Tuesday, February 7

President Joe Biden speaks with Ukraine’s Zelenskyy in Donbas, NATO

President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday two days after he noted that the United States would play a greater role in negotiating an end to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Biden spoke with Zelenskyy two days after a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which Putin outlined his concerns about Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO and Biden suggested that Washington could join Europe in helping end the territorial dispute between the two nations.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and is backing separatist rebels in the Donbas region who have carved out semi-autonomous territories around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. On the border with Russia, both territories are home to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority.

In recent weeks, US intelligence has reported a large buildup of troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine, raising fears that Moscow could be prepared to annex the territories, such as in Crimea.

While Biden repeated his promise to impose more sanctions on Moscow if it launched any military action against Ukraine during the call, Biden administration officials have said the president may ask Kiev to agree to greater autonomy for separatists in the east. from Ukraine.

Greater autonomy could formally give residents of that region more authority over some local issues. Administration officials did not mention the cession of territory.

It echoes the “special status” suggested for the Donbas in a 2015 EU-negotiated peace deal that has never been implemented and is controversial in Ukraine and the US, where it is seen as a major concession to Moscow and a violation of Ukraine. territorial sovereignty.

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In a statement after the call with Biden, Ukraine said Zelenskyy was offering “clear proposals to unlock the peace process and is ready to discuss them in various formats.”


Biden will also have to refine Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. The United States and NATO reject Putin’s demands to ensure Ukraine is not admitted to the Western military alliance.

But senior State Department officials have told Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely to be approved in the next decade, according to a person familiar with those private conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For Biden, the challenge will be to encourage Kiev to accept some of the facts on the ground in eastern Ukraine, without seeming to give in to Putin, a perception that could embolden the Russian leader and unleash a new line of condemnation from the Republicans like Biden’s popularity is. already in decline.

Ukraine may be asked “can it take any steps forward in these areas,” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine. That could include measures such as allowing Russia’s ally Donbas region to control its own health care, police and schools, he said.

“But I don’t see Washington pressuring the Ukrainians to take measures that compromise their sovereignty or the ability of the national government to make decisions,” Pifer said.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic with deep cultural and historical ties to Russia, has in recent years sought closer integration with the West and membership in NATO. The alliance has kept its promise of membership, but has refused to set a schedule. Even before the current crisis, Ukraine was a long way from uniting.

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The call between Biden and Putin came as tensions rose over the threat of Russian forces re-entering Ukraine. Putin denies such an intention and accuses NATO of strengthening its control over the former Soviet satellites and republics which threatens Russia.

US intelligence reports last week said Russia had moved 70,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders as it prepares for a possible invasion early next year.

After speaking with Zelenskyy, Biden briefed the leaders of nine NATO members in Eastern Europe, including three former Soviet republics. It is part of weeks of coordination with NATO allies on the response to the Russian military rally on the Ukraine border.

Before and after his call with Putin, Biden spoke with the leaders of Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy. France and Germany took the lead in brokering the 2015 peace accord between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels, in what is known as the Normandy format.

“We hope that by Friday we can tell you, announce that we are having meetings at a higher level,” Biden said Wednesday. “Not just with us, but with at least four of our main NATO allies and Russia.”

The meetings will address “the future of Russia’s concern in relation to NATO in general, and whether or not we could work out some compromise when it comes to lowering the temperature” in eastern Ukraine, “Biden said.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron defended Franco-German diplomatic efforts in recent years to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, but said he appreciated Biden’s outreach to his European allies on the affair.

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“Our goal, all Europeans and our American partners, is first to stand by Ukraine’s side to ensure its security … and to begin a demanding dialogue with Russia,” Macron said.

When asked about the need for Ukrainian compromises, Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that “the Ukrainians have put forward constructive ideas on how to advance diplomacy. We are encouraging that. “

Under the 2015 agreement, Ukraine agreed to change its constitution to accommodate the “peculiarities” of the two breakaway Donbas republics and legalize their “special status”. Some analysts said the agreement’s vagueness and some conflicting requirements make its provisions effectively unworkable.

Ukraine is ready to engage in discussions on the definition of “special status”, including possible changes that account for cultural and linguistic differences in its eastern Donbas region, which has a higher proportion of native Russian speakers, the person familiar with the private talks between Ukraine and the United States they said.

But Ukraine would reject any changes that give the region virtual veto power over national politics, the person said.


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