Biden’s diplomacy of benign neglect on Ukraine and Poland

Although Poland is sliding from liberal democracy into populist dictatorship, Ukraine is desperate  to consolidate its democracy
Biden’s diplomacy of benign neglect on Ukraine and Poland

While President Biden’s decision to keep Poland and Ukraine at a distance may seem surprising, there is a method to it — so-called "benign neglect", suggests Sławomir Sierakowski. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

US President Joe Biden is very familiar with both Poland and Ukraine. His decades of service has taught him that the two countries are among America’s most devoted friends and allies. 

Yet he waited until April 2 – just as Russian troops were once again massing on Ukraine’s eastern border – to call Ukraine’s president, and he still has not spoken to his Polish counterpart.

Biden’s relative silence seems to speak of a policy of “benign neglect,” a term coined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was a domestic policy adviser to US President Richard Nixon. 

Biden’s decision to keep Poland and Ukraine at a distance may seem surprising. Although Poland is sliding from liberal democracy into populist dictatorship, Ukraine is desperately trying to consolidate its democracy, despite constant Russian meddling.

Moreover, even Poland’s illiberal government still tries to position the country as if it was America’s 51st state, with the US embassy in Warsaw playing a role similar to that of the Soviet embassy before 1989. 

Ukraine, still at war with Russia and heavily reliant on US support, is in a very different position. US support has indeed helped, not least by halting the progress of “little green men” (Russian soldiers without insignia) in the eastern Donbas region after they had claimed some 7% of Ukraine’s national territory back in 2014.

As a result, Russia’s strategy of aggression has not paid off. Its occupation of Crimea and the Donbas – both economically devastated and cut off from the global economy – has come at a massive cost to its budget. More to the point, Russia has squandered centuries of goodwill among Ukrainians, who are now united around their national sovereignty.

Without Ukraine, Russia cannot be considered a global power – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal in annexing Crimea and invading the Donbas in 2014. At home, Putin’s approval ratings, which had been flagging, soared above 80% following that invasion. But these gains were only temporary.

If Russia were to conquer Ukraine now, Poland would be next in line. For 250 of the last 300 years, Poland was also part of the Russian Empire. The independence that Poland and Ukraine achieved with America’s victory in the Cold War thus remains a lasting testament to US primacy.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Biden understands that Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms are the key to its survival as an independent democratic country

And yet, while Biden’s election victory was met with euphoria in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky had to wait two months for a call. Biden’s coolness toward the two countries should not be interpreted as a change in US policy toward the region. After all, he has repeatedly stated – including in a conversation with Putin – that the US will never recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Rather, Biden slow-rolled his call to Zelensky precisely because he knows Ukraine so well.

Biden understands that Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms are the key to its survival as an independent democratic country. Without these reforms, Ukraine’s oligarchs – some with close Kremlin ties – can simply steal financial and even military aid to the country. Through a show of benign neglect, Biden sought to motivate Zelensky to act against the oligarchs on his own.

So far, the strategy appears to be working. In February, Zelensky approved a decision by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council to shut down three Russian-language TV channels linked to the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who is so close to Putin that he lists Putin as godfather to one of his daughters. More important, Zelensky also moved against Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who had bankrolled his earlier career.

These moves triggered a series of violent incidents on the informal “border” between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine, killing more than 20 Ukrainian soldiers since the start of the year. With Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border threatening the security of both Ukraine and Poland, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that anyone inciting a new war in the Donbas will bring about Ukraine’s destruction.

But it is unlikely that Russia’s ostentatious troop movements are preparation for an actual invasion. Rather, with his popularity nose-diving in the run-up to Duma (legislative) elections this September, Putin is resorting to his old bag of dirty tricks. Indeed, the prospect of a Ukraine-style democratic revolution in Moscow haunts Putin.

Meanwhile, Duda has yet to hear from Biden. Unlike in Ukraine, America’s benign neglect of Poland has not persuaded that country’s populist rulers to suspend their war on democracy. Instead, the Polish government seems to have decided that maintaining good relations with the US would require too many concessions, threatening PiS’s position at a time when its pandemic policies have dented its popular support.

Under PiS, Poland’s foreign policy is ultimately a function of domestic policy. As public support for PiS declines, more and more Poles may begin to realise why even their US patron is keeping its distance.

  • Sławomir Sierakowski is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

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