fire with Stalin’s Red Army. And two long-neutral nations, Finland and Sweden, have each committed to join the Nato alliance, which, if approved, would bring the pact’s membership to 32 countries.

Even Switzerland, such a longstanding bastion of neutrality, has thrown in with Ukraine’s defenders by joining international efforts to impose crippling economic sanctions on Moscow.

Indeed, the efforts to bolster Kyiv and punish Russia over the last year have brought forth a stunning display of Western unity that would’ve been impossible just two years earlier, when the sitting US president was Donald Trump, a man who frequently described the transatlantic alliance as more of a protection racket than a mutual defence pact.

John Bolton, the hawiskh former UN ambassador who spent a year as Mr Trump’s national security adviser, told The Independent that some of the credit for bringing the west together belongs to Mr Biden, particularly since Mr Trump, in his estimation, planned to withdraw America from the alliance had he won a second term.

Destruction and defiance: Inside Putin’s year-long war on Ukraine

He said the early transfers of weapons and intelligence sharing by the Biden administration enabled Ukraine’s defence forces to withstand the initial Russian assault during what has now been dubbed the Battle of Kyiv.

“Preventing the fall of the country, it’s an important success,” he said.

He said Mr Biden “is certainly committed to the alliance,” but suggested that casting him in a savior role simply by not withdrawing the US from Nato is “setting a low bar”.

“The election of almost anybody not named Trump in 2020, would have improved internal Nato relations. I don't think there's much doubt of that,” he said.

Mr Bolton, a frequent critic of Democratic foreign policy positions, also suggested that Mr Biden hasn’t been aggressive enough in leading Nato to offer up materiel and assistance in ways that push the envelope past what more conciliatory-minded member states — particularly Germany and France — had previously been willing to do.

The ex-diplomat, who is reportedly considering entering the 2024 Republican presidential primary, also faulted Mr Biden for not acting more decisively to deter Russia before the invasion began last year, pointing to a gaffe the president made during an early 2022 press conference in which he suggested Nato members would quibble over how to respond to a “minor incursion” by Russia.

Yet one of his former Trump administration colleagues was far more fulsome in his praise for the 46th president’s approach to US-Ukraine relations — and commitment to Nato.

President Joe Biden delivers a speech marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Ambassador William Taylor was certainly no stranger to Kyiv when an aide to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to return to there as a charge d’affaires — a temporary chief of mission who serves as a de facto ambassador — at the US embassy there in June 2019.

A career foreign service officer who’d been selected as the US ambassador to Ukraine by then-president George W Bush in 2006, Mr Taylor was held in high enough esteem that he was asked to stay on during the first months of the Obama administration.

His return to Kyiv came after a stint as executive vice president at the US Institute for Peace, where he currently serves as the insitute’s vice president for Europe and Russia, and was meant to bring an experience hand back there after the previous ambassador, Marie Yovanovich, had been ousted by Mr Trump as part of the machinations that would eventually lead to the first of his two impeachment trials.

Mr Taylor told The Independent the entire episode — Mr Trump’s unlawful withholding of hundreds of thousands of needed defence assistance funds from Mr Zelensky’s government, coupled with a demand that the then-newly inaugurated Ukrainian leader announce sham investigations into Mr Biden and his family — left relations between Washington and Kyiv in a “troubled” state.

“Ukrainians did not understand why they would be asked to take political actions in return for some of the military assistance flowing, so they were confused and troubled,” he said, adding that Mr Biden’s arrival in the White House caused the bilateral relationship to “improve dramatically”.

He also credited Mr Biden with “a lot of rebuilding” of America’s relations with her fellow Nato allies and other western democracies because those relationships had never been a “high priority” for Mr Trump, who was far more concerned with gaining the approval of autocrats such as Mr Putin.

John Bolton, left, with Donald Trump in the White House (Getty Images)

But the areas where Mr Taylor gave the 46th president the most credit for bolstering Ukraine’s defence and warding off an aggressive Russia included actions Mr Biden took in the late winter of 2021, when Mr Putin first began massing troops along his country’s border with Ukraine, as well as during the build-up that immediately preceded the start of the war.

“President Biden took pretty strong steps to address that first build up … just a couple of months into his administration,” he said, including warnings to Mr Putin to withdraw the troops (which he later did) and against future meddling in US elections.

Another Ukraine expert who rose to prominence during that first Trump-era impeachment debacle, Alexander Vindman, said Mr Biden’s administration did more than just repair relations that had been frayed by the Trumpian quid pro quo affair.

In a phone interview, Mr Vindman — who was forced out of the US Army after testifying about Mr Trump’s demand that Mr Zelensky announce fake investigations to damage Mr Biden ahead of the 2020 election — said Mr Trump’s successor deserves credit for bringing the US towards a Ukraine policy that is separate and apart from American policy towards Russia.

“If we were, let's say, less thoughtful about our policy with regards to Russia and Ukraine under the Bush and Obama period, it was disastrous under the Trump administration,” he said, adding later that — in his view — Mr Trump deserves a measure of blame for what Mr Putin has done to Ukraine over the last year.

“I think those seeds of the war were planted by the Ukraine scandal, when [under Trump] it was clear that our rhetoric around a strategic partnership with Ukraine was all just rhetoric, and that we were prepared to … look the other way on US national security interests in favour of political aims,” he said.

President Biden with President Zelensky at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit, in Kyiv (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Vindman’s assessment of the Trump-Ukraine scandal’s long tail stands in stark contrast to how many of Mr Biden’s GOP critics see the current administration.

Many Republicans have spent the last year claiming that Mr Putin wouldn’t have dared invade on Mr Trump’s watch.

But Mr Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, said Mr Biden has operated from a position of strength over the entire crisis, and said even the failure to deter Mr Putin had long-term benefits because of the president’s conduct before the invasion.

Specifically, he said Mr Biden’s decision to begin declassifying and releasing US intelligence findings detailing Russia’s plans for the invasion was a key one because it prevented Russia from engaging in the disinformation-laden shenanigans it had used to obscure previous attacks on Ukrainian territory dating back to the unlawful annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“The release of this intelligence indicated that we knew what was coming … and they couldn't kind of sneak it in and they couldn't blame the Ukrainians,” Mr Taylor said.

The decision to release US intelligence in the run-up to the war was also a significant factor in why Mr Biden was able to bring Nato and the European Union along in such a rapid and unprecedented way, he said, because it shored up perceptions of America’s intelligence community that had long been tarnished by the Bush-era debacle surrounding the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

“In the fall of 2021, and the winter of 2021, the CIA was telling people both publicly and privately, this was happening, this is happening, or it could happen … but a lot of people didn't believe that,” he recalled.

William Taylor, who ws US ambassador to Ukraine from 2019 to 2020 (Getty Images)

He said the reply from Europe was along the lines of: “Your intelligence was not great about Iraq. So why should we believe you now?”

“But after the fact, after they invaded, everybody understood that the CIA was right, the Americans were right … that did give us exactly what you just said. That did give the Biden administration, a lot of credibility in doing the next step, which was really assembling the grand coalition of both the [Nato] alliance as well as the coalition of the rest of the Europeans and East Asians,” he said.

Bringing together that coalition — the largest international alliance assembled since George HW Bush brought together 35 nations to drive Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait in 1990 — was a task Mr Biden had been preparing for over the majority of his adult life.

Elected to the US Senate at age 29, Mr Biden spent the next three and a half decades serving on the upper chamber’s foreign relations panel — including many years as its’ chairman — which allowed him to developing relationships with leaders in countless nations. It also gave Mr Biden an understanding of and appreciation for the alliances that Mr Trump was so disdainful of.

Wesley Clark, the retired US Army general who served as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe from 1997 to 2000, told The Independent Mr Biden’s decades in public service made him even more qualified for the tasks he has faced than Mr Bush, who also came to the presidency after two terms as vice president.

“He was in the Senate since 1973, he's seen the Cold War, he's seen the end of the Cold War. He was then the vice president for eight years and saw the insides of executive branch policymaking. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone better prepared than Joe Biden,” he said.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee over his dealings with Donald Trump and Ukraine (Getty Images)

The former Nato commander said Mr Biden has “done a really brilliant job of working with our European allies and bringing them along” over the last year.

He has managed the difficult relationships between the Western Europe and East European allies. He's close to the British despite your change of Prime Ministership and he's at the top of an excellent team that does a lot of consultation and is very experienced in these things”.

Mr Taylor, the ex-US ambassador to Ukraine, went even further in his assessment of Mr Biden’s role. He told The Independent that were it not for the 46th president, the western alliance now backing Kyiv’s defenders would never have come to be.

Asked what would have happened had Mr Trump remained in office for a second term, he said the US would have likely played only a “passive role”.

“The United States would not have assembled that coalition, that alliance would not have put on sanctions would not have beefed up NATO would not have provided the weapons to Ukraine. And my bet is, the Russians would have would have succeeded in what they're trying to do,” Mr Taylor said.

“Putin might not have had to even mount the invasion. If he had gotten an indication from the Americans that they weren't going to oppose. They weren't going to support the Ukrainians. So we could clearly say it would have been very different. And what we can clearly say is that Ukraine would not be in the good position that it's in right now had it not been for the Biden administration actions.”

Mr Vindman, who was born in what is now Ukraine during the Soviet era and held in high enough esteem by Ukraine’s government that he was once asked if he’d accept appointment as Ukraine’s defence minister (he declined the offer, but told The Independent — in jest — that Russia “would never have dared” to invade had he accepted the post), took pains to stress that he doesn’t view Mr Biden’s time in office through rose-coloured glasses.

Vladimir Putin attends a concert for Russian service members in Moscow on Wednesday. (via REUTERS)

He said there are indeed legitimate reasons to find fault with the “pace, breadth and scale” of the assistance that has been provided to Kyiv by the US and her allies over the last year.

But despite those criticisms, one area where Mr Vindman stressed that the Biden administration deserves “quite a bit of credit” is in how Mr Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been able to coherently build consensus across the entire democratic world for sending support to Ukraine.

“The one thing that they have been pretty good on is coherence in building consensus amongst the democratic world for support to Ukraine. That’s true. You know, Secretary Blinken gets quite a bit of credit for that. President Biden gets credit for that,” he said.

He added that the relatively paltry sum the US has devoted to supporting Ukraine’s defence needs has netted “a pretty amazing return on investment” by allowing the Ukrainians to eviscerate Russia’s conventional forces.

“What happens in Ukraine will determine how acute America's security challenges will be in the 21st century, for at least the next couple of decades … and frankly, just as a dollars and cents case for how efficient our support for Ukraine has been, for what amounts to like five per cent of the defence budget, Russia, an inveterate militarized, aggressive state has basically been neutered, and is no longer a conventional threat for the coming decade or two,” Mr Vindman said.

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