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Ukraine, US Leaders May Address Sensitive Issues at Next Meeting

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy takes part in the Independence Day military parade in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 24, 2021.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is scheduled to visit the White House on Wednesday, a trip that has been in the works for two years and delayed one day by events in Afghanistan.

During the administration of former President Donald Trump, surrogates for the U.S. president pressed Ukraine to open an investigation into activities involving the son of then-candidate Joe Biden. The incidents led to President Trump's first impeachment by the House of Representatives, and the political furor sidelined relations with Kyiv.

Analysts say there are both challenges and opportunities in the meeting between President Biden and Zelenskiy in Washington.

Ukraine Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova is optimistic about the visit, saying it sends an important message about the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.

Ukraine’s Zelenskiy Heads to Long-Awaited White House Visit
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"After (German) Chancellor (Angela) Merkel, President Zelenskiy is the second leader the U.S. is inviting to the White House with a visit to discuss some strategic issues," Markarova told VOA. "So, I believe it shows the level of attention, focus and importance of our bilateral relations for both Ukraine and the United States."

American experts agree that the Biden-Zelenskiy meeting is a great opportunity to strengthen Ukraine-U.S. relations. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says the outcome of the meeting will depend to a great extent on Zelenskiy.

"It seems to me, though, that part of the ability to make this a successful meeting will depend on what President Zelenskiy asks for," Pifer told VOA. "He should moderate some of his requests because if he asks too much, he may be disappointed. You do not want to ask the question unless you are sure the answer is going to be yes."

Among the more sensitive subjects are NATO membership and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Europe, which Ukraine opposes. Experts believe it is important that Zelenskiy remain realistic and balanced when discussing these issues.

"He should not expect any commitment from the United States regarding Ukraine and NATO. He should also not expect any change in the Biden position on Nord Stream 2," said John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. "Zelenskiy has to make clear that he still opposes that decision and would like to see a change without antagonizing the president. So, he can do that, I think, by mentioning it, but not in a confrontational way in their White House meeting."

Daria Kalenyuk, executive director of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center, says Zelenskiy should remain assertive when discussing the Nord Stream 2 issue. She says the White House's decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2 contradict Biden's statements on fighting corruption abroad.

"The right thing would be to talk not only about corruption in Ukraine but also about geopolitical corruption and strategic corruption. We can and should ask why Nord Stream 2 is being finished despite it being the symbol of strategic corruption," Kalenyuk said.

Security cooperation is also expected to be discussed. Earlier, the White House decided to support providing additional military aid to Ukraine in case of a possible escalation of its longstanding conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine. In addition, Biden did signal his intention to provide Ukraine with $60 million more in defense lethal and non-lethal U.S. military equipment.

"So, I would think that additional American military assistance would be good," Pifer said. "First of all, because it would help improve Ukrainians' defense capabilities. That's the practical step. But second of all, it would be a way to send a strong message of American support for Ukraine."

Herbst believes Biden should also be interested in supporting Ukraine through strong rhetoric.

"He needs to demonstrate in very clear ways that the United States has Ukraine's back — is supporting Ukraine — as Moscow continues this war. And Biden has even more reasons now to do it, after his administration's disastrous handling of the pullout from Afghanistan. He needs to show that, in fact, he is a strong international player."

At the same time, the White House has repeatedly emphasized that it expects Ukraine to deliver tangible results in the country's fight against corruption. Pifer believes the biggest thing Zelenskiy can bring is a credible, compelling message of Kyiv's commitment to reform.

"And that means a more open and competitive economy," Pifer says. "It means rule of law, including reforming the judicial sector. It means reducing the outsize political and economic influence of the oligarchs. It means combating corruption."

Markarova is convinced the two presidents will see eye to eye, even on the more complex issues. "We know that both Ukraine and the U.S. are strategic partners and friends. So the two leaders will discuss all the issues on the agenda like partners — sincerely and earnestly. And they will find solutions that are acceptable for both sides," she said.

Ukrainian diplomats say Zelenskiy's visit to the White House is just a start. They expect the bilateral relationship will further flourish as the two countries work hard on fulfilling their agreements.

Myroslava Gongadze contributed to this report.