19 November 2019

What the Impeachment Inquiry Means for the U.S. Relationship With Ukraine

Casey Michel

The quickly unfolding impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump has already ensnared many other people, while raising more and more questions. From the extent of Trump’s involvement in pressuring Ukraine to investigate his domestic political rivals to the culpability of prominent officials in and outside his administration in that scheme, the public hearings that started this week have set the stage for an impeachment vote that could be among the most pivotal political moments in recent American history.

One of the questions swirling around this scandal is what the revelations about Trump will mean for future U.S. policy toward Ukraine. That is, can the Ukrainian government continue to rely on Washington as a reliable partner in its efforts to dislodge Russian-backed separatists from eastern Ukraine, while steering a course toward the European Union and fulfilling the promise of the country’s successful, pro-democracy revolution five years ago?

The fallout from the impeachment inquiry so far has already been swift. Just in the past month, reporting has revealed—and testimony has corroborated—that the White House placed a surprise, and apparently illegal, hold on congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine, totaling nearly $400 million. When Kyiv discovered the hold in early August, Ukrainian officials were, as The Wall Street Journal reported, “stunned,” leading them on a “panicked search for answers,” as Christopher Miller, a journalist based in Kyiv, added. At the time, the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon were all “unanimous” in their support for providing the aid to Ukraine.

The timing of the move thrust recently elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into an uncomfortable position. The memo of Trump’s infamous July call with Zelensky paints the Ukrainian president in a fawning, awkward light. Zelensky’s government thought his comments would not be released by Washington. And as The New York Times revealed last week, Zelensky had actually agreed to publicly announce the opening of an investigation into Biden, risking the bipartisan support Ukraine has cultivated in the U.S. following the country’s 2014 Maidan revolution.

Trump’s willingness to use Ukraine as a pawn in U.S. domestic politics risked undercutting all of the backing his administration has shown Kyiv since his inauguration. Much of that support has, indeed, been somewhat surprising. After all, this is a president who flirted during the 2016 campaign with recognizing Russian sovereignty over Crimea, unwinding NATO, and even rolling back elements of American sanctions on Russian entities that were imposed after Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. So far, though, the Trump administration has refused to recognize any of Moscow’s claims in Crimea, and expanded U.S. sanctions designations, including against Russian entities and individuals. Meanwhile, NATO—a favorite target of Trump’s—continues to gain new members, with North Macedonia slated to join the alliance next month.

Likewise, the Trump administration has illustrated a greater willingness than the Obama administration to supply Ukraine with the type of military equipment Ukraine has requested to fight its war against separatist forces propped up by Moscow in the eastern Donbas region, which continues to claim lives. Whereas President Barack Obama held back on supplying Ukrainian forces with weapons like advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles—a policy that Biden reportedly disagreed with—the U.S. under Trump has already sold hundreds of them to Ukraine.

But as the impeachments inquiry has shown, the steadfast support Washington has shown Kyiv in recent years is far less certain than many presumed. That is due, namely, to the willingness of Trump to dangle much-needed aid in return for political favors. Not only has the White House proved willing to slow-walk military aid to Ukraine, but, as The Washington Post reported earlier this month, Trump in 2017 reportedly even questioned whether or not Ukraine was a “real country” deserving of American assistance.

As Trump’s behavior has shown, U.S. support for Ukraine is now contingent—not on normal bilateral relations, but on Ukraine’s willingness to cater to Trump’s personal interests.

For Kyiv, the timing of the new revelations couldn’t be worse. Zelensky’s April election, in which he trounced incumbent Petro Poroshenko, was predicated in large part on his pledge to solve the Donbas dilemma. To that end, in early October, Zelensky, along with Moscow and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, agreed on the so-called “Steinmeier Formula.” The deal, an outgrowth of the Minsk agreements struck in 2014 and 2015 that aimed to establish cease-fires and a path to peace, would provide the separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine with a new self-governing territorial status—provided the regions held elections deemed free and fair by the OSCE. As the Kyiv Post noted, “A key condition for the elections to take place is for the Russian forces and Russian-backed militants to leave the territory and for Ukraine to regain control over the eastern border with Russia.”

A little over a month ago, with Kyiv and Moscow at a stalemate, the Steinmeier agreement appeared to offer both an opportunity for gains in an otherwise intractable conflict. Ukraine would regain control of its eastern regions, reaffirming its territorial integrity—minus Crimea. Russia, for its part, would be able to extricate itself from a geopolitical standoff that has become a financial drain on an already sagging economy, while still assuring those eastern regions a unique status within Ukraine’s body politic, as Moscow wants. At the time of the agreement, the Steinmeier Formula appeared as close to a win-win as either side could hope for.

But that agreement came with the implicit understanding that Kyiv would enjoy Washington’s full backing, and that, if the deal collapsed, the U.S. would fall firmly on Ukraine’s side in any resulting friction. That assumption, though, no longer holds up. With so many questions about the state of U.S.-Ukraine ties under Trump, the momentum is now clearly on Russia’s side should the Kremlin want to restructure the Donbas agreement—say, by refusing to coax the militants it backs to leave the region.

As Trump’s behavior has shown, U.S. support for Ukraine is now contingent—not on normal bilateral relations, but on Ukraine’s willingness to cater to Trump’s personal ambitions and political future. While the White House’s efforts to compel Ukraine to act as an arm of Trump’s reelection campaign may have faltered, there’s no guarantee that Trump may not try again. Coupled with Trump’s apparent anger toward Ukraine over a conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in the 2016 election, targeting him, U.S.-Ukrainian relations are in trouble. Moscow certainly recognizes this reality and will be looking for ways to exploit it.

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