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Ukraine Is Center Stage In The Impeachment Probe, But Moscow Feels Shock Waves

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left), U.S. President Donald Trump (center), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (combo photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left), U.S. President Donald Trump (center), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (combo photo)

One day before the phone call that led to the impeachment probe into President Donald Trump, there was a public appearance by the man whose investigation, many assumed, had already imperiled Trump's presidency.

The focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's 22-month investigation was the same focus of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the U.S. intelligence community: Russia and its role in the U.S. presidential election of 2016.

But as the congressional impeachment inquiry against Trump enters a new phase, with televised public hearings beginning on November 13, it's Ukraine that is now at center stage.

And regardless of whether Trump is ultimately impeached, or removed from office, the reverberations will affect U.S. relations with Moscow, not just Kyiv, for years to come.

"It's funny, but not really that funny," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser and now an independent political analyst, suggesting that U.S. policy has been tainted by the badly troubled relationship between Russia and Ukraine – countries he likened to a "pathological couple" who are at each other's throats.

"The United States has fallen into the trap that Russia and Ukraine have been caught in for years, and this is absolutely surprising for me," Pavlovsky told RFE/RL. "America has become sort of a dependent of this pathology, and this has resulted in a degradation of its foreign policy."

U.S. ties with Russia have been in a downward spiral since around the time Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012 following a four-year stint as prime minister.

Street protests in Moscow, Russian legislation curbing gay rights, and a 2012 U.S. law intended to punish Russian human-rights abusers had all begun to poison the bilateral relationship even before, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded, Russian spy agencies meddled in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Russia's role in the U.S. election, and interactions between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials in 2016, were among the main factors that led to Mueller's investigation and sparked months of speculation about Russia's intentions and ties to the Trump White House.

Mueller's investigation, which he discussed publicly for the first time on July 24, did not find that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election and did not establish that Trump obstructed justice, a federal crime. It also did not exonerate him on that score.

It did, however, find what Mueller called "multiple, systematic efforts" by Russia to interfere in the U.S. election.

'A Certain Irony'

On July 25, Trump held a phone call with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which he told Zelenskiy, "I would like you to do us a favor."

A central question for impeachment investigators: Was Trump threatening to withhold military aid for Ukraine if Zelenskiy didn't open investigations linked to one of Trump's main rivals for the presidency in 2020.

"There is a certain irony in Congress developing so much momentum over Ukraine, since the Ukrainian scandal involves an even less consequential set of actions than the Russian scandal," Keith Whittington, a professor of political science and constitutional law at Princeton University, told RFE/RL.

"And it is a bit odd that the Russian scandal has been left completely behind after occupying so much attention for so many months," Whittington said.

Russia may be happy to let its smaller, more vulnerable neighbor take center stage, accompanied by unsubstantiated assertions that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election and then blamed it on Russia.

The foreign-policy implications for Ukraine are already clear. Since 2014, Kyiv has relied on military aid from the United States as it battled militants in eastern Ukraine whose Russian backing is an open secret.

Support from Washington, as well as from European allies and global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, has buttressed Ukraine's shaky economy.

In its fight with Russia, Ukraine has had bipartisan support, from both Democrats and Republicans. The nearly $400 million military-aid package that Trump's accusers say he held up as a way to force Zelenskiy to open criminal investigations involving his political rival passed easily as part of the 2019 U.S. federal budget legislation.

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine (file photo)
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine (file photo)

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine and one of the first witnesses scheduled to testify in the public phase of the impeachment, told House lawmakers in earlier testimony that the Kremlin would be very happy to see Zelenskiy weakened, or embarrassed, by Washington.

"If Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace," Taylor said when he testified before Congress on October 22. "In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people, and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world."

Moscow "would love the humiliation of Zelenskiy at the hands of the Americans," he said.

'Rehashing' Russian Talking Points

U.S support for Ukraine has been badly impaired under Trump, said Andrew Weiss, a former top Russia adviser in both Republican and Democratic administrations -- mainly, he said, due to what he called Trump's willingness "to rehash Kremlin talking points on the conflict."

Weiss, currently a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, argued that lower-level U.S. officials were able to maintain earlier existing support for Ukraine that had predated the Trump administration.

But, he said, "the Russians have been all too aware that Donald Trump doesn't really care about Ukraine. Now that this issue is becoming a domestic political football, the only real winner is Vladimir Putin."

That's not to say Moscow is completely happy about the ramifications of the Ukraine affair, other experts said. Russian political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya predicted that the impeachment process would engender a "new cycle of chaos and madness...which may lead to more negative repercussions for Russia."

"The rest of the U.S. political class, both Democratic and Republican, represents a long-term strategic threat to Russia and its geopolitical interests. Thus, regardless of whatever headaches Trump may create for the Kremlin, he will always seem like the lesser evil," she wrote in a commentary last month. "Not surprisingly, whatever happens to Trump, Putin publicly supports him. But now, there is more scrutiny than ever on Trump's foreign-policy conduct, and he will likely not be able to operate in secret."

"For Putin, it would have been better if the Ukraine scandal had never happened," Stanovaya said.

Unpredictability Is The Watchword

Thomas Graham, a top National Security Council adviser under President George W. Bush, said that, with the focus on impeachment, few people in Washington are paying attention to the state of current policymaking on both Ukraine and Russia.

"Not only is the process broken within the administration, but there are few people in place with expert knowledge to even begin to make policy in a serious way," Graham told RFE/RL.

Making matters worse, he said, U.S. foreign policy generally takes a back seat during U.S. election years – a challenge for Ukraine as Zelenskiy tries to build momentum to resolve the conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

"The United States will be largely absent from this diplomacy, even though we have equities to protect," Graham said. "And who knows what President Trump will decide to do after talking to Putin, especially in the absence of any solid policy advice coming from the national security bureaucracy?"

As candidate as well as president, Trump has bucked much, though not all, of the thinking in U.S. foreign policy on how to approach Russia, calling for a largely more conciliatory policy.

Ivan Kurilla, a history professor at the European University in St. Petersburg and a specialist in U.S. politics who authored the 2018 book Sworn Friends, said that a new Trump-Putin summit won't happen anytime soon.

And he argued that, with U.S. lawmakers and policymakers consumed by the impeachment probe, its aftermath, and then election-year politics, Russia could feel emboldened.

"At the same time, Trump and the Congress will be so focused on the procedure that Russia could find she has a green light to do whatever it wants in different regions," Kurilla said. "America will not respond [unless] the move is so bold that the U.S. public demands retaliation."

"Unpredictability is the watchword," Graham said.

That sentiment was echoed by Pavlovsky.

"Honestly speaking, it's hard for me to understand what's going on in [U.S.] politics right now," he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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