Trump and Ukraine: Uneasy Allies
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, it is time to reflect on the impact of Trump's presidency on various countries across the globe. How do different countries look back upon four years of President Trump? Second stop in the series “Four Years Trump: Taking Stock and Looking Forward”: Ukraine. Taras Kuzio looks back and concludes that Ukraine still has to fully overcome its worries and fears.
Donald Trump is the fifth US president that an independent Ukraine has had to deal with, and by far the most confusing. When he was elected in 2016, champagne corks popped in both Russia and Ukraine, but for different reasons: In Moscow to celebrate, in Kyiv to drown their sorrows.
Ukraine’s relations with the West are defined by two constants: The US is still considered the leader of NATO, whereas the EU is considered weak and divided. France and Germany both seem to follow a pro-Russian strategic course and have at times sided with Russia in the Normandy Format meetings on the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. They have always been less-than-trusted allies for Kyiv.
This is worrying to Ukraine since the EU plays a key role in the West’s sanctions regime against Russia after its annexation of Crimea and its ongoing military aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas region. Since pro-Russian populists have gained in power in some EU countries, there remains a threat to the renewal each six months of extending these sanctions.
This is the reason that Kyiv watches with trepidation when the EU votes to extend its Russia-sanctions every six months. It used to be a standing joke that “there are two Russian embassies in Kyiv; only one speaks German.” As a result, Ukraine has looked to the US and NATO for its security, rather than to the ever more divided EU.
It is therefore no surprise that over the last three decades, Ukrainian presidents, governments and oligarchs have hired a stream of political consultants and lobbyists to gain a foothold in the US political arena. From Bill Clinton, to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Ukraine has invested in each presidential candidate.
To Kyiv, Democrat or Republican makes no difference, as long as the one occupying the White House is tough on Russia and supports Ukraine’s sovereignty
Some oligarchs – like Viktor Pinchuk – have even invested in Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. This indicates that Kyiv does not have any political or ideological favourites in Washington; Democrat or Republican makes no difference, as long as the one occupying the White House is tough on Russia and supports Ukraine’s sovereignty.
From Clinton to Obama: Russia policy as the litmus test
Of the past five US presidents, Kyiv’s favourites have been Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush. During the Clinton presidency (1993-2001), Ukraine became the third largest recipient of US aid (after Israel and Egypt) and could fall back on broad bipartisan Congressional support.
The so-called Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed in December 1994 by Ukraine, Russia, the US and the United Kingdom, facilitating the denuclearisation of Ukraine (France and China, although nuclear powers, did not sign). The US strongly supported Ukraine’s close cooperation with NATO and offered backing for Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia.
The administration of President George W. Bush (junior) probably had the strongest political will to support Ukraine’s integration into Transatlantic structures. Particularly Vice President Dick Cheney is remembered for being very tough towards Russia. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko could not capitalise on Washington’s strong support, mainly due to internal conflicts in the ‘orange’ coalition. As a result, Ukraine missed an opportunity to enter NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) process.
Nevertheless, President Bush’s neo-conservative agenda to promote and support democracy abroad stood in stark contrast to the approach of his father. President George H.W. Bush is still remembered for (what was popularly dubbed) his so-called ‘chicken Kyiv’ speech to the Ukrainian parliament in August 1991, warning Ukrainians not to push for independence.
Most Ukrainians do not have fond memories of President Barack Obama either, for a variety of reasons. First off, Obama launched a re-set with Russia, only a year after its invasion of Georgia. The US (and the EU) decided not to impose sanctions against Russia, sending President Vladimir Putin a signal that he might also get away with invading the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. As with all re-sets with Russia, Obama’s (well-intentioned, but naïve) policy failed to improve US-Russian relations.
Obama’s hands-off foreign policy proved to be disastrous
Obama was also disliked among Ukrainians for moving away from his predecessor’s neo-conservative agenda of assertive democracy promotion in combination with continued NATO enlargement. Obama’s hands-off foreign policy proved to be disastrous not only in Syria, where all his ‘red lines’ were ignored, but also in Ukraine after Russia invaded Crimea and became militarily involved in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The Obama administration failed to honour the US security commitments made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and limited itself to condemning Russia’s military aggression, backing sanctions and providing military assistance (but excluding lethal weapons). Little wonder that Ukrainians now believe they had been hoodwinked into giving up the world’s third largest nuclear weapon arsenal.
Enter Trump: Realpolitik and Russian “collusion”
President Trump became directly entangled in Ukrainian politics because his election campaign was led by Paul Manafort, who had spent the previous decade in Ukraine working for the kleptocratic and the pro-Russian Party of Regions. During his election campaign, Trump had initially argued that Crimea was part of Russia by virtue of the fact “Russians lived there.”1
Trump had also been harshly critical of NATO and backed European populists who were either outspoken Russophiles or at least Putinverstehers. Russia therefore could reasonably believe that with the election of Trump, US support for NATO would be weakened. The ultimate objective would be to reinvigorate the post-Yalta (1945) grand bargain between the US and Russia, which would assign Eurasia as Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. In other words, Russia believed that President Trump would back a Kissinger-style Realist foreign policy which would accomplish three strategic objectives Russia has steadfastly pursued since 1991.
First is Russia’s demand to be recognised as a Great Power on a par with the US, regardless of the disparity in economic power. Second is Russia’s claim that this Great Power status would legitimate its hegemony over large chunks of Eurasia, including Ukraine. The third objective is that – as a corollary of both other claims – Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO and the EU as full members should be dropped, probably in favour of a Finnish-style neutrality within Russia’s sphere of influence.
One could say that the Trump administration has (on balance) been much tougher on Russia than anyone expected
Clearly, Russia’s objectives and hopes for the Trump administration have come to naught. In fact, one could say that the Trump administration has (on balance) been much tougher on Russia than anyone expected. One reason why Russia has failed to achieve any of its three strategic objectives, is that it has clearly shot itself in the foot by interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections. Russia’s bold and ham-fisted efforts have had only one result: Democrats and Republicans have now unanimously turned against Russia and Putin.
The Pew Research Center reported in February 2020 that “Americans’ views of Russia are now at their lowest point in more than a decade. The 18% of Americans who today have a positive view of Russia is far lower than the 44% who expressed a favourable opinion when the question was first asked in 2007.”2 This means that the average American is more negative vis-à-vis Russia than the population in The Netherlands (23% positive – despite a Russian missile shooting down MH17 where two thirds of passengers were Dutch); France (33% positive); and Germany (35% positive).
US public hostility towards Russia has greatly influenced the Trump administration’s Russia policy and – as a result – has had a major impact on Ukraine’s strategic circumstances. The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress, are fiercely critical towards Russia and Putin. The same sentiment was dominant within the close circles of foreign policy, security, and defence advisors in the White House with President Trump’s positive stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin diametrically at odds with American and Congressional opinion.
Critical attitudes towards Russia in Washington have limited President Trump’s options and thereby avoided what could well have been a disastrous US policy
It is telling that In Washington D.C. only one think tank (the Nixon Center) has stayed a pro-Russian course, whereas all Democratic, Republicans and bipartisan think-tanks have been staunchly critical towards Russia. These realities have limited President Trump’s options towards Russia and thereby avoided what could well have been a disastrous US policy towards Europe and Eurasia.
As a result of this broad bipartisan anti-Russia sentiment, US economic and financial sanctions vis-à-vis Russia have been markedly tougher than those imposed by the EU. President Trump realises all too well that the sanctions can only be lifted with Congressional approval, which means that Trump has signed much of this sanction’s legislation knowing that any presidential veto would be overturned by Congress.
The Trump administration has also been tough towards Russia on arms agreements (such as the INF Treaty). His undiplomatic haranguing has even led some NATO members to increase their defence spending to the agreed 2% of GDP.
All this has basically been good news to Ukraine, but what has been most important is the Trump administration’s decision to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine – unlike Obama who vetoed it. Other forms of military assistance and training have also been increased. Nevertheless, in 2019 Trump – at least allegedly – threatened to halt military assistance to Ukraine unless the Ukrainian authorities investigated his 2020 presidential rival, Joe Biden.
The Biden affair: Ukraine takes centre stage
In 2019, Ukraine became the uncomfortable focal point in US politics, through no fault of Kyiv itself. Democrats and some Republicans had always claimed that President Trump had been elected in 2016 with the assistance of Russian election interference, an allegation staunchly denied by Trump. This claim clearly hurt the ego of President Trump and proved to be incompatible with his narcissism.
Trump therefore was initially amenable to the conspiracy plot allegation (first made by President Putin, and subsequently promoted by right-wing US media) that it had been Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered in the 2016 elections by opposing Trump’s election. This was not the case and Ukraine, like all foreign countries, merely expressed its favourite in the 2016 elections.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy landed in the middle of this crisis when he was elected Ukrainian president in April 2019. That summer, President Trump ostensibly called his Ukrainian counterpart to discuss a quid pro quo, making US military assistance contingent upon Ukraine launching an investigation into former Vice President Biden. This episode quickly escalated in the infamous presidential impeachment process.
What came to be known as the ‘Trump-Ukraine scandal’ quickly turned into a circus when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani sought “witnesses” in Ukraine among discredited pro-Russian politicians, corrupt ex-prosecutors, as well as Putin’s “useful idiots.” During the 2020 election campaign, President Trump is set to attack his Democratic rival for “corruption” and to call attention to Hunter Biden’s role as a consultant to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma when his father was vice president.
From the possible options to support and strengthen Ukraine’s security situation the US remains the best bet
Still, from the possible options to support and strengthen Ukraine’s security situation the US remains the best bet, regardless of all the conspiracy theories on Trump’s ties with Russia and Putin. President Putin may well hold some financial kompromat on Trump (possibly through loans provided by Deutsche Bank which are now under investigation).3 However, this does certainly not mean that Trump is a Russian agent, as some of his Democratic rivals seem to imply.
Looking forward to the US presidential elections
For Ukraine, the US and NATO remain the best source of security, now and in the near future. With the UK on course to leave the EU and pro-Russian populists in power (or attempting to take power) in some parts of Europe, Ukraine can only rely on the US and NATO to contain a resurgent Russia.
France has become more pro-Russian since the 2017 elections with President Emmanuelle Macron being keen to ease and lift sanctions on Russia. Germany after Angela Merkel is also uncertain. Both countries are therefore pushing President Zelenskyy to be more “flexible” in negotiating “peace” with Putin.
Whatever will be the outcome of the 2020 US elections they will not constitute a threat to Ukrainian security, which is important because the Russian-Ukrainian war will continue for the foreseeable future.4 Coming from the traditionally pro-NATO camp in US politics, Biden is a strong supporter of transatlantic relations and was a staunchly pro-Ukrainian Vice President throughout Obama’s two terms in office. His election would most likely return US-Ukrainian relations to the ‘golden era’s’ Ukraine experienced during the Bill Clinton and Bush (junior) presidencies.
President Trump’s re-election would continue more of the same as that experienced by Ukraine during the last four years. That is, an unsteady combination of a Putinversteher president and an anti-Putinversteher Congress pursuing an incoherent foreign policy interrupted by periodic scandals and crises.
All authors of this Clingendael Spectator series will grade the impact of the Trump administration on the relation with their country in the scorecard below.
- 1. Christian Caryl, ‘Donald Trump’s talking points on Crimea are the same as Vladimir Putin’s’, The Washington Post, 3 July 2018.
- 2. ‘Russia’s image is poor across much of the world’, Pew Research Center, 6 February 2020.
- 3. Taras Kuzio, ‘An investigation into Putin’s useful idiots’, New Eastern Europe, 6 April 2020.
- 4. Taras Kuzio, ‘Eight obstacles to Ukraine achieving peace with Russia’, Atlantic Council, 13 November 2019.