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So as expected, there were no real newsmakers from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Kyiv yesterday, where he expressed “strong support” for Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.
The statements were all very bland, but there was one key exchange where Blinken said: “We will help Ukraine defend itself.” So no base. No weapons. No NATO. And only a modest increase of military aid of $100mn this year on 2020 to about $400mn, which won’t move the needle much.
What was fun to watch was the elegantly stage-managed series of messages and signals that surrounded this trip. US President Joe Biden said on taking office that “Diplomacy is back”, and it really is.
Blinken came directly from London, the only European capital on this, his first major foreign trip, where he met with the G7 leaders. That says the US is back as the world leader in international relations and has the other rich-world countries at his back in dealing with Russia.
It also happens two days after NATO launched its “Defender Europe 21” exercises with 28,000 troops in Central Europe. That says: “We see your troop movements on Ukraine’s border and raise a second round of NATO military exercises, the “Steadfast Defender 21” exercises in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria next month.”
In a particularly wicked move, he also brought Victoria Nuland with him, who has been promoted to number three in the State Department. She infamously handed out biscuits to demonstrators on Maidan in central Kyiv during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and has been a leading Russia hawk in the US administration. She took early retirement, rather than serve in the Trump administration, but has been rehired and her inclusion in the delegation can have only been intended to annoy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who hates her.
And finally, Blinken delivered a sharp but veiled rebuke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy by meeting with leading anti-corruption activists. This comes in the wake of the Cabinet’s decision last week to sack the widely respected head of the national gas company Naftogaz, Andriy Kobolev. That was widely criticised as an attack on corporate governance and drew a sharp and very public condemnation by the State Department’s spokesman.
Blinken also mentioned “deoligarichisation” in this meeting, which is significant if you remember the US has sanctioned oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who laundered hundreds of millions of dollars he stole from PrivatBank through Cleveland and is currently under investigation in the US, but who remains a friend of Zelenskiy’s.
It’s so refreshing to see such sensible and measured foreign policy after four years of the Trump chaos. I bet the Kremlin is relieved too, as it also knows how to play this game very well indeed. In effect both sides are tipping their cards to each other which will allow a deal to be thrashed out provided the common ground between them is not too muddy after a decade of demonisation and ire.