WASHINGTON — As vice president, Joe Biden ran point for the Obama administration on Ukraine, pushing to assist the beleaguered ally in ways President Barack Obama was not always comfortable with. Now, as the next president, Biden will call the shots.
Biden will face ongoing war in eastern Ukraine and worsening corruption that threaten to give Russian President Vladimir Putin new ways to undermine democracy in the country — problems that have already pushed the president-elect to pledge to give U.S. military support to Ukraine, including the types of lethal weapons Obama was loath to give.
“Biden was deeply involved in Ukraine during the Obama years. He visited many times and called the president repeatedly,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, and a former economic adviser to Russia and Ukraine. “There is no significant American political figure who took care of Ukraine the way Biden did.”
But any increased aid to Ukraine, which was at the center of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, also comes with potential political complications for the next president.
Biden’s son, Hunter, is under investigation by the Justice Department for tax fraud relating to Hunter’s involvement with Ukrainian oil and gas company Burisma Holdings, where he served on the board. The president-elect has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by Hunter.
Biden explained in his memoir “Promise Me, Dad” that his own involvement in the region was the result of his volunteering to take the lead on Ukraine when others in the White House were not keen to do so.
He wrote that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which followed the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, he urged Obama and America’s western European allies to intervene.
Biden recounted: “President Obama’s sympathies were all with Ukraine . . . but he would caution me about overpromising to the new Ukrainian government. ‘We’re not going to send in the Eighty-second Airborne, Joe,’” he said.
Biden wrote that he pushed hard to provide the Ukrainian government with military assistance in the form of training and weapons, but it was clear that Obama would go no further than sending the Ukrainians non-lethal equipment, such as radar used to detect the source of mortar fire.
This reluctance became a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign. During an October debate, Trump belittled the Obama administration’s support for Ukraine, saying they sold the Ukrainians “pillows and sheets” while Trump had sold them “tank-busters.”