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Biden to place support for Ukraine front and center at Zelensky visit

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U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander civil rights leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House August 5, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Win McNamee | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will unveil a wide-ranging humanitarian and military aid package for Ukraine on Wednesday, during a visit by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to the White House.

The package features $60 million worth of newly designated military aid, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, small arms and ammunition. Biden informed Congress late last week of his intent to release the funds to help Ukraine defend its eastern border against Russian-backed separatists.

Another $45 million will be in the form of humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians impacted by the separatists’ guerilla war, said a White House official who requested anonymity to preview the visit.

In the fight against Covid-19, the U.S. will announce $12.8 million in additional assistance to Ukraine, on top of the $55 million in Covid-related aid the Biden administration has already provided, the official said.

Zelensky’s meeting with Biden comes as the White House confronts dueling crises at home and abroad.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, more than a million residents still lacked electricity early Wednesday in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Overseas, a humanitarian and border crisis looms as the Biden administration ramps up a mammoth effort to try to process and resettle tens of thousands of Afghan refugees airlifted out of the country as part of the U.S. military withdrawal.

Zelensky was originally scheduled to meet with Biden on Monday, but his visit was pushed back so that it could receive “the attention it deserves,” the White House official said.

When the two leaders sit down on Wednesday, Zelensky will be looking for assurances from Biden that American support for his country remains steadfast as Ukraine enters the seventh year of a guerilla war with Russia.

The White House official said Biden will announce several steps aimed at deepening the already close relationship between Washington and Kyiv.

One of them will be to restart the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission, which has not met in three years, the official said.

Biden and Zelensky will also announce new energy initiatives, including a Strategic Energy and Climate Dialogue under the purview of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

In late August, Granholm led a U.S. delegation to Ukraine to mark the country’s 30th anniversary of independence.

Energy security could prove to be an awkward subject for Biden and Zelensky, however.

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Ukraine still vehemently opposes the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which Kyiv views as a huge strategic win for the Kremlin.

Biden has said he opposes the massive project, and Washington has for years lobbied Berlin not to increase its energy dependence on Russia.

But in July, the Biden administration issued a joint statement with the German government essentially recognizing that the pipeline was inevitable.

The statement was a diplomatic blow to Ukraine, which had hoped the U.S. would use sanctions and other economic levers to effectively force Germany to abandon Nord Stream 2.

Another potentially awkward topic for Biden and Zelensky will be anti-corruption efforts underway in Ukraine, an issue Biden has been personally invested in since his time as vice president in the Obama administration.

“We believe strongly that Ukraine can and should enact additional reforms to strengthen its democracy,” said the White House official.

But while Ukraine has made strides under Zelensky toward stronger rule of law, both its Parliament and its criminal justice system remain mired in corruption.

Critics accuse Zelensky of using his presidential powers to target high-ranking members of opposition political parties.

In 2019, Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, tried to use his own presidential powers to target his leading political opponent at the time, Joe Biden.

In a now infamous phone call with Zelensky in August 2019, Trump tacitly threatened to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky had state prosecutors there launch a sham investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

That conversation would later become the cornerstone of the impeachment case against Trump in his first of two impeachment proceedings.

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