Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko asked Congress on September 18 for Ukraine to be awarded allied partner status with the US, as well as access to “lethal” military technology. But while cheering him on, the US has refused to answer his requests.
Poroshenko should have been warned. “We do very little trade with Ukraine and, geopolitically … what happens in Ukraine doesn’t pose a direct threat to us,” President Barack Obama is reported to have said prior to Poroshenko's visit to the US.
Obama made the comment at a political fundraiser in at a private home in Baltimore, according to New Republic. “The President’s fundamental point was clear. We don’t have a dog in this fight,” was how a columnist glossed Obama's words. But Poroshenko stuck his neck out anyway, requesting that the US award Ukraine the status of major non-Nato ally, in his speech to Congress.
“I strongly encourage the United States to give Ukraine special, non-Nato allied partner status,” Poroshenko said in the concluding words of his address to Congress.
Poroshenko also requested for military aid beyond the “non-lethal” supplies it has received to date. “Blankets and night-vision goggles are important. But one cannot win a war with blankets,” he said with trademark eloquence.
In an emotional address, Poroshenko said Ukraine was not just fighting for its own survival, but for the survival of Western democratic values. “Our nation decided in favour of freedom and democracy,” he told Congress. “Another nation decided to punish Ukraine for these steps. The world can’t allow such behaviour. I call upon the world to counteract an aggressor today for the sake of the future.”
But he was soon brought down to earth at a one-to-one meeting with Obama, where it was made clear to him that Ukraine would receive neither weapons nor ally status. “He said ‘no’ because we already have special status for the level of cooperation between the US and Ukraine,” Poroshenko told CNN later that evening, arguing that the status did not mean much anyway, given that even Argentina enjoyed it.
But this was putting on a brave face on growing fears that the West has abandoned Ukraine to face Russian aggression alone. Back in Kyiv Poroshenko had to answer difficult questions as to the justification for accepting the Minsk peace agreements, as passed into law by parliament on September 15, and regarded by critics as humiliating for Ukraine.
Poroshenko said in his response that if the Verkhovna Rada had not passed the laws on an amnesty for rebel fighters and de facto autonomy status for the districts they control, he would have lost "international support" for Ukraine's position. “One of the possible scenarios if the laws hadn't been passed: the blame for the failure of the peace process could have been placed on Ukraine,” he told interviewers.
A press release by Poroshenko's office about the meeting may have inadvertently underlined the real fact: Poroshenko “called the support received by Ukraine [from the US] very symbolic,” the press release read.
Support received to date from the US has indeed been largely financial: The US government is offering an aid package to Ukraine worth $53m, according to the foreign relations committee’s press service on September 18. Most of this sum will go to the Ukrainian military and border service. Total US aid to Ukraine for the year is now $291m, plus a $1bn loan guarantee, according to Bloomberg.
Legislation approved September 18 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could bring some respite, but seems unlikely to be passed into law. The legislation would step up sanctions against Russia and give Ukraine $350m of military aid in 2015.
“With his remarks to CNN, Poroshenko was doing damage control for what’s otherwise a certain foreign policy disappointment,” wrote Concorde Capital's Zenon Zawada. “We can’t yet confirm why US defence authorities declined the status, yet we believe it’s more related to lack of confidence in the Ukrainian government than not wanting to upset the Russian government,” Zawada continues. “But certainly, Ukraine’s low ranking on the US list of geopolitical priorities also played a role.”
[This was a] very powerful and compelling speech by Poroshenko,” wrote Standard Bank's Tim Ash in a research note. “It does not appear to have changed minds in the Obama administration against providing lethal weaponry, but it will serve to rally popular and elite support in the US for Ukraine and against Russia which will be important over the longer term.”
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