This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The current U.S. administration is eager to deepen and strengthen ties with Ukraine, as the two countries’ military relationship is of “paramount importance” for Kyiv’s establishing a closer relationship with NATO, a senior State Department official has told RFE/RL.
U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet also said there would be “a lot of mutual interest at stake” when the U.S. and Ukrainian presidents meet at the White House, a visit that Washington on July 21 announced would take place on August 30.
Chollet was in Kyiv on July 21 to discuss ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine, efforts to counter Russian actions in the region, and economic and anti-corruption reform efforts.
Chollet said President Joe Biden was “very keen to see this relationship get deeper and stronger.”
Chollet stressed U.S. concern at Russia’s actions near its border with Ukraine, which is fighting a seven-year war against Moscow-backed separatists in its eastern regions.
The State Department official said Russia’s military buildup near the border “is a concern of ours,” and that Biden expressed that to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit last month in Geneva.
“We have made clear that threats from Russia to Ukraine are unacceptable, and we are seeking to provide Ukrainians the means to help defend themselves,” Chollet said.
Chollet said the United States will provide more than $400 million in security assistance this year to Ukraine, bringing the total to over $2 billion in seven years.
“The U.S.-Ukraine military relationship is a mature relationship…that has transformed just in seven short years, since 2014,” Chollet said.
“And when President Zelenskiy visits Washington soon to sit down with President Biden, of course, the security relationship, the military security relationship, as well as the energy-security relationship, and all other aspects of this important partnership will be on the table for discussion,” he said.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said after the Biden-Putin summit in mid-June that Ukrainian membership in the NATO alliance “really is a red line for us.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had said days earlier that he wanted a clear “yes” or “no” from Biden on a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine to join NATO.
Chollet said there would be “no preconditions” for the presidential meeting in August, and he cited “the symbolism of the two presidents sitting down together, but also to get some important work done.”
“Ukraine is already taking significant steps to have a very close partnership with NATO,” Chollet said.
He said the alliance’s relationship with Ukraine was “much different than it was a decade ago,” including through bilateral ties with the United States and other NATO members.
“So it’s in the U.S. interest to continue to see the NATO-Ukraine relationship mature and grow,” Chollet said.
Chollet added that both sides were “most focused on the practical things that we are doing together in terms of ensuring that the Ukrainian military is modern, ensuring that it’s got the capabilities needed to defend itself.”
“And that’s why we provide so much security assistance to Ukraine, to encourage Ukraine, Ukraine’s military to continue to develop in a way that you can defend your territorial integrity, but also, importantly, be a partner for the United States and other NATO partners out in the world.”
Chollet also talked about an upcoming deal between the United States and Germany to resolve their differences over the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian natural gas westward under the Baltic Sea.
Such a deal could present a potential diplomatic challenge as Kyiv worries about the loss of crucial transit fees and Moscow’s ability to leverage gas supplies to achieve political or other goals.
Chollet rejected a report that the United States had been urging Ukraine to remain silent about its complaints over the Russian gas pipeline, adding that “Ukraine is a democratic country, it has its own voice.”
“What we are seeking with our Ukrainian friends is to have a close partnership, a constructive partnership, one where we can work together in shared interests and with shared values…that’s what we’re seeking,” he added.
On events in nearby Belarus, Chollet said Washington currently regards Belarus “more as a source of instability than stability.”
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has cracked down hard on the opposition, media, and public dissent since protests broke out over a disputed reelection in August that critics and Western governments have called fraudulent.
“The path that unfortunately things seem to be on in Minsk is not good,” Chollet said. “That said, what we’re seeing from the people of Belarus is a strong desire to be able to choose their own destiny and to be able stand up for liberal-democratic values. And that’s something that we the United States, along with our European partners, very much support.”
The United States and the European Union have imposed multiple rounds of sanctions targeting Belarusian officials, including penalties after Minsk forced an international airliner with a Lukashenka critic aboard to land in Belarus in what has been called a “state hijacking.”