“Ukraine faces twin challenges,” Blinken told reporters at a media briefing in the capital, “aggression from outside coming from Russia, and in effect, aggression from within coming from corruption, oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people.”
Blinken’s visit to Ukraine also was designed to demonstrate support for the U.S.-Ukraine relationship after the events of 2019, when then-President Donald Trump temporarily froze security aid to Ukraine and asked President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, a request that led to Trump’s first impeachment trial.
The scandal continues to reverberate in the United States: Federal agents last week raided the office and apartment of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former personal lawyer to Trump, in connection with Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine.
Zelensky, whose government is seeking more military hardware from the United States, including air defense systems and anti-sniper technology, appeared eager to put the Trump era behind him.
“I don’t want to waste your time on the past; let’s talk about the future,” Zelensky said when asked about Giuliani.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia spiked last month when Moscow massed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border in what some in the West feared was a precursor to an invasion.
Although Russia has since partially withdrawn its troops, Blinken said the United States continues to monitor the situation “very, very closely.”
“We are aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, and equipment remains there,” Blinken said.
While pledging support for Ukraine, Blinken also called on Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials not to delay anticorruption measures, such as an overhaul of the country’s judiciary.
“There’s clearly a need for more progress on things like corporate governance, on judicial reform, on making sure that the anticorruption bureau is truly independent,” said Blinken, who also met with civil society leaders, members of the news media and virtually with anticorruption activists.
Last week, State Department spokesman Ned Price blasted Ukrainian officials for ousting the supervisory board and top executive of Naftogaz, the state gas company, saying the actions “are just the latest example of ignoring best practices and putting Ukraine’s hard-fought economic progress at risk.”
Skepticism remains over whether the Blinken team’s “tough love” approach to Ukraine can succeed, given the failure of such an approach in the past.
“The talking points have changed remarkably little since 2014,” said Sam Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. “The question is whether there is a policy to change the dynamic so that we don’t see a secretary of state visiting with the same talking points four or eight years from now. I haven’t seen one yet.”
Blinken’s entourage on the trip included Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, a prominent Russia hawk whose advocacy for Ukraine has long irritated Moscow.
During the trip, U.S. officials avoided pledging specific equipment to Ukraine. The Biden administration has made clear that it views the U.S. competition with China as the preeminent challenge of the 21st century and an area most deserving of resources. Although Ukraine maintains the strong backing of U.S. lawmakers, its connection to U.S. national interests is more tenuous than previously.
“With 80,000 Russian troops remaining on the border, Blinken’s message of support against Russia is important, but the Biden administration will have to decide how much military assistance it’s willing to give Ukraine,” said Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University.