President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke on Friday morning for the first time since Biden took office, amid reports of a Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine that has alarmed U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
The leaders spoke for 30 to 40 minutes, according to a person with knowledge of the call. A White House readout of the conversation said Biden “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.”
The leaders also discussed Zelensky’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, which are “central to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” the readout says.
The conversation follows at least three high-level calls between the U.S. and Ukraine this week between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Ukrainian counterparts.
Ukrainian officials had been pushing for a call between Zelensky and Biden for weeks, including in a recent call between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Zelensky aid Andriy Yermak, according to one person familiar with their conversation.
Biden had been keeping Ukraine at arm's length while quietly pushing for further reforms in a country he spent years getting to know as vice president, and one that is a critical front in the West’s efforts to contain Russia.
But Ukrainian officials have been advocating for a show of support from the U.S. president amid renewed fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine that killed four Ukrainian soldiers last week.
The clashes marked the end of a June 2020 ceasefire, and Russian forces have begun building up military equipment along the border. U.S. European Command raised its alert status to the highest level following the skirmishes.
The Pentagon is on alert as Russia has more broadly stepped up its activity in Eastern Europe and the Arctic over the past week. NATO jets scrambled 10 times on Monday alone to respond to Russian fighter and bomber flights near allied airspace. And last week, three nuclear-armed Russian submarines surfaced in the Arctic, a new show of force in a challenging region.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for homeland defense, acknowledged the recent uptick in Russian aggression, pointing to Moscow’s efforts to “reassert its influence on a global stage.”
The Biden administration recently approved an additional $125 million worth of lethal aid to Ukraine to defend its borders with Russia, including two armed patrol boats and counter-artillery radar. While the Obama administration sent military equipment to Ukraine, the lethal aid didn't come until the Trump administration. The U.S. has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, including providing Javelin anti-tank missiles.
“We obviously don’t want to see any more violations of Ukrainian territory,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said this week. “We’ve been very clear about the threats that we see from Russia across domains ... we’re taking them very seriously.”