November 20, 2018

What the Resumption of the Work of the Ukraine-US Commission Means

Roman Kot

November 16, 2018, took place the first for the last seven years meeting of the US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission at the level of the heads of the foreign policy departments of the two countries.

In addition to traditional diplomatic reverences in the form of declarations of non-recognition of the annexation of the Crimea and the condemnation of Russia's actions in the Donbas, the parties also agreed on practical steps. In particular, Ukraine and the USA launched three new bilateral working groups focusing on security and countering Russian aggression, on rule of law and humanitarian issues, economy and energy. The inaugural sessions of each of the groups took place directly during the meeting of the commission and they are going to meet regularly.

Though the commission has resumed its work, this time it will operate at a level much lower than expected by the Ukrainian leadership. For Petro Poroshenko, optimal would be the scenario in which it would function in the format “President of Ukraine — US Vice President”. However, even at the level of the heads of foreign policy departments, resuming of the commission's work is at least a media victory on which Poroshenko can pride himself during the presidential election campaign, as the resumption of meetings is a powerful signal that the United States continues to consider the Ukrainian direction a priority.

At the same time, it is important not to repeat the mistakes that were made in relations between the two states in the past, because such a format of bilateral cooperation is not new to Ukraine and the United States.

Attempt Number 3

Meeting of the US-Ukraine Binational Commission, co-chaired by US Vice President A. Gore and Ukrainian President L. Kuchma, December 8, 1999
Meeting of the US-Ukraine Binational Commission, co-chaired by US Vice President A. Gore and Ukrainian President L. Kuchma, December 8, 1999

This is the third attempt to streamline Ukrainian-American relations. The first such commission worked in 1997–1999 at the level of the President of Ukraine and US Vice President (that commission was also known as the “Kuchma-Gore Commission”). It consisted of four committees: for foreign policy, security, trade and investments, as well as stable economic cooperation. During its work three meetings were held. During B. Clinton presidential term, the commission was seen as a priority mechanism for cooperation but was formally abandoned by the new administration in the White House, which changed after the 2000's elections. George W. Bush's environment decided that other forms of cooperation would be more effective in relations with Ukraine.

Nevertheless, already at the end of B. Clinton's presidential term, it became clear that the commission did not justify expectations, first of all because Kyiv could not implement the agreements reached during the meetings of the commission.

The second attempt to bring Ukrainian-American relations closer to this format took place in 2008, after Kyiv and Washington had signed the “Charter on Strategic Partnership”. At that time such a step was dictated by the desire to show Kyiv that, despite the re-set of the USA-Russia relations, Ukraine remained America's important partner.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister K. Hryshchenko and US Secretary of State H. Clinton, February 15, 2011
Ukrainian Foreign Minister K. Hryshchenko and US Secretary of State H. Clinton, February 15, 2011

Effective work of the commission became impossible due to the changes in the political landscape of Ukraine. Although the first meeting of the commission did take place in December 2009, it was of a constitutive nature and began to work properly only from the second meeting — in July 2010, when the presidential campaign in Ukraine was completed. During the meeting, US Secretary of State H. Clinton and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine K. Hryshchenko reached agreement on the creation of working groups in the spheres of civil nuclear energy, political dialogue and rule of law, as well as of science and technology.

Nevertheless, before the presidential elections in Ukraine, the United States was sitting tight and no progress was made on any of those issues.

At the third and last meeting of the commission, which took place in February 2011 (after the election of V. Yanukovych), agreements were reached only on some minor issues, in particular, a memorandum on exploration of shale gas reserves in Ukraine was signed, and it was decided to provide Ukraine with financial assistance for export of highly enriched uranium. At the same time, during the meeting H. Clinton separately emphasized that the basis of bilateral cooperation are values. This was seen in the relations between Ukraine and the USA quite soon. As soon as V. Yanukovych had set up the power vertical and launched an offensive against freedom of speech, contacts between Washington and Kyiv were minimized.

After the Revolution of Dignity and Russia's aggression in the Crimea and Donbas, relations between Kyiv and Washington saw a renaissance with cooperation at the level of higher political leadership — mainly through US Vice President G. Biden.

When D. Trump became the master of the White House, Ukraine's attempts to lobby the commission's resumption have intensified. It is known that the talks on this issue have been on at least since the beginning of this year.

Creation of “Fuses”

There is no reason to expect fast results from the commission's work. Nevertheless, the resumption of its work will have positive effects.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister P. Klimkin and US Secretary of State M. Pompeo, November 16, 2018
Ukrainian Foreign Minister P. Klimkin and US Secretary of State M. Pompeo, November 16, 2018

The experience of cooperation with the USA during the presidency of D. Trump shows that dialogue at the highest level is not always productive and cannot be systemic, due to D. Trump's lack of knowledge in foreign policy issues and in view of his inconsistency and propensity to impulsive ill-advised actions in the international arena. Therefore, on the part of the United States, the resumption of the commission will allow to implement projects at a level that is less dependent on the political situation.

Also, resumption of its work can create a “fuse” from regression of key bilateral projects before the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine. The revenge of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine is unlikely, but some political players will obviously try to speculate on Ukrainian-American relations.

Bringing the bilateral interaction to the level of technocrats will allow to protect them from the political turmoil of the presidential and parliamentary campaigns in Ukraine, which will smoothly cross into the presidential campaign in the United States.