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At Center Of Whirlwind, Can Ukraine Weather The Storm And Keep U.S. Support?


A combo photo shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and U.S. President Donald Trump.

It was supposed to be a special occasion, an event that would symbolize and strengthen the bond between the United States and Ukraine.

Back in early July, U.S. House members representing the bipartisan Ukraine Caucus were hoping Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy would address both chambers of Congress during a trip that was expected later in the summer and would also take him to the White House.

Zelenskiy, a former comic with no political experience, had easily defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko in an April runoff, after a campaign centered on pledges to curb corruption and end the five-year war against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The House members wanted to show their support for the new leader as he took charge of a country under persistent pressure from Russia, which seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and helped ignite the war in the Donbas by fomenting separatism following the ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

“Inviting President Zelenskiy to a joint meeting of Congress would serve as a strong symbolic message to the Kremlin: the American people stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people during this time of great need,” the lawmakers said.

Now, Zelenskiy’s visit to the White House is off the table for the foreseeable future -- instead, he talked to Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York late last month -- and the strength of the relationship between Kyiv and Washington is being tested at a critical stage in the history of Ukraine.

The former Soviet republic has found itself at the center of a U.S. political controversy that has led to an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, focusing in large part on his remarks in a phone call with Zelenskiy on July 25.

In its first weeks, the scandal has apparently led to the departure of Kurt Volker, who as U.S. special envoy for Ukraine had sought to shepherd Kyiv and Moscow toward peace without giving Russia the upper hand in any Donbas settlement deal.

It threatens to distract the United States from what officials have said are its larger aims in Ukraine, a nation of 44 million in a strategic but precarious geopolitical position between Russia and countries of NATO and the European Union.

The impeachment probe addresses whether Trump pressured Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on the Ukraine work of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is a front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election, and Biden’s son Hunter.

The novice Ukrainian president and his administration have to step carefully as House Democrats and Republicans go at each other over an impeachment inquiry just a year ahead of the election and Trump dismissed the probe as a “hoax” and a “coup” attempt.

“If all of a sudden now President Zelenskiy allows Ukraine to become a political football in the American 2020 election, he puts at risk that bi-partisan [U.S.] support,” Steven Pifer, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 1998-2000, said in a podcast interview with Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

$3 Billion In Aid

Ukraine has received strong bipartisan support in the United States since the Russian takeover of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 13,000 civilians and combatants.

The United States has given more than $3 billion in assistance to Ukraine over that time period, including about $1.5 billion in military aid, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent said in July.

Congress has also passed sanctions legislation against Russia for its actions in Ukraine with overwhelming bipartisan support. At the same time, members of Congress and State Department officials have been advising Ukraine on reforms to strengthen its military, reduce energy dependence on Russia, tackle corruption, and boost economic growth.

In June, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin called Ukraine “ground zero” in a geopolitical standoff between Russia and the United States. Advocates of muscular U.S. backing for Kyiv have expressed concern that Ukraine’s position at the center of the U.S. political controversy, even if it is a largely passive player, jeopardizes that support.

“The Ukrainian people have been strong allies to the U.S. and Europe and deserve our uninterrupted support,” Representative Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio and co-chair of the Ukraine Caucus, said in a statement to RFE/RL.

Kurt Volker is no longer serving as the special envoy to Ukraine.
Kurt Volker is no longer serving as the special envoy to Ukraine.

The House of Representatives “must be laser-focused on the threat of Russian aggression in Ukraine” as it moves ahead with the impeachment inquiry, Kaptur said.

In Ukraine, there is also concern that Washington may take its eye off the ball and decrease backing for reform efforts seen as crucial to ensuring the country’s economic success and fending off Russian influence.

“Instead of recognizing the steps we have taken to address these issues, there is fear the focus will shift to these other things like high corruption and election interference,” Leonid Antonenko, a deputy in the Kyiv city legislature, told RFE/RL on October 3 during a visit to Washington to meet congressional staff and think-tank analysts.

Fears that U.S. backing for Ukraine could give way to drift have been compounded by personnel issues. Ahead of Volker’s exit came the late-summer departure of Fiona Hill, who had been senior director for European affairs at the White House National Security Council for two and a half years -- and Trump’s dismissal of Hill’s boss, John Bolton, who met with Zelenskiy in Kyiv just five weeks ago.

The United States has been without a full-fledged ambassador to Ukraine since Marie Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled in May. Colleagues have come to her defense as she has faced vocal criticism from Trump, who -- according to the record of the Zelenskiy phone call released by the White House -- said she was “bad news.”

On October 2, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an assurance that the impeachment probe and related developments will not detail engagement with Kyiv, saying that U.S. policy toward Ukraine is focused on reducing the threat Russia poses to the country, fighting graft, and boosting the economy.

“It’s what we will continue to do, even while all this noise is going on,” Pompeo said.

Meanwhile, some analysts said the turmoil could end up leading to increased U.S. backing.

Ukraine could potentially see more U.S. support if Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials can “keep their heads down” during the impeachment probe, said Donald Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a former U.S. diplomat.

A 'Distraction' In D.C.

“Over the longer term, I think the prospects for further assistance to Ukraine will certainly not be hurt and may be improved by all of this,” Jensen said. He stressed that Kyiv’s success depends more on whether Zelenskiy can push through reforms and cut graft than what happens with the impeachment process in the United States.

Morgan Williams, the president of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, said that while recent developments cast a negative spotlight on Ukraine, foreign investors are more concerned about Zelenskiy’s reform agenda.

“The Biden story and impeachment [process are] a distraction. There is no question that the overall issue -- selling off state assets, fighting corruption -- is of far more importance,” he said.

Calling Kyiv: Ukrainians Caught Up In Trump Impeachment Battle
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WATCH: Ukrainians Caught Up In Trump Impeachment Battle

The U.S.-Ukraine Business Council has seen at least eight more American companies express interest in joining over the past month amid signs that Zelenskiy is carrying out reforms, Williams said.

On the military side, the State Department on October 3 approved the sale of 150 anti-tank missiles and related equipment worth up to $39.2 million to Ukraine.

But the circumstances of the U.S. political controversy could undermine the reform agenda, in Ukraine, Pifer said.

“I think it is very hard for us to be in Ukraine now pushing an anti-corruption message when Ukrainians can say, ‘But what is going on in Washington?’” he said.

War And Gas

Some have also voiced concern that the infighting in Washington and loss of key figures such as Volker could undermine efforts to bring an end to the conflict in the Donbas on terms that are acceptable to Ukraine.

But Pifer said he does not see a negative impact on the peace process, citing the caliber of State Department officials still dealing with Ukraine. And John Herbst, also a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, called Volker’s “an energetic voice” that will be missed but said he sees “no evidence” that the impeachment probe is affecting U.S. support for a resolution that is favorable to Kyiv.

However, questions remain about the fate of U.S. legislation to impose sanctions on an under-construction Russian gas pipeline that U.S. officials say threatens to harm Ukraine’s economy and undermine its security.

The bill, which has yet to be brought to the House or the Senate for a vote, would have to be passed by both houses and then signed by the president to become law.

As of the beginning of October, Russia had completed more than 80 percent of Nord Stream 2, a new sea-based gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea to Germany.

The pipeline that would reduce Russia’s need to ship gas to Europe overland through Ukraine. Kyiv stands to lose as much as $3 billion in annual revenues if the pipeline becomes operational, experts say.

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