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Biden's Ukraine visit

Interview: Ruth Wittwer / ng
April 20, 2014

Ukraine must defend itself against a Russian "invasion," according to US defense and security expert Barry Pavel. He thinks Vice President Joe Biden's visit should deliver "tangible" results.


US Vice President Biden is meeting this week with members of Ukraine's interim government and Ukrainian citizens. According to the White House, his mission is intended to offer support for a united, democratic Ukraine as disputes between pro-Russian and pro-European forces in the country continue. Given Ukraine's precarious economic situation and its sense that it must defend itself against Russia, the visitor from Washington is likely to offer aid on several fronts. Biden will again take up the topic of the country's energy supply, since Russian supplier Gazprom is cutting its rebates for Ukraine.

Many of these topics were on the agenda in early March, when US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kyiv. For Biden, the presidential election in Ukraine slated for May will also be an issue under consideration. The US wants to ensure that the vote takes place in a safe and democratic fashion.

DW: Vice President Biden is the second high-ranking member of the Obama administration to travel to Kyiv. What might Joe Biden's visit to Ukraine bring about?

Barry Pavel: If it's combined with other measures, I think it presents a very robust approach that could contribute to deterring Russia from further destabilizing Ukraine. But if it's by itself, it's a temporary thing. When Biden leaves, we're back to the same situation as before he came. So, taken alone, it's not that meaningful.

Barry Pavel
Barry Pavel, US defense and security expertImage: Taleen Ananian

What sort of offer could this trip represent to Ukraine?

I think it is to demonstrate, at least in terms of diplomacy, that the United States is with the Ukrainian people - whatever that means.

I would wish it to mean more tangible things too, like giving Ukraine legitimate defense weapons - and I'm only talking about defense here. One can define what those are. That would also be very appropriate for any sovereign country to receive.

Do you think Biden has chosen the right time for his journey to Kyiv?

My own view is he should have gone two or three weeks ago. This isn't the real battlefield here. The real battlefield is playing out in eastern Ukraine, and that's where I think the focus of the world's attention should be. So if he's coming to Kyiv to bring real, tangible, material assistance to help the interim government to deal with this invasion, that would be a successful visit. Otherwise, I'm not convinced it's particularly helpful by itself.

Will Biden also address constitutional reform during his visit? Russia is calling for a federalist model intended to give Ukraine's individual regions more freedoms. Should Biden issue a response?

It's possible, but I don't have any particular insight into the specific agenda that the vice president is bringing with him.

I think it would be highly inadvisable. I don't think it's really that appropriate for any sovereign country to be dictating that or driving that agenda to another country - be it Russia or the US.

What would be, in your view, the best possible approach in this conflict - for Ukraine, the US and the EU?

Europe has now awakened, and I hope there is enough political will in Germany, in particular, which is really the leader of continental Europe, to see what this threat is to European stability and security. So, the ideal outcome is that Europe and the US, together - the transatlantic relationship - is unified and coordinated in taking the necessary measures to convince Putin to back off of eastern Ukraine - period.

So you're concerned about the stability of Europe?

I do worry that if things continue, you have very significant instability, potentially, right on the borders again of NATO members - of Poland, of Romania. They joined NATO to avoid this very scenario. We'll have to make good on our NATO commitment to them, if things continue, which is going to be costly for us. But we need to do it because we have a commitment to contribute to their self-defense against these types of threats.

What prospects do you see for the de-escalation agreement? Representatives from Russia, the US, Ukraine and the EU recently agreed that peace should return on a step-by-step basis in Ukraine. Russia said the illegal groups in all regions of Ukraine should be disarmed.

I can't say I'm optimistic. How do you define illegal? All over the agreement is, 'Illegal groups will leave buildings that are occupied; illegal groups will stop fomenting violence.'

My guess is that unless the definition of illegal groups has been agreed to in some detail, that President Putin will think that the government in Kyiv is an illegal group. The EU and the US think illegal groups are the Russian special forces and intelligence operatives that have been fomenting riots and instability in eastern Ukraine.

Barry Pavel is vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, where he focuses on emerging security challenges and defense strategies. He also served on the National Security Council under both Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

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