Visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, center, speaks during a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Washington. 

Global Politics

Zelenskiy-Biden meeting signals 'reassurance' of ongoing US support to Ukraine, former Amb says

William Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about the significance of today's meeting between Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and US President Joe Biden.

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Visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, center, speaks during a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Aug. 31, 2021.

Credit:

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is in Washington today for a White House meeting with US President Joe Biden. It's a meeting at least two years in the making.

Zelenskiy had plans to sit down with former President Donald Trump, but the meeting was derailed by Trump's impeachment scandal — tied precisely to a phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

In the infamous call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden.

Now, with Biden in office, officials in both countries are looking for a relationship reset.

Related: Alexander Vindman: Accountability is key to building back American unity

William Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about the significance of today's meeting between Ukraine and the United States. 

Related: US will go 'beyond mere statements' to support Ukraine sovereignty 

Taylor now serves as vice president of strategic stability and security at the United States Institute of Peace.

Marco Werman: Ambassador, you were a key witness in President Trump's impeachment trial. What does a reset look like after an incredibly strange four years in the Ukraine-US relationship?
William Taylor: You're right. It was a strange four years, but I wouldn't use the word "reset" for all kinds of reasons. And I say that because the relationship between the United States and Ukraine over the past 20 years has been solid, has been consistent. So, it's not really a reset. It's a reassurance that the support for Ukraine continues.
So, going back to a pre-2016 state of affairs, what will Zelenskiy be looking then to get out of this meeting?
He'll want to make the case that Ukraine is standing on its own and is a democracy. It's a proud democracy. It's an independent country. It's proud of its independence. It now, of course, has to defend its independence from the Russians, who have invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine. So, President Zelenskiy wants to demonstrate that Ukraine is standing on its own and is a worthy partner.
One of the main points of tension in this meeting between Biden and Zelenskiy will certainly be Nord Stream 2, the pipeline project between Russia and Germany, which circumvents Ukraine by way of the Baltic Sea. Where does the US stand on Nord Stream 2?
Where the United States stands is in several places. That is, the Congress has been very clear. Congress adamantly opposes Nord Stream 2, for all the reasons that you just said. It is a challenge to Ukrainian security, it's a challenge to European energy security, and therefore it's a challenge to us. So, the Congress is united against Nord Stream. There was a debate within the administration, I understand, and the administration's policy now is to waive the sanctions that Congress said should be imposed on the people, the companies who are building Nord Stream. The Nord Stream benefits go, not really to Germany, I mean, it was Germany that was probably uppermost on the administration's mind when they made that decision, but the real benefits go to Russia. And again, if our worry is a challenge that Russia poses, then Nord Stream helps Russians and doesn't help us.
I mean, since it is a challenge to Ukrainian security, this pipeline, why would Ukraine now see the US as a reliable partner, since the US did not step in on Nord Stream 2? 
There are many aspects, of course, to any relationship between any two countries and allies and strategic partners, in this case, can certainly disagree on things. And Ukraine and the Biden administration disagree on Nord Stream.
Yeah, but disagree on something as existential as national energy supplies?
I would not put "existential" in that sentence. Nord Stream's important. There's no doubt. That's not existential. It's a couple of billion [dollars] a year in revenues for Ukraine. But it is also, as you point out, it does give the Russians longer-term leverage over Europe and over Ukraine. But existential is too strong. It's important, but existential is the Russian challenge to Ukraine.
So, let's go there. The war between Russia and Ukraine has been going on since Russia annexed Crimea. That was 2014. What concrete steps do you think Biden and Zelenskiy can take coming out of this meeting to help end that conflict? Or does Russia hold all the cards here, at the end of the day?
Russia does not hold all the cards at the end of the day. And there are steps that I am sure that President Zelenskiy and President Biden will talk about. One of the questions that President Zelenskiy is going to ask President Biden this afternoon is, "Will you get involved? Will you help us negotiate the Russians out of our country, out of Ukraine?" And I hope that President Biden will say yes and will engage and bring the weight of the United States' diplomatic efforts to those negotiations — to try to negotiate an end to that conflict on Ukrainian terms.
One of the big things, of course, that Russia is suspicious of is Ukraine's desire to join NATO. Should Ukraine be fast-tracked into NATO?
Ukraine should not necessarily be fast-tracked into NATO, and I think the Ukrainians know — they're not looking for a shortcut by any means. What they are looking for is a reaffirmation of the promise made to Ukraine — and Georgia, by the way, in 2008, at a NATO summit. They said that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. That was a promise made in 2008. And so, I think Ukrainians today want to hear some reassurance that that promise is still there and some expectation of how to realize that promise. So, this is an important goal.
If Ukraine were fast-tracked into NATO, what do you think the optics of that would do to Russia? How would they react?
I guess it's an interesting question. It's not really a relevant question, however. The Russians don't have a veto here. The Russians don't get to choose, don't get to decide, don't get a say in whether a country joins NATO or not. They'll not be happy. They probably weren't happy when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO. Those are right on their borders, as well. But that's not decisive by any means.
Ambassador, listeners will remember you as one of the key people testifying in former President Trump's first impeachment trial because you were, at the time, ambassador to Ukraine. It was a moment where Ukraine felt that it could not necessarily rely on the US because, at the end of the day, the US is focused on itself. What do you think the US has done to change this perception?
So, the visit this week of President Zelenskiy goes a long way to demonstrating to Ukraine the closeness of this relationship. When you look at all of the agreements across the government for cooperation and collaboration, this demonstrates that the United States is a strong supporter of Ukraine. It demonstrates that there is a commitment on the part of the United States to a successful Ukraine — economically, politically, democratically and from a security standpoint. So, I think this meeting, which, as you say, is a long-time coming, is more than just a sit down for an hour in the Oval Office. It is a demonstration of a strong connection, support and partnership going both ways. I want to emphasize the both-ways part, because Ukraine brings a lot to the table, but the strong partnership between the United States and Ukraine.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

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