Whatever His Name. 6 things which will remain unchanged for Ukraine after the U.S. presidential election
4 November 2020, 10:10
author: Alyona Getmanchuk


Policy memo by Alyona Getmanchuk on the issues, which will not change in the US policy towards Ukraine after the US election.



It is Ukraine’s long-standing habit to make its foreign policy intentions and actions dependent on an election in a certain country that is important in terms of Ukraine’s interests, the underlying principle being “first see who wins and then plan your activities accordingly.” With election cycles in countries such as the United States being quite short – three years from the inauguration to the start of the next presidential campaign – and important elections taking place in our own country and in other partner nations in the interim, the scale of our activities is quite often measured by specific election cycles.


With regard to the U.S. presidential election – perchance, the most important foreign election for us this year – such a strategy is indeed justified in cases where there is good reason to believe that the change of the U.S. president will entail more favorable conditions for Ukraine. For example, in the situation with the Normandy summit, Ukraine should not insist on holding it expeditiously, as given the possible election of Joe Biden, it could get a more favorable position of the White House on the key issue of “war and peace.” However, in most cases, the constant “anticipation” of someone else’s election is more akin to an excuse not to take certain measures than to a well-thought-out strategy.


Today, the Ukrainian authorities claim that they have two strategies for the U.S. election, which, by the way, just like an expression of popular will in Ukraine, each time becomes the most important and truly historic. Depending on who becomes  U.S. president, one of two strategies will be used. In fact, despite a significant disparity between the candidates – particularly in regard to their understanding of the importance of American partnerships and alliances – there are things that require Ukraine to adopt a comprehensive and consistent American strategy that would be adjusted, but not redone, each time a new president is elected.


In the case of the current U.S. election, it is, in particular, about the aspects that will either:

– be common for both President Trump and President Biden;

– undergo minor changes despite the election results;

– differ primarily in style, not in essence;

– depend more on Ukraine than on the White House.


The following is our attempt to single out the most distinctive, in our judgement, aspects to which the Ukrainian authorities should pay special attention.


  1. Introspective diving instead of international heat


Whoever becomes U.S. president after January 20, 2021, he will be forced to prioritize domestic policy over foreign affairs. It should be borne in mind that in the United States, the president is not only the head of state and commander-in-chief like in Ukraine, but also the head of government. Among the issues requiring the president’s personal involvement, there will be, inter alia, those related to the pandemic, which, despite Donald Trump’s uber-optimistic predictions, cannot yet be brought under control, with the United States being home to four percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of all COVID-19 cases. Although the U.S. economy is recovering faster than expected, some indicators are at their lowest level since the Great Depression. In terms of scale, the “virus” of polarization is just as pervasive as the coronavirus and targets all vulnerabilities, be they ideological, ethnic, racial or religious. Among Biden’s supporters, the “fight or fly” election slogan is gaining momentum, a kind of a call to fight for Biden’s victory to the end and leave the country if he is not elected. Even quite a few members of the Republican Party from the so-called Bush-Reagan wing consider Trump the greatest internal threat to the nation since the American Civil War.


The prioritization of the domestic political agenda will be particularly challenging for Biden, who has mostly focused on foreign policy for more than 47 years of his professional career. And it is in international affairs where he can demonstrate the most obvious difference in tack and tone from President Trump, who has failed to win any visible victory during his first term in office. Biden, who has also been accused by critics for lacking major foreign policy achievements during his career, gets an opportunity to create his own success story abroad, this time presidential, provided that he manages to successfully “splice” domestic policy with foreign affairs.


Therefore, designating a person in charge of foreign policy issues on a daily basis will be important for both administrations. Both the Biden administration and the Trump administration are apparently going to include people who care about Ukraine and understand its role and weight, but there will also be those who design their policy towards Kyiv in view of Moscow’s possible reaction. Admittedly, some members of the Trump administration have proved more convincing on the Ukrainian issue than certain members of the Obama administration. As a negotiator on Donbas, Ambassador Kurt Walker defended the Ukrainian interest more than Victoria Nuland in the dialogue with Russians. If to decide between Susan Rice and Nikki Haley in senior positions of the administration in Ukraine, the choice would obviously fall on the latter. Another issue is that representatives of the Biden administration, knowing the sympathy of former Vice President Biden (the Obama administration even called Ukraine his favorite project), will feel more confident and have a greater mandate to deal with Ukraine than the Trump administration, given his attitude toward Ukraine.


  1. Ukraine, a sensitive issue of… domestic politics


Commencing with the 2016 election campaign, the Ukrainian issue in the U.S. has gradually shifted from a purely foreign policy matter to a partially domestic political dossier. Initially, it was due to the orchestrated campaign of “Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 presidential election,” which resulted in the dismissal of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, and attempts by Trump’s campaign donors to use his presidency to cater for their business interests (especially in the field of energy) in Ukraine. Later still, it was also caused by the pre-election saga of Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma, which Trump’s team, at the instigation of his private lawyer Rudolf Giuliani, played as a major trump card in the campaign to discredit presidential nominee Joe Biden. In general, Ukraine has maintained a line to preserve the main asset that Kyiv has today in the American area of its foreign policy – a bipartisan consensus on support for Ukraine. The asset is really valuable, given that many countries around the world, including Russia, do not enjoy such support. That is why it will be important not to lose sight of the Congress after establishing contacts with the new – or old-new – administration.


At the same time, the sensitivity of the Ukrainian issue is unlikely to subside that quickly. There is reason to believe that if Biden is elected president, the considerable attention of Trump and his entourage from the Republican Party to the actions of the newly elected president on the Ukrainian matter will be preserved[1]. There is a high probability that the topic of Hunter Biden and Burisma will haunt Biden even after the election. All the more so that even ardent adherents of Ukraine among Republicans, who sincerely support Kyiv in opposing the Russian aggression and lobbied for military aid to Ukraine, are engaged in vigorous and vocal criticism of Biden for his son’s activities in Ukraine and the possible conflict of interest unleashed by these activities.


Therefore, the newly elected president is unlikely to be as closely involved in Ukrainian affairs as he would like to. For Trump, Ukraine has been a kind of political curse since 2016. If so desired, the U.S. president can be very easily convinced (which he probably already is) that Ukraine was the reason behind one of four impeachment processes against heads of state initiated in U.S. history, while in reality the proceedings were initiated because of the behavior of the U.S. president himself, provoked by the Giuliani-imposed agenda: leveraging Hunter Biden’s business affairs for re-election.


  1. Ukraine is Europe, and Europe is responsible for it


Over the past ten years, Washington saw the emergence and eventual crystallization of an approach that since Ukraine is located in Europe, its affairs should be taken care of primarily by Europe. During Obama’s presidency, this was amply illustrated when none other than Chancellor Angela Merkel was entrusted with addressing the settlement of the Donbas conflict. During Trump’s presidency, this became especially evident during the crisis surrounding the seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait. At the time, a senior Trump administration official at a press briefing very clearly reflected a popular U.S. approach: “European allies must be responsible for what is happening in their backyard.”


Though less bright, there were other equally revealing moments. For instance, American government officials advised Ukrainians not to get carried away by building their own America First, arguing that the U.S. foreign policy theme should not overshadow others and possibly even undermine some of them. American diplomats and politicians have repeatedly recommended Ukraine to avoid a situation where building bridges with Washington makes its position less heard in Berlin, Paris or Brussels.


American partners have also repeatedly pointed out that Ukraine needs to pay special attention to relations with neighboring countries, arguing that the U.S. is far away while our neighbors are always close by, and that as far as our security is concerned the latter are more important than the White House. It is small wonder that there has been marked concern in Washington over Ukraine’s tensions with Poland and Hungary. At some point, U.S. officials even tried to facilitate the dialogue between Kyiv and Budapest.


There are many reasons to believe that such an approach will continue to hold, regardless of who becomes president of the United States. The only difference may be closer coordination on the Ukrainian issue with European allies under Biden and a greater level of initiative under Trump.


  1. Support and assistance – on certain conditions only


Whoever becomes U.S. president, it is going to be a sustained trend that any support and especially assistance from the United States will be provided under certain conditions. The approach of viewing Ukraine as a victim of aggression, which everyone should help without any preconditions, had a very short duration and has long lost its relevance.


The only difference between Biden and Trump here is that the latter’s victory will sometimes mean to literally pay for American aid with specific contracts, as was the case with signing a billion-dollar deal with General Electric and the purchase of Pennsylvania coal during Poroshenko’s presidency. Instead, international technical assistance programs will require a more detailed reasoning of their effectiveness and are believed to face a greater risk of downsizing, as compared to Trump’s first term. An important role in this issue will still be played by the Congress, with whose representatives Ukraine needs to reasonably communicate – if, of course, American aid will be of interest to the Ukrainian government.


For Biden, a more likely option is a kind of barter, clearly outlined during the Obama administration: support and assistance in exchange for specific reforms. The campaign of the candidate from the Democratic Party articulated this quite clearly in a position document on Ukraine published on October 14, saying that we do not distribute money but give it in exchange for specific reforms. The money in exchange for the dismissal of the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General during Biden’s vice presidency was only the beginning of such an approach.


  1. Corruption will still be there


The issue of corruption, which, unfortunately, has long been associated with Ukraine in the U.S. political establishment, will continue to play an important role, even though both presidents have fundamentally different understandings of the significance of this issue, including for Ukraine. For Biden, it is a “cancerous tumor” on the body of Ukraine, which hinders the country’s development. In addition, it has been his belief since 2014 that if there had been no such level of corruption, the Russian aggression would not have taken place. Put otherwise, for him corruption is a serious security risk. Critics – including those among Americans – pay too much attention to corruption in Ukraine, saying, however, that the constant exclusive focus on anti-corruption issues has only strengthened the perception of Ukraine in Washington and around the world as a deeply corrupt country, despite concrete progress made since the Revolution of Dignity (recent trends certainly nullify previous, even modest, results in the development of anti-corruption infrastructure).


At any rate, the issue of Ukrainian corruption (or anti-corruption) will be wrapped in a more global wrapper under the Biden administration in view of his promises to to hold an international summit of democracies in the first year of his presidency with three issues on the agenda[2], one of them being the global fight against corruption.


For Trump, the high level of corruption in Ukraine is, first of all, a convenient reason to say “no” to Ukraine. The current American president has repeatedly questioned the issue of supporting Ukraine in the dialogue with representatives of its own administration and with international partners, appealing to the high level of corruption in our country. Despite the fact that the fight against corruption in Ukraine is not that important an issue for the current U.S. leader (and is not an issue at all), he will most likely continue to instrumentalize it at every opportunity if he deems it unnecessary to approve a certain decision necessary for Kyiv by the following rationale: why support and help, if all the help will be mired in corruption altogether.


Corruption is an important and highly underestimated factor discouraging American investors from coming to Ukraine. Unlike the businesses of other countries, which sometimes openly and cynically state in very informal conversations that they are not afraid of corruption if it is predictable and centralized, American business is forced to work differently. This is due to the fact according to the U.S. legislation corruption is criminally punishable, even outside the United States. No one wants to have problems like the ones Dmitro Firtash  inflicted on himself from the American judiciary within the framework of the abovementioned legislation.


  1. China


China is one of the major “big” issues where a bipartisan consensus has been formed in the United States. Hopes that under Biden, Obama’s policy of engagement with China will continue and that great Xi will once again become great in the White House are unwarranted in today’s conditions. The U.S. has set itself firmly on departing from the engagement policy towards China, which has prevailed since Nixon. There is an interesting fact in this respect: Joe Biden was in the first delegation of U.S. senators to visit Beijing after Nixon’s famous decision to “reset” relations with China, which nowadays happens to mark its 50th anniversary. However, during the current presidential campaign, Biden called the Chinese leader a “thug.” Volodymyr Zelensky would probably appreciate such vocabulary, though not to address the Chinese powers-that-be, whom he believes to be wise and far-sighted[3], despite the global trend of distrust to China[4] and its senior officials. What is more, Ukrainian state institutions take as much liberty as to sign dubious memoranda of cooperation with HUAWEI in the field of cybersecurity. At the same time, in all fairness, it should be noted that China does not feature as a strategic partner in the new National Security Strategy of Ukraine, and the test issue of Motor Sich in this regard for our relations with the United States is unlikely to be resolved in Chinese favor.


All of these issues are important, as the hard line on Beijing will be preserved whatever the administration. There is a demand for this both in the political establishment and in American society. It is a firm belief in the U.S. capital that the relations between the United States and China will determine the world agenda of the 21st century. The only difference will be, first, in style since the presidency is not primaries, thus likely making Biden less daring to launch into such diatribes against China, something Trump has done and continues to do during his election campaign. Another example is Pompeo, who made a revealingly symbolic point in the Nixon Library by calling China a “new tyranny” over which the “free world” must triumph[5].


Second, conflict lines between Biden and Trump will be slightly different. Whereas it is possible that Trump continues to build a confrontation mainly based on trade and the pandemic (his stubborn classification of the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus”), Biden will only be able to broaden the scope of confrontation by means of putting more emphasis on security issues and perils stemming from Chinese acts for U.S. allies in the region as well as on human rights which the Democratic nominee so actively brought up during the campaign



[1] Україна після виборів США. Центр «Нова Європа», 23 жовтня 2020. Коментарі американських експертів

[2] The power of America’s example: the Biden Plan for leading the democratic world to meet the challenges of the 21st century, Joe Biden, July 11, 2019,

[3] Інтерв’ю Президента України китайському інформаційному агентству «Сіньхуа», 1 жовтня 2020 року

[4] Unfavorable  Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries, Pew Research Center,  October 6, 2020

[5] Communist China and the Free World’s Future, Speech, Michael Pompeo, Secretary of State, July 23, 2020,


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