Creating a Washington - Warsaw - Kyiv axis

Oleksandr Donii
07:00, 30 August 2019
Politics
864 1
Opinion

The first meeting between Ukrainian and U.S. leaders, Volodymyr Zelensky and Donald Trump, could be held in Warsaw early September. However, it might not be limited to a handshake and a photoshoot. After all, according to Olena Zerkal, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for European Integration, the presidents are set to sign several documents.

In general, during the presidential campaign, Team Zelensky lacked geopolitical concepts and contacts with Western leaders. However, when Zelensky's chances of winning became clear, a struggle unfolded around him. After his win, Ukraine started its reorientation from a solely European integration to Euro-Atlantic integration, in particular, toward the United States.

This was manifested in several aspects. First, it's the reports of contacts with the American side, in particular, between Zelensky and Trump, and statements about their readiness to meet.

The more obvious Zelensky's focus became on enhancing contacts with the United States, the greater his confidence was in foreign policy

Secondly, Zelensky came up with an initiative (which Poroshenko didn't dare do) to involve the United States in the Normandy format of negotiations on Donbas settlement. Earlier, this was a requirement of patriotic opposition, and various analysts have insisted on this. However, Poroshenko wasn't thrilled about the idea. Thus, the Normandy format was created on terms favorable to Putin: it involved intermediaries who were most convenient for Moscow - France and Germany - where Russia's influence is quite powerful.

The U.S. voiced diplomatic responses to Zelensky's proposal. In particular, Kurt Volcker said that it is theoretically possible, but the consent of all parties is required.

In any case, the more obvious Zelensky's focus became on enhancing contacts with the United States, the greater his confidence was in foreign policy.

What does this mean for Ukraine? First of all, it's the strengthening of our country's position in the international arena, including in the negotiation process with Russia. After all, the United States is the most powerful player in geopolitics.

However, on the other hand, it reduces the level of Ukraine's own initiatives and increases the possibility of external governance. That's because the United States as a partner requires greater subordination, even in relations with the allegedly equal European partners.

It is clear that, as elsewhere in diplomacy, this process is not fully open. For example, we cannot know everything about the conditions of exchange of prisoners of war: whether this process is moving in connection with Ukraine's reorientation to the United States, or whether it is the result of direct agreements with Russia. Most likely, this is due to the reorientation of the United States.

But things are complicated in the U.S., too, as positions within the American establishment vary. Some are more critical of Russia, while some – of Trump, who often demonstrates commitment to improve relations with Moscow. So the question is: does this mean that certain compromises, which on the one hand can be interpreted as a tactical win for Ukraine (for example, prisoner swap), are on the other hand strategic compromises that could have ambiguous implications?

The benefits of finding a compromise unrelated to the Minsk talks may be beneficial to both Zelensky and Trump. It is important for the United States to show the shift from the deadlock in yet another U.S. effort to resolve a conflict somewhere on the globe. At the same time, for Ukraine, it is important to resolve its biggest problem – to end the war.

What stands behind this compromise, we don't know.

For example, it is already known that the exchange of prisoners of war will be large-scale – several dozens for several dozens. And to ensure that Moscow agrees to the move, it will be offered something that is unrelated to Ukraine: it could be Russia's return to the G7, weakening of sectoral sanctions, or some other promise. We can only guess.

So, all this means that, on the one hand, Ukraine is entering a geopolitical game, being able to defend its interests, and on the other – it means that the interests of third parties - in this case it's the United States - may prevail over Ukrainian ones. That's because the U.S. is an ally with a much greater weight.

In any case, the situation is changing and a stronger ally of Ukraine is emerging on the chessboard. And, surely enough, the new player has his own interests. Washington could assist us in the negotiation process with Russia, because the format, mediated by France and Germany, has found itself at an impasse.

The Warsaw meeting between Trump and Zelensky is important as such. We do not know what kind of proposals Trump will put forward, but it is possible that the exchange of prisoners will be tied to what the presidents agree to at their meeting. This means that the interests of Ukraine, the interests of the United States, and those Russia are not linear. So, in addition to Ukraine getting its prisoners back and Russia taking its men, Moscow will also receive something else from the U.S., and we can't even guess at the moment what that could be. That is, the United States will promise Russia something that Ukraine can't.

So, we're seeing that, with Zelensky at the helm, ties are being established between the U.S. and Ukraine that are closer than they were under Poroshenko. This is already evident.

We now see Trump's immediate interest in Ukraine, which was not evident during Poroshenko's rule

Poroshenko constantly emphasized close cooperation with the United States, which did not materialize in real steps. We shouldn't boil things down to Javelins because in recent years Ukraine was one of the world's ten largest arms exporters and sold weapons to the United States as well.

We now see Trump's immediate interest in Ukraine, which was not evident during Poroshenko's rule. It may be the case that both Trump and Zelensky come from the non-political circles, and therefore both can be expected to take non-linear steps. Besides, technology-wise, they have a lot in common, including even their critical attitude toward the media. In fact, the two leaders are in many ways alike. That's a big plus because we found a major ally in the person of the United States. And this ally doesn't solely depend on Trump or the ruling party.

At the same time, this means that Ukraine's role as an independent player in foreign politics may further decline. It plunged catastrophically during Poroshenko's cadence: we have become very dependent on Western funds, and today not only the economy but also the state apparatus are dependent on Western grants. This is a sign of the lack of self-sufficiency". Now, in Ukraine's relations with the U.S., this sign could further get even more obvious.

However, this should not necessarily be considered a negative thing at this stage. I'd recall that the Poland phenomenon came about precisely due to international economic support, first and foremost, on the part of the United States. Poland's debts were being written off or postponed, while colossal economic assistance was being provided. But beyond funding, there was also institutional oversight. At the time, some were talking about external governance, but as a result we saw the Polish economic miracle and the tremendous strengthening of Poland's position in Europe, including the Poles coming to leadership in international institutions.

That is why hopes for the creation of the Washington - Warsaw - Kyiv axis are being revived. The idea of ​​ has long been promoted by the National Forum for Ukraine Transformation. Back in the 1990s, analysts wrote about these prospects, but then the idea died off. Today, however, it is back on the agenda. After Poroshenko's step-down, relations between Ukraine and Poland have every chance to revive.

Creating the Washington - Warsaw - Kyiv axis would be a huge success. This would mean a dramatic strengthening of Ukraine's position and a clear definition of its geopolitics. These would go beyond conversations about Euro-Atlantic integration that could remain conversations for decades. This would be concrete actions and a clear alliance. I would like to see this idea be on the agenda of Zelensky's first meeting with Trump, as the location is very symbolic – it's Warsaw. Therefore, it is not just a meeting of the two presidents, but the first step which may give start to the idea of ​​building the Washington-Warsaw-Kyiv axis.

Oleksandr Doniy is a political analyst, head of the Center for Political Values ​​Studies, former MP

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