Blinken’s European Trip Aims to Bolster Ukraine, Pressure China


Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs for the U.K. and Ukraine on Sunday as part of an effort to keep U.S. allies united against China and show support for a crucial ally in the face of Russian aggression.

While the London visit kicks off the five-day trip and will help lay the groundwork for President Joe Biden’s meeting with G-7 leaders in June, Blinken’s travel to Kyiv comes at another delicate time for Ukraine and its supporters in the West.

The decision by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government last week to fire the board of the country’s main oil and gas company, Naftogaz Ukrainy, sparked fresh concerns about Ukraine’s corporate governance, the state’s role in the economy, and its commitment to overhauling key industries. It comes just as the nation was looking to persuade the International Monetary Fund to support a $5 billion bailout.

Blinken will seek to balance Western concerns over the country’s domestic decisions with a public display of solidarity after the recent massing of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border sparked concerns about another major incursion, seven years after President Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea.

The U.S. will “encourage more progress on Ukraine’s institutional reform and the anti-corruption agenda,” acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Reeker told reporters Friday. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

Blinken’s visit also comes as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Navy plan to send vessels to the Black Sea.

Zelenskiy will want to keep the focus on the IMF package and the Russian pushback. But to his dismay, the Ukrainian leader is again finding his country surfacing in U.S. domestic politics, less than two years after then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment emerged from his actions and his supporters’ activities in the Eastern European nation.

Trump’s former lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had his Manhattan apartment and office searched by federal agents last week, part of a continuing investigation into his efforts to dig up dirt on Biden and his son in Ukraine ahead of the 2020 election.

Blinken’s Kyiv visit will follow several days in London. There, the top U.S. diplomat will test whether the Biden administration’s mantra of moving in lock-step with allies is any better at achieving U.S. goals than Trump’s more combative “America First” approach. He’ll meet among others with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

European allies have so far praised Biden’s focus on building a more predictable and cooperative relationship after the tumult of the Trump years. The administration has worked to coordinate action on key issues -- such as sanctions against Russia over the poisoning of activist Alexey Navalny, and protesting the military coup in Myanmar -- but those were non-controversial actions.

Nearly four months into Biden’s term, the stakes are rising.

Biden’s team can no longer “treat success as not being Trump,” said Wess Mitchell, who served as assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Trump administration. “The question is -- are they going to deliver on the actual outcomes that the U.S. needs from its European allies for countering China and Russia that require these allies to do things they don’t want to do -- like increasing defense spending, killing Nord Stream 2, and evicting Huawei?”

Nowhere are the difficulties of Blinken’s job more clear than in the case of Germany, where outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to proceed with the nearly-complete Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia despite U.S. objections that it undermines security in Western Europe.

Biden’s administration has vowed to fully enforce U.S. law calling for sanctions against those helping build the pipeline -- a move that would include punishing German companies. So far, the White House has put off any such move.

And while Germany has taken a tougher approach to China than before, it’s resisted U.S. demands to banish Huawei Technologies Co. from its 5G networks, and has sought more economic engagement with Moscow.

Then there’s the European Union more broadly, which is split between nations that support Washington’s anti-China push, and Central European countries that have signed onto Beijing’s “16 + 1” trade grouping and are wary of being asked to choose a side.

European leaders will have some demands of their own. A key concern is resolving a series of transatlantic trade disputes, including those over steel tariffs and government support for Airbus SE and Boeing Co. They also want the Biden administration to reverse Trump’s hostility to the World Trade Organization.

“They talk about working much more closely with allies but it’s a little bit unclear if they’re willing to give the allies some of what they want,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “What compromises are they willing to make?”

The Biden administration says allies shouldn’t be expected to agree on everything. One senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. focus is strategic alignment, not universal agreement. And Erica Barks-Ruggles, acting head of the State Department’s international affairs bureau, told reporters on Friday that the U.S. doesn’t want to make allies “pick and choose,” but to uphold the rules that China refuses to follow.

“I don’t think the goal is to have completely aligned views on everything,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. “There’s recognition that there are going to be some areas in which we don’t have completely aligned interests, and I think there will always be overlap, it’s just a question whether we’re going to be able to agree on ways to work together.”

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