U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Kiev today in an effort to both reassure his Ukrainian counterparts and ensure that the Ukrainian government does not instigate a crisis in the region at a time when the U.S. is engaged in negotiations with Russia over Syria.
On the surface, Biden’s visit differs little from his previous trips to Ukraine. He has called for Russia to respect the Minsk agreement, announced $190 million in aid for Ukrainian reforms, and pushed for the country to boost its fight against corruption. However, developments in Syria, as well as Kiev’s decision-making over the past few weeks, has shifted the dynamics of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship. The U.S. does not wish to see an escalation in Ukraine, and is likely concerned that Kiev could trigger a crisis in the region at a time when Washington is working to create a broad coalition, which includes Russia, to fight the Islamic State in Syria.
Over two weeks ago, unknown individuals sabotaged the electricity infrastructure in southern Ukraine, which provided Russian-controlled Crimea with the vast majority of its electricity supplies. While Russia last week launched an undersea cable that will provide Crimea with some energy supplies, the Ukrainian cutoff still represents a significant logistical challenge for Russia. While the Ukrainian government cited protests as the reason for delays in resuming power supplies, the decision to delay was primarily a geopolitical one. With the U.S. and Russia engaged in negotiations over cooperation in Syria and the future of Ukraine, decision-makers in Kiev — as well as throughout the region — are worried the U.S. will not prioritize their security interests.
Just as Biden began his visit, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that “emergency supplies via one of the lines will resume very shortly.” There is reportedly an agreement between Poroshenko and Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov for supplies to be resumed. Nevertheless, members of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector has expressed their disapproval of Poroshenko’s decision and are now reportedly blocking attempts to restore electricity. It is possible that the far-right group is blocking power supplies with the support of at least some elements of the Ukrainian government. However, it is probably not a coincidence that Poroshenko announced that supplies to Crimea will resume soon just as Biden is visiting Kiev.
A power outage in Crimea was likely Kiev’s way of showing that it can create significant logistical challenges for Russia — and a headache for the U.S. — if its interests are not protected. As Biden visits Kiev, the Ukrainian government may seek more assistance in military training and more financial aid from Washington, but primarily it will seek assurances that the U.S. will not offer Russia concessions on the future status of Ukraine. Nevertheless, for Biden, the priority during this trip may be to push Ukraine to minimize provocative steps, such as the electricity cutoff to Crimea, which could risk sparking an escalation in the region.