Expectations are low that the talks will produce a breakthrough in U.S. relations with Russia. Still, even the slightest shifts in policies have potential consequences for Ukraine.
Why is Ukraine a factor at the summit?
Ukraine has been at the center of tensions between Washington and Moscow for years. In 2014, in a quick succession of events, anti-government protests drove Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, from power, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and Moscow-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine launched a war for autonomy.
The United States is not directly involved in talks to end the war, which has claimed nearly 14,000 lives and displaced at least 1.5 million people. But Washington is seen in Ukraine as a critical strategic partner, including a pipeline for weapons and other military aid. Earlier this month, the United States announced a $150 million military aid package for Ukraine.
For Moscow, Ukraine is too big and too important to write off. Russia views the former Soviet world, including Ukraine, as part of its sphere of influence. The Kremlin strongly opposes Ukraine’s political moves to the West and aspirations such as possible NATO membership.
What’s at stake for Ukraine?
For Kyiv, bringing an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine is the priority. Moscow denies any involvement in the war, but Western intelligence agencies and independent experts say that the Russians are directing the rebel forces and supplying equipment and fighters.
This spring, the Kremlin staged a significant military buildup near the Ukraine-Russia border, further raising tensions. Some of the soldiers and equipment were later withdrawn — Moscow claimed they were on military exercises — but some troops and new military outposts remain.
During the summit, Ukraine is looking for signs that it has Washington’s full backing. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had lobbied for Biden to meet with him before the summit with Putin — telling Axios that he was ready to meet Biden “at any moment, at any spot on the planet.”
Zelensky didn’t get his meeting. But he and Biden spoke by telephone, and the Ukrainian leader was invited to make his first visit to the White House in July — a long-standing goal of Zelensky’s that did not happen during the Trump administration.
What are Ukraine’s worries?
Biden has assured Zelensky that he has nothing to fear. In the phone call, Biden told Zelensky that the United States would “stand up firmly for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and its aspirations,” according to national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“Meetings between the U.S. and Russian presidents are always a source of anxiety and fear in Ukraine,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv. “It reflects a clear understanding what Putin wants from such summits with the U.S. — a sort of Yalta-II grand deal — with Ukraine fixated in Russian sphere of influence.”
Zelensky said during a news conference that there are “risks” that unspecified “issues will be raised” at the summit that could run counter to Ukraine’s interests. “I’ll be frank with you: I’m scared by this situation,” he said.
Zelensky’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, was categorical: “No deals on Ukraine without Ukraine. This is an absolutely ironclad principle of ours,” he said in a written statement to The Washington Post.
But Kuleba also said he didn’t expect this to happen in Geneva. What he hoped for was that Biden would make it clear to Putin that “his aggression against Ukraine comes with a price and Ukraine is not alone in its fight.”
“We hope that President Biden will use all available means, all his power and political weight as the leader of the free world to make it clear to Vladimir Putin that his war on Ukraine has been a failure and it’s time for him to quietly leave Ukraine alone,” he added.
What are other U.S.-Ukraine issues?
Ukraine often plays an oversize role in U.S. affairs. It was thrust into the middle of President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearing, after Trump unsuccessfully tried to pressure Zelensky to launch investigations aimed at digging up dirt on Biden and his son Hunter, who once served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Under Biden, Ukraine has been urged to tackle the country’s long-standing struggle with corruption. The Zelensky administration, however, while making progress in some areas — such as rooting out the political influence of some of the country’s oligarchs — has backtracked on other key anticorruption pledges.