Ahead of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s long-awaited visit to Washington, USIP’s Donald Jensen says many in D.C. “see the [Ukrainian] fight against corruption as a key benchmark” in determining the future of U.S. assistance, including for Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia.

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Julie Mason: Donald Jensen is director of Russia and strategic stability for the United States Institute of Peace, Donald, good morning. 

Donald Jensen: Good morning. Thanks for having me on again. 

Julie Mason: Yeah, great to have you. Um, the idea of the of the Ukrainian leader coming to the US to meet with Biden fills me with a sense of dread.

Donald Jensen: It should not, I think that would be my own personal take. It's been a fraught discussion about whether and when this would take place going back to the Trump administration. So what's gonna happen? The Ukrainians are also very interested in high tech, they have a developed high tech sector of their own. And so he'll be going to California after he sees the president.

Julie Mason: Interesting, not unlike Medvedev, who came to visit Obama and also spent a little time out in California.

Donald Jensen: I remember, I remember very well.

Julie Mason: So Zelensky coming to D.C., August 31. This long postponed meeting, boy Ukraine has been trying to get to the White House for a long time now.

Donald Jensen: It has, it has. Ukraine has a number of needs, that we know, and they're very serious ones: military assistance, above all; they need to reform parts of their economy; and also, corruption remains a big, big, controversial issue, not only in general, but with the U.S. in particular. As you may have seen, the president criticized Ukraine's record on fighting corruption the other day, and Zelensky snapped back: Well, it happens everywhere. They are trying, not with enough success, I think.

Julie Mason: We've definitely lost a lot of moral high ground in recent years, we may never get it back. Even Ukraine is making fun of us now.

Donald Jensen: Yes, I think that's true. And that's was a very, very rare comment. They are trying, just, the results have not been what either side has has wanted it. And of course, Ukraine has its critics, not only in Moscow, but elsewhere in Europe, Western Europe, and also here and people see fighting against corruption as a key, a key benchmark of whether we should go further and assist them some more in all of their needs, including military. 

Julie Mason: How is Zelensky doing domestically? 

Donald Jensen: He came into office, as you may recall, with a wave of enthusiasm, a lot of new-breed people who were not in public life during the previous administrations or the Soviet era, of course. His polling is gone down a lot. I think there's no other alternative right now for most Ukrainian voters. So if I were to, to predict I would say he would get reelected in a couple of years, but he's certainly not as popular. He emphasized his ability to bring the war to a close, he emphasized his ability to fight corruption. And he's not been particularly successful on either, although, of course, with the fighting in Donbas, the Russians are the culprit, not Zelensky.

Julie Mason: Now, this, I would imagine, this is a bit of a sensitive spot for Joe Biden as well.

Donald Jensen: It is, it is. Almost within minutes last week of the events in Kabul, the Russian propaganda machine started to crank out: "The U.S. will not come to your assistance." And of course, there's every indication that they will, but that was immediately a theme played on Russian media and even echoed of in some quarters in Kiev, that the U.S. is not reliable. However, the U.S. has been very reliable. And if anything, we may even see some greater commitments to military assistance coming out of this meeting.

Julie Mason: Zelensky, unhappy with the recent U.S.-German agreement on Nord Stream 2, what's Ukraine's involvement in that pipeline?

Donald Jensen: Well, Ukraine sees, as they should, the Nord Stream 2 as a threat, the completion of the pipeline, as a threat to their own energy security and as a threat to their revenue streams. As you probably noticed, Merkel was in Moscow over the weekend talking with Putin, her last trip. And so Ukraine is very, very nervous about it. Ukraine wishes that the pipeline had been stopped, but it's not. So Ukraine is trying to adjust and they not happy about what's going on.

Julie Mason: I wonder if Biden and Zelensky will do a little two and two presser at the White House.

Donald Jensen: That would be interesting. I don't recall offhand whether Zelensky speaks English but they very well may. We'll have to see.

Julie Mason: Can't wait. Thank you so much for joining me, Donald Jensen, director, Russia and strategic stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Have a great day, Donald. 

Donald Jensen: Thank you, Julie.

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