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In The Cross Fire: Ukraine's Outsized Role In The Race For The White House

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and U.S. President Donald Trump in New York on September 25, 2019.

WASHINGTON -- Ukraine’s role in the U.S. presidential campaign has been more a matter of politics than of policy.

The country of 44 million has had an outsized share of the spotlight in Washington at times -- for what many of its citizens might consider the wrong reasons.

The impeachment case against President Donald Trump, who was charged by the Democratic-led House of Representatives but acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate in February, centered on the allegation that Trump "used his official powers to pressure" Ukraine’s government to "interfere in a United States election for his personal political gain."

Trump and his Republican allies, meanwhile, have sought to discredit his opponent in the election, Democratic Party nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, by questioning the propriety of Biden’s actions in relation to Ukraine and of his son Hunter Biden’s former position on the board of a Kyiv-based natural-gas producer, Burisma.

These issues came to the fore briefly again in late September, a few weeks before the November 3 election, with a controversial report by Republican senators focusing on the older and younger Bidens’ activities in Ukraine and when the two candidates sparred over the same matters in their first of three televised debates, on September 29.

But despite the heated political battles, some analysts say the outcome of the election may have little effect on U.S. policy toward Ukraine after the president is inaugurated to a four-year term on January 20.

These observers said the next administration -- Trump’s or Biden’s -- is likely to continue to provide Kyiv with military support, including lethal weapons, to help Ukraine amid an ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

The United States is also likely to push the Ukrainian government to implement economic reforms, fight corruption, battle the influence of billionaire tycoons, and reduce reliance on Russia energy, they said, and to continue to reject Russia’s claim to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it occupied and seized control over in 2014.

“The policy will be similar,” John Herbst, who was U.S. ambassador to Kyiv in 2003-06 and now heads the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, told RFE/RL. He said that the main difference could be in the language on Ukraine coming from the White House.

Trump’s remarks about Ukraine have sometimes diverged from his administration’s approaches and actions -- or signaled a possible change in policy. During the 2016 campaign, he said that he would consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia and that as he understood it, the people of Crimea “would rather be with Russia.”

Officials in Trump’s administration have checked what critics say is Trump’s tendency to favor Russia over Ukraine, according to Herbst. And they steered him to approve sending lethal military aid to Ukraine, something President Barack Obama’s administration refrained from doing amid concern it could provoke more aggression from Moscow.

Style And Substance

Still, the dynamics could change if Trump is reelected, some analysts believe.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank who was U.S. ambassador to Kyiv in 2000-01, said he is concerned that Trump could feel he has a freer hand in a second term, in part because he would be constitutionally barred from seeking a third one.

“If Trump wins, I fear the foreign policies he may pursue on Ukraine, NATO, and Russia, when he will not face another reelection campaign and the Republican Party will be entirely in his pocket,” Pifer told RFE/RL.

He has also expressed strong distrust for Ukraine, according to former advisers, and while he has asserted that he has been tougher on Moscow than Obama was, he has sometimes appeared to show a preference for Russia. But so far, he has been boxed in by the U.S. Congress on foreign policy.

In 2017, Congress passed a major Russia sanctions bill with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Joe Biden (left) with his son Hunter, pictured in Washington, D.C. in January 2010.
Joe Biden (left) with his son Hunter, pictured in Washington, D.C. in January 2010.

The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation codified into law Obama-era sanctions that were imposed on Russia mainly for its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, and stipulated that congressional approval is required to lift them.

The sanctions are aimed to impose high economic costs on Russia to coerce it to return Crimea and withdraw from the Donbas, where more than 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict since April 2014. It has thus become a cornerstone of foreign policy toward Russia and, in effect, toward Ukraine.

“The most important thing to remember is that Congress has driven most of our policy” toward Ukraine and Russia, William Courtney, a regional analyst for the Rand Corporation think tank and a former diplomat and national security official with postings in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

“By and large, we have had bipartisan support through both [the Obama and Trump] administrations because Congress is concerned about Russia's imperialist behaviors,” Courtney said.

'Ground Zero'

That Congressional support has included more than $1.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014 -- including, under Trump, lethal anti-tank weapons, though these are not being used in the conflict with the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donbas.

U.S. congressional leaders have described Ukraine as “ground-zero” in what they say are the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine democracy in former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, and have called a well-protected and democratic Ukraine vital to U.S. security interests.

The importance of that military aid in the eyes of many in Washington became clear when Trump was accused in 2019 of seeking to withhold nearly $400 million worth of weapons and other defense items as he pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden’s activities in Ukraine -- the moves that led to Trump’s impeachment. Congress, including its Republican members, immediately called for the aid to be released.

This year, a bipartisan group of senators submitted a bill that would mandate up to $300 million a year in military aid to Ukraine. Courtney called it a bipartisan attempt “to hold Trump's feet to the fire” on support for Kyiv, and the bill’s sponsors cast it in a similar light.

“Strong, bipartisan support remains for our relationship with Ukraine and it’s clear Congress recognizes the strategic value of the partnership,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in a July 30 statement about the legislation.

Against that backdrop, however, the optics and the tenor of ties between Washington and Kyiv could potentially differ substantially depending on who wins the U.S. election.

Trump’s relationship with Kyiv has been fraught since his successful presidential campaign in 2016.

Less than three months before the U.S. election, Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau announced that it received secret documents indicating that Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign chairman, may have received $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from the Moscow-friendly Ukrainian political party he had advised.

Manafort soon stepped down. He was later arrested and sentenced to prison for money laundering and tax evasion.

No Visit

Meanwhile, several Ukrainian lawmakers, officials, and diplomats, Kyiv’s ambassador to the United States among them, publicly expressed concern over Trump’s statements about Ukraine during the campaign, including his remark about potentially recognizing Crimea as Russian territory.

In June 2017, Trump appeared to give visiting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko the cold shoulder, interacting with him briefly in what the White House described as a “drop-in” after a meeting between Poroshenko and Vice President Mike Pence.

Poroshenko’s successor, Zelenskiy, was initially expected to visit the White House in the summer of 2019, a few months after the TV comic and political novice won the Ukrainian presidency by a landslide in April.

Kyiv is fighting an ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Kyiv is fighting an ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Then came the July 25 phone call that ended up at the center of the impeachment case against Trump: the claim that he pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, including Biden, by withholding aid approved by Congress and Zelenskiy’s White House visit until the government in Kyiv made a public announcement of a probe.

Trump has denied he did anything wrong in his dealings with Ukraine and has called the impeachment process a "sham."

Sixteen months after his inauguration, Zelenskiy has yet to visit the White House. Analysts said the bitter backdrop of the months-long impeachment process, which ended with Trump’s acquittal by the Senate in February, could keep relations cool if Trump wins a second term.

“I can't ever picture Trump going to Ukraine,” said David Kramer, a former senior State Department official who is now a nonresident fellow at the McCain Institute think-tank.

Point Man

By contrast, Biden has been there a lot. As vice president throughout Obama’s two terms in 2009-2017, he visited Ukraine six times -- most recently in January 2017, a few days before Trump took office, when he sought to reassure the country of continued U.S. support.

Biden helped oversee U.S. military support for Ukraine starting in 2014, when the Maidan protests pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power. The pro-Western government that came to power immediately faced challenges from Russia, which seized control of Crimea and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow backed militants who seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Biden also assertively pushed the new government to carry out the kind of economic and justice-system reforms that Western countries and liberals say are crucial for Ukraine if it wants to resist Russian influence and thrive.

But much as Trump’s dealings with Kyiv led to his impeachment, it is Biden’s involvement with Ukraine, as well as his son’s former seat on the board of Burisma, that have been the touchstones of Republican criticism and allegations of impropriety.

At the heart of those accusations is the claim by backers of Trump that when Biden pressured Poroshenko to fire then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, he did so in order to protect Hunter Biden.

Biden denies he had any such motive. Trump and his allies have produced no concrete evidence supporting it, and Biden’s backers point to the fact that many Western governments and international institutions calling for reforms in Ukraine believed that Shokin, who was dismissed in March 2016, had been a significant obstacle to anti-corruption efforts.

More broadly, Trump has suggested that Hunter Biden, who was on the Burisma board for five years and reportedly had a salary of $50,000 a month, profited off his father’s name. “He walked away with a fortune from Ukraine,” Trump said in early September.

Biden has said his son’s work in Ukraine “may have looked bad” but was not “wrong.” In the debate against Trump on September 29, he asserted that the accusations had been “totally discredited" and reiterated that his son did “nothing wrong at Burisma."

'Tough Love'

The report released on September 23 by Republican Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, both committee chairmen, said that Hunter Biden’s position created a “potential conflict of interest” that undermined U.S. policy, but that it was "unclear" whether the former vice president altered U.S. policy or took any other actions to assist his son.

Perhaps underscoring how separate the U.S. political battles over Ukraine appear to be from U.S. policy on Ukraine, Johnson is a member of the Senate Ukraine Caucus -- a group that focuses attention on ties with Kyiv -- and a staunch supporter of the country.

Still, some analysts say that even assuming that Trump does not depart from his current Ukraine policy if elected to a second term, a White House led by Biden might be more active in pursuing some of the U.S. goals while also soothing concerns in Kyiv.

The “tough love” policy of pressing for economic reforms and a robust fight against corruption “would happen under both administrations, but maybe a little more vigorous under Biden because he has personally been involved with Ukraine,” Courtney said.

Kramer said that if Biden is elected, he would be likely to invite Zelenskiy to the White House and also to visit Ukraine, which would make him the first U.S. president to do so since George W. Bush in 2008.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.