The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Ukraine should be viewed from different perspectives.
First, it's about the new American administration learning about the actual state of affairs in Ukraine first-hand, so to speak. This is not only about whether the country pursues democratic transformations, including as regards judicial and energy reforms, as well as the so-called "deoligarchization." It's also about the developments in the Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, progress in settlement talks, and Ukraine's readiness to confront Russia in case of further escalation.
Secondly, it's about further U.S. assistance to Ukraine – financial aid toward continuing reforms and imposing anti-Russian sanctions, as well as quite tangible American support for the Ukrainian Army (from holding joint exercises to providing specific weaponry).
More "stick" than "carrot"
This list of topics isn't limited to "carrot". On each of the points, the Ukrainian authorities are facing questions. In some spheres, some positive dynamics of reforms (or at least their imitation) is evident, while others have long reached an impasse. And while some scandals have already made it to the public domain (for example, personnel reshuffles in NJSC Naftogaz pursued contrary to Ukrainian legislation) and will definitely be assessed, some unpleasant issues have so far remained veiled. And Kyiv should be prepared for Washington to pull that veil.
"Zelensky will also be reminded of everything related to 'deoligarchization,' and his toxic entourage will be in special focus," said political analyst Taras Chornovil. "The case involving Giuliani (a former lawyer of ex-President Donald Trump) is gaining momentum, and the evidence in this case includes, for example, [information on] the head of the Ukrainian President's Office ... Therefore, I think there will be many questions in this regard."
In his opinion, further assistance in carrying out reforms, including financial (IMF), which Ukraine expects from Washington, depends on Kyiv's readiness to fix such mistakes.
"During this visit, Ukrainian authorities should expect a serious 'cold shower.' There will be some 'carrot' though, as well, on the issues of security policy," says Chornovil.
Between public support and concrete help
Indeed, the topic of security will be key at all Blinken's meetings with the Ukrainian authorities and civil society.
"The United States will definitely guarantee continued military-technical assistance, it will definitely guarantee some financial injections, provide information on peculiarities of pressure on Russia... But the question is not what the United States will promise us, but whether the assistance will be unconditional, or Ukraine will have to fulfill certain conditions to receive it, a certain step-by-step program," Chornovil says, adding that one of such conditions may be about personnel policy, mentioned above.
According to former Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin, the upcoming visit is an important manifestation of public support on the part of Joe Biden's administration. The visit allows talking about the the directions of interaction with the U.S. in promoting reform, as well as discussing military support for Ukraine against the backdrop of Russian muscle-flexing near at borders and the escalation in Donbas.
According to Klimkin, it is important not only to raise the issue of increasing U.S. military assistance, but also to discuss the actual deployment of American military units in Ukraine as an additional security and deterrence factor.
"All this should be discussed with Blinken, and then with the Pentagon, once the relevant political decisions have been made," he said.
In turn, Oleh Belokolos, an expert on foreign and security policy, member of the political council of the Strength and Honor party, emphasizes that the visit is an important political event, since it demonstrates at least some support. "But for Ukraine it's more important that, besides this support, there's also some specifics. It's not nice words we're counting on, to hear how great we've been doing, but on specific weapons, at least defensive ones, perhaps some artillery units – something that would help contain Russian offensive if they go for it," the expert says.
Belokolos says no one should harbor hopes that no escalation should be expected before the Biden-Putin summit (such opinions are already being voiced by some Ukrainian experts). Firstly, while Russians say they withdrew forces from the borders with Ukraine, they could swiftly redeploy them. Secondly, while summit plans are in the works, there's no guarantee it will actually take place. Moreover, there is too much time before its probable date, so anything could happen.
NATO as strategy, fighting off Russia as tactic
An important point worth mentioning in the context of the visit o is the strategic partnership of our countries, including within the NATO framework. However, according to Belokolos, it's not worth betting on this topic. "It's worth talking about, but it's not a goal. No need to substitute concepts. Any time soon, we'll need to fight off Russia anyway. Meanwhile, NATO is a strategic issue, a distant goal," he says.
"We need to talk specifics. Today or tomorrow, we need to receive from the United States some tangible tools to repel Russia," Oleh Belokolos emphasizes.
Ukraine's former top diplomat (2007-2009) Volodymyr Ohryzko also believes that the visit demonstrates Washington's support, but how substantive it will be will depend, first of all, on the Ukrainian side.
"We need to change the paradigm of our expectations and requests. Ukraine is an important security factor in Europe, and this is what we must proceed from when we expect anything. We must shape the agenda that's beneficial to us. If we look at what's happening from this perspective and formulate questions important to us, we will not always look like beggars standing outside the church," he said.
"When we say, 'Give us another 100 million,' or 'Give us three more missiles or two boats,' this is poor foreign policy. Small things come from global decisions. If we think primitive, we'll have what we have. In this case, we must proceed from our strategic interests. Our security and our State are at stake, so we must proceed from this," Ohryzko stressed.
According to the former foreign minister, Ukraine could surely raise the issue of actual progress toward NATO. The Membership Action Plan should become a de facto recognition of Ukraine's role in the defense against a common aggressor, which threatens not only Ukraine, but the entire collective West. However, it is important to understand that the topic of joining NATO has no short-term prospects.
In this regard, it is important to put before the United States the question of signing some kind of treaty, which would guarantee Kyiv's security. This agreement, Ohryzko suggests, should lay down a norm similar to Article 5 of the Washington Collective Defense Treaty, rather than "guarantees" provided for by the Budapest Memorandum. The diplomat argues that Ukraine could achieve concrete results to this end by explaining to the United States that today this is not only about Ukraine, but also about democracy as such.
In addition, Ohryzko believes that at meetings with Anthony Blinken, Ukrainian authorities should clearly state their "wishes" on the topics of Donbas and Crimea, which can further be discussed by U.S. President Biden at a possible summit with Russian President Putin. It is also important to emphasize that in this context – both in terms of content and symbolism – holding the Zelensky-Biden summit would also be important.
"It would be very nice if first a summit was held between Zelensky and Biden somewhere, say, in Brussels, and after that – the one between Biden and Putin – wherever they determine. This would be a very serious political signal, including for Moscow," Ohryzko said.
Now it is difficult to say which messages exactly will be voiced during Blinken's visit, and which will remain wishful thinking for some time. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba assures that the soil has been well prepared, and on May 5-6 a "substantive conversation" will take place with Anthony Blinken. There is hope this is indeed the case.
Kostiantyn Honcharov, Tetiana Urbanskaya