Many moons and a few million news cycles ago, Donald Trump was impeached for a conversation he had with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he asked that head of state to investigate Joe Biden, the former vice president and imminent political rival of Trump’s, and his son Hunter. Implied (depending on whom you ask) in the conversation was a quid pro quo involving a congressionally approved military-aid package meant to help Zelensky deter and ward off Russian incursions into his country’s territory. Biden made this incident and Trump’s alleged deference to Russian interests a not-insignificant aspect of his campaign.
That’s why it was odd that over two months into his presidency, Biden had not so much as spoken to Zelensky. Yesterday, he came under fire from a wide spectrum of voices for his inattention to Ukraine and regional tensions. Jonathan Swan of Axios summed up the criticism concisely:
Bizarrely, President Biden has still not spoken — not even once — with the Ukrainian President Zelensky. This while Russia is escalating and menacing Ukraine. https://t.co/EnN5jK54Sm
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) April 1, 2021
Today, Biden finally conversed with the Ukrainian leader, and the White House issued the following readout from the call:
President Joseph R. Biden spoke today to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. President Biden affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea. He emphasized his administration’s commitment to revitalize our strategic partnership in support of President Zelenskyy’s plan to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda based on our shared democratic values that delivers justice, security, and prosperity to the people of Ukraine. The leaders agreed these reforms are central to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. They also discussed the importance of close United States-Ukraine cooperation to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen democracy in the region.
It’s an encouraging sign, but it’s unclear whether this conversation was previously planned or was just a reaction to yesterday’s bad press; the latter would seem to be more probable. Moreover, it’s easy to mistake rhetoric with policy, especially in foreign affairs. Remember, Donald Trump may have flattered Putin and embarrassed the country at Helsinki, but his administration’s posture toward Russia was actually fairly harsh.
So, though it’s noteworthy that the Biden administration is finally engaging with Ukraine, its actions will speak much louder than its words. We should listen carefully.