As Talks With Putin Loom, Ukraine Looks in Vain for U.S. Help

Anton Troianovski
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an award ceremony marking the National Unity Day in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainians are used to hearing the West call for stability in their country. This fall, the roles have reversed.

“Ukraine would very much like to see a stable political situation in the States,” said Alexander Turchynov, the previous Ukrainian president’s national security adviser. The relationship between Kyiv and Washington, he added, “is a question of life and death for us.”

As the impeachment spectacle unfolds in Washington, attention is focused on President Donald Trump and the ramifications for domestic politics. But the scandal is having a major effect on Ukraine, weakening President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s position as he hopes to start face-to-face talks in coming weeks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia over ending the war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin has sent signals that he is prepared to dial down tensions with Ukraine, especially since this could help him escape from economic sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States. But he wants to end the war on his terms, and thanks to the disarray in U.S. policy in Ukraine, politicians and officials in Kyiv say, the chances of that are improving.

In that respect, Ukraine seems to have joined a long list of foreign policy issues where Trump has intervened in such a way as to advance the Kremlin’s interest, whether in pressuring NATO, withdrawing from Syria, pushing Brexit, siding with right-wing European populists or defending Russia against charges of meddling in the 2016 election.

We are not interested in any chaos within the United States political system because we are really, really relying on it,” said lawmaker Bohdan Yaremenko, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Ukrainian Parliament and a Zelenskiy ally. Less American engagement in Ukraine, Yaremenko said, would offer Russia a “clear sign that they could allow themselves more in Ukraine — to be more aggressive, more active.”

Sitting on the East-West divide, Ukraine has sometimes been called the new Berlin Wall. The ouster of its Russia-friendly president in 2014 seemed to mark a turning point, aligning Kyiv with the West. Now, the Kremlin seems poised, if not to reverse the tide, at least to shift it more in its favor.

In one sign of Moscow’s increasing leverage, Zelenskiy recently reached out for a direct meeting with Putin, without Western leaders present as intermediaries. In another, business tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky — one of the country’s most influential figures — said he favored rebuilding ties with Russia.

In the past, U.S. diplomats worked closely with Kyiv in any talks with Moscow. They presented a united front to the Kremlin, cajoled the European Union to maintain sanctions and tried to reassure a nervous Ukrainian public. Kurt D. Volker, the State Department special envoy for Ukraine, traveled to the country frequently, held talks with Russian officials and agitated on behalf of Kyiv at the White House, on Capitol Hill and in Europe.

But with American policy and personnel scrambled by revelations about Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate Democrats, the United States is now largely absent from the political and diplomatic process over resolving the war in the east, Ukrainian and Western officials in Kyiv say.

Since this spring, as Trump’s pressure campaign built toward its highest pitch, at least nine officials who had a hand in Ukraine policy have either resigned or become distanced from the Trump administration after testifying in the impeachment inquiry: Volker; John Bolton, the former national security adviser; Fiona Hill, the former adviser on Europe and Russia at the White House; Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine; Michael McKinley, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council; and diplomats Gordon D. Sondland, William B. Taylor Jr. and George P. Kent.

Only Taylor is still active in Ukraine, serving as the acting U.S. ambassador. On Wednesday, Taylor testified to the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry, that his aide was told in July that Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine.

But Ukrainian and Western officials in Kyiv said they doubted that Taylor spoke for Trump, who dismissed the veteran diplomat as a “Never Trumper” after he offered damaging testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

Americans had been “providing this backup and legitimacy of the Ukrainian position,” said Oksana Syroid, who heads a Ukrainian political party, Self Reliance, that supports closer ties with Washington.

But with the expanding cloud of controversy surrounding U.S.-Ukraine relations, Ukraine is now “kind of naked,” Syroid said. “We are alone confronting Russia.”

Zelenskiy in recent weeks has pushed forward with a plan for the mutual withdrawal of troops at several points on the front lines of the war in coordination with the separatists. The moves, which have not gone smoothly, are meant to pave the way for Zelenskiy’s first official meeting with Putin.

“We have to resolve all the issues by looking each other in the eyes, not by talking on the phone,” Zelenskiy said recently in explaining the need to meet with Putin.

No date has been set for the meeting, but Zelenskiy’s administration sees a window of opportunity to negotiate. The Kremlin has taken some conciliatory steps, such as exchanging prisoners with Kyiv, while Russians are growing tired of the war and of Western sanctions, Yaremenko, the Zelenskiy ally in Parliament, said.

Many Ukrainians are already nervous about their inexperienced president negotiating with Putin. Some 20,000 people marched in the Ukrainian capital last month to protest Zelenskiy’s peace plan, warning of an imminent “capitulation.”

Four-way summits between Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia took place five times under Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, during the Obama administration. At the time, State Department officials were coordinating almost daily with the Europeans and Ukrainians to present Moscow with a united front.

Syroid said she believes both Democrats and Republicans are now thinking twice about even communicating with Ukrainians for fear of being bound up in the impeachment maelstrom. Some officials in Kyiv said Ukraine had become “toxic” in Washington.

Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who played a key role in managing Ukraine policy, told congressional investigators that he pointedly ignored a “Hello, how are you?” text message this fall from a top adviser to Zelenskiy.

“I just didn’t want to respond once the matter had become contentious,” Sondland said, according to the transcript of his deposition released on Nov. 5.

Ukrainians are now baffled about whom they should speak with in Washington. State Department officials are discussing whether to divide the role of Ukraine envoy among several diplomats instead of replacing Volker, who was working part time in the job, and without pay.

“Right now, there is no one,” Turchynov, the former national security adviser, said, “who knows in detail the situation in Ukraine and can at any moment give advice, consult, have our back and pass on objective information about events happening in the country to the highest political level in America.”

The shadow cast onto Ukraine by the impeachment process has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. The revelations about the Trump administration’s pressure campaign back up a core element of the Kremlin’s propaganda about U.S. involvement in Ukraine: that faraway Washington only sees the country as a means to its own ends, without caring for the well-being of regular Ukrainians.

Similarly, Trump’s orders that U.S. troops abandon their Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria but guard the country’s oil fields played into the longtime Russian message that America is an unreliable ally and that its interests in the Middle East are just pecuniary.

Putin has already taken strategic advantage of Trump’s erratic foreign policy to emerge as a kingmaker in the Middle East. One question now is how Putin might seek to capitalize on the confusion over U.S. support for Ukraine. Despite the war, many Ukrainians still have close personal or cultural ties to their eastern neighbor, and a September poll found that 54% of Ukrainians have a positive view of Russia.

For now, many Ukrainians insist that the impeachment-related tumult has not shaken their long-term faith in America, and they note the strong voices of support they have received from Congress and from the officials testifying in the impeachment inquiry.

But signs of a possible shift are emerging. One senior European official who works closely on Ukraine policy said that Ukrainians suffered from a misguided belief that the United States would fix everything. Now, the official said, Ukrainians ought to finally recognize that the EU is their closer, more reliable partner.

On Oct. 28, one of Ukraine’s business newspapers, Delovaya Stolitsa, published a column that concluded with a similar point:

“It’s clear that today Ukraine’s vectors need to be moved closer to a balance of relationships with the leading players (other than Russia, of course), and their less infantile governments, which don’t drag other countries into their no-holds-barred political fights.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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