US low profile over Ukraine visit exposes differences between Kiev, Washington

Milking the crisis Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Kiev on Sunday, while the US didn’t give an official response or confirmation as of press time, with analysts saying this has to some extent exposed the differences between Washington and Kiev after Russia launched the second phase of its military operation.

Kiev’s unilateral high-profile announcement of the visit shows that the Ukrainian government wants to push the US to be more involved and highlight Ukraine’s image as a “frontline” that the whole Western world must defend at all costs, and the low profile taken by the US side was not just based on security concerns, but also showed that the US doesn’t want to be dragged into the mess as Russia is taking massive actions that aim to control the south of Ukraine, said experts.

“I don’t think this is a secret that people from the US are coming to us tomorrow, State Secretary Mr Blinken and the Defense Secretary (Lloyd Austin) who are coming to us,” Zelensky said at a press conference held in an underground subway station in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday.

Zelensky gave few details about the logistics of the encounter but said he expected concrete results – “not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons”.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated during a news conference on April 18 that there are no plans in place for US President Joe Biden to travel to Ukraine. “That has not changed – what our focus continues to be on is providing Ukraine, the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian leaders, a historic amount of security assistance,” Psaki told CNN.

Psaki said that if an administration official were to visit Ukraine, the White House would not publicly disclose that information ahead of time, citing “security concerns.” The White House and State Department declined to comment Saturday on Blinken and Austin’s possible trip to Ukraine, CNN reported.

Analysts said it wouldn’t be surprising if Blinken and Austin finally arrive in Ukraine, but the differences between the US and Ukraine remain, and the visit won’t have a significant impact on the current situation.  

Russia plans to take full control of Donbas and southern Ukraine during the second phase of its special military operation, Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, said on Friday, according to Russian media.

Russia’s ongoing actions could significantly change the situation in the next few weeks, and considering the military advantage held by the Russian side, Kiev understands it might not be able to resist for long, so it desperately hopes the US will show more direct and decisive support to save the situation, but Washington is probably planning for the next stage, such as how to talk with Russia after Russian forces accomplish their missions or how to effectively extend the conflict on Ukrainian soil to keep Russia bleeding, analysts said. 

“They should not come here with empty hands,” Zelensky said during the news conference. “We are expecting specific things and specific weapons.”

Expectations too high?

At this stage, the weapons won’t bring about a significant change to the situation, said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, noting that Ukrainian forces have no effective control of the air, so even if the US has agreed to provide heavy weapons like howitzers and tanks, any mass transportation of those weapons into the country by railway or trucks could be spotted and destroyed by Russian warplanes or missiles. 

Most Ukrainian troops are in the battle zones of the east, and many of them are engaged or surrounded by Russian forces, so transportation would be extremely difficult, and other advanced Western-made weapons are useless because Ukraine doesn’t have personnel able to use them effectively, experts said. 

Lü Xiang, an expert on international relations and a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that Zelensky wants a high-profile political show that makes his government look like “the center or a frontline that all Western countries must defend. He wants to shape an image for himself: a brave leader that can speak tough not only to Russia but also to Western major powers.”

Song echoed the view, saying that such visits by US senior officials or other Western leaders are in fact meaningless in terms of changing the situation of the battlegrounds in the east and south of Ukraine, and Zelensky’s high profile remarks sent another signal – “if Ukraine loses the war, the US and maybe the whole Western world should be blamed, because they didn’t provide enough support.”

Chinese analysts said the US’ support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia will continue with or without such visits, but the US cares about different issues compared to Kiev.

Lü said many Western countries including the US, UK, France and Germany have found that Ukraine is asking too much, and are worried that those supplies, including humanitarian aid, weapons and money, could end up “in the wrong hands.” 

Compared to what “specific weapons” will be provided, Blinken and Austin might be more interested in how those weapons will be used and who are receiving the US supplies. 

Escalation to come? 

Cui Heng, an assistant research fellow from the Center for Russian Studies of East China Normal University, told the Global Times that the low profile approach taken by the US sent another signal: the US doesn’t want to be too provocative toward Russia. “Because a high-profile visit with the top diplomat and the defense chief could make Moscow think that the US is preparing for more direct intervention.”

“The US wants the conflict to continue, but it also fears the spillover to countries around Ukraine, especially NATO members, so keeping the conflict at a low intensity and within Ukrainian soil is what the US wants,” Cui said. 

Lü said if NATO members like Poland strengthen military supplies at this time, Russia could strike the transportation hubs at the borders, and this could easily lead to escalation. “Russia needs to be tough and decisive, so escalation is a choice for Moscow to deter Western intervention, and this could also give more bargaining chips to Russia in talks for a ceasefire in the future.”

If the West shows more intention to intervene in the Russia-Ukraine conflict at this moment, escalation will be more likely, and the Ukraine government needs to be aware of the price of accepting US supplies, “because those supplies are not free, they are conditional,” Song said. This means the more Kiev receives, the more Ukrainian people will need to pay the US back in the future, and Kiev would become a complete proxy of Washington after the war, he noted.

Yang Sheng, GT

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