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Washington remains cool towards and suspicious of Yulia Tymoshenko

Yulia Tymoshenko’s presidential campaign did not benefit from her December Washington visit, despite the millions spent on political consultants and lobbyists. In fact, she returned to Kyiv having created a worse image of herself in Washington, with local experts left wondering how she could ever hope to work with President Trump and Republicans if she was elected. 

December 20, 2018 - Taras Kuzio - AnalysisUkraine elections 2019

Photo: European People's Party (CC) www.flickr.com

Ukrainian presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko came to the United States last week for a round of meetings with American policymakers, hoping the millions of (undeclared) dollars she has spent lobbying Washington officials over the years will benefit her presidential campaign more than her collection of selfies with politicians has. I witnessed one of her visits to the Atlantic Council, where I had a meeting with Ambassador John Herbst immediately after her closed, by-invitation-only meeting. I was visiting Washington to give talks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and George Washington University – coincidentally at the same time as Tymoshenko. This gave me a lot of opportunities to talk to policymakers and experts about Ukrainian politics and how they viewed Ukrainian politicians, including Tymoshenko.

What the Ukrainian presidential candidate found out, once again, is her lobbyists may help her gain access to the corridors of power in Washington, but they cannot buy her mutual trust or respect from US officials. Tymoshenko has no one to blame for her disconnect with Washington but herself. As a long-term Washington insider told me, he had not heard of anybody in Washington who had changed their mind about Tymoshenko and all the others who are viewed as the discredited “old guard” rather than a trustworthy and legitimate “new face” in Ukrainian politics.

My sources confirm Tymoshenko exhibited the same arrogance, discomfort, and combativeness that she showed at the Yalta European Strategy conference in September in Kyiv.  “Tymoshenko is not comfortable speaking with Western policymakers,” one Washington lobbyist familiar with her visit told me, probably because she knows that they know that, in most cases, she does not tell the truth.

“She doesn’t like to be challenged or questioned on the populist policies she proposes,” my sources tell me. This is because, as most US officials who have met with Tymoshenko agree, “If she is elected president, she will have a difficult time governing Ukraine and dealing with the international community due to her unwillingness to listen to advice and accept criticism.”

Tymoshenko came to Washington seeking a photo with US President Donald Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, hoping this would make her appear more presidential to voters.  Interestingly, her desire to collect as many photos with western leaders as possible contrasts with her unwillingness to travel to the Donbas war zone and have photos with Ukrainian patriots and soldiers. As a former US intelligence official stated, “What would make her appear more presidential is actually interacting with the Ukrainian military. How about a visit to the frontline of Donbas instead of offices on Capitol Hill or Foggy Bottom? The Washington intelligence community is puzzled why she would be willing to leave Ukraine just after martial law was declared.”

Tymoshenko departed Washington without a photo with either Trump or Pompeo. She raised more questions than she answered about her ability to work with Washington if she wins the March 2019 election. 

According to sources in Washington, Tymoshenko’s multiple overtures to meet with officials in the US intelligence community were rebuffed. She should not be surprised. The Wall Street Journal made clear Washington’s concerns about the Ukrainian opposition leader when Jessica Donatti reported: “Some [US policymakers] question her past ties to former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was convicted in the US of money laundering and siphoning off millions of dollars during his time in power.” There are strong rumours that Lazarenko (who has been fighting against his deportation to Ukraine after he completed his prison sentence in the US) may be granted immunity in Ukraine in return for testimony against Tymoshenko. If this were to happen, it would drop a bombshell on Tymoshenko’s election campaign.

Rather than easing the concerns of Trump administration officials regarding questions of her trustworthiness and reliability, Tymoshenko’s meetings exemplified her tendency to sidestep important questions. Her first disastrous meeting, as confirmed by multiple sources from the State Department and US Congress, was when she insulted US Special Representative to Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker, by insinuating that he is biased towards President Petro Poroshenko and demanding that Volker remain neutral throughout the remaining months of the Ukrainian election campaign. Ukraine experts in the US and Europe are in agreement that Volker has never demonstrated any preference in Ukraine’s presidential contest and has worked tirelessly to work towards a peace settlement between Moscow and Kyiv. Tymoshenko’s accusation raised red flags in Washington that she believes Russian propaganda about Volker – a man who is a strong supporter of Ukraine.

The second disaster was when Tymoshenko inexplicably insisted that China become an official participant in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, by opening up the current format to all signatories of the Budapest Memorandum (what she refers to as the “Budapest Plus”). Tymoshenko’s lobbying of China is based on the wrong view that China was a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that gave Ukraine security assurances in return for nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, only the UK, US and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum while China and France gave security assurances for Ukraine in separate documents. China’s governmental statement of December 4th 1994 did not call for mandatory consultations if questions arose, only for the vague “fair consultations”. France’s declaration of December 5th 1994 did not even mention consultations. Therefore, China and France gave even more extremely amorphous “security assurances” to Ukraine than the already vague “security assurances” in the Budapest Memorandum signed by the UK, US and Russia.

The idea of including China in the talks was mentioned during meetings with Ambassador Volker, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and the Atlantic Council. As a former US intelligence official told me, this has raised questions of whether or not Tymoshenko is parroting the policy proposals and talking points of Moscow, or possibly even Beijing. In every vote since 2014 at the UN on Ukraine-related issues, China has voted either with Russia or neutrally – but has never once backed Ukraine.

Why, then, would a Ukrainian politician lobby to include a second pro-Russian country (China) in the peace talks? Moreover, why would she do so with the Trump administration, the first US administration that openly views China as a strategic threat and launched a trade war with it? It is therefore little wonder that Volker and others in Washington were surprised and angry that Tymoshenko lobbied to include China in peace negotiations for Donbas.

The third and probably most damaging meeting was her photo opportunity with incoming House Intelligence Chairman, Democrat Adam Schiff, who is advocating for the imprisonment of President Trump. It would have been difficult for Tymoshenko to do more damage to her standing with the Trump administration during her visit to Washington than to meet with Schiff, a radical opponent of Trump. “Perhaps she can pose for a photo with Special Investigator Robert Mueller, former FBI Director James Comey, or defeated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton next time,” a Washington political consultant with knowledge of her meetings joked to me. 

“This Schiff meeting shows how remarkably unsophisticated and deaf to advice Tymoshenko is regarding how Washington politics works,” the consultant added. “If you are trying to lobby yourself with the White House, why would you meet with a radical anti-Trump Democrat who is leading the charge to impeach President Trump?”

To make this mistake worse, most of Tymoshenko’s other meetings were with Democrats (not Republicans) in the House of Representatives. This is a clear reflection of the preference of her paid lobbyist, former Democratic US Representative Jim Slattery. Although Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives, the Republicans still control the White House and Senate – a crucial fact Tymoshenko disregarded. One has to wonder if her strategy of meeting primarily with Democrats was a signal that Tymoshenko discounts working co-operatively with the Republicans because they are wary and untrusting of her links to Russia.

Tymoshenko’s presidential campaign did not benefit from her December Washington visit, despite the millions spent on political consultants and lobbyists. In fact, she returned to Kyiv having created a worse image of herself in Washington, with local experts left wondering how she could ever hope to work with President Trump and Republicans if she was elected. 

Tymoshenko and her team demonstrated during her Washington visit that they are novices in foreign affairs and national security. Ukraine faces increasing threats from Russian military aggression, ten regions remain under martial law and Ukrainians will vote for a commander-in-chief as well as a president on March 31st 2019. A Tymoshenko presidency puts Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration at risk, as she remains distrusted in Washington, where she has been unable to throw off long-established views of her as a representative of the old guard as well as deeply held suspicions of her neutrality towards Russia since its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and her lobbying for China.

Washington and Brussels would be more open to a “new face” politician lobbying for their support, but that is unlikely to happen as the majority of the candidates (the exception being Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyy) are old timers, like Tymoshenko. In this case, western policymakers are left to choose between the devil they know (Poroshenko) or jumping into the unknown. With Poroshenko, the last five years indicates what to expect if he is re-elected; with Tymoshenko, because of her chameleon politics and unwillingness to tell the truth about her past (whether her “business” relationship to Lazarenko who was imprisoned in the US, or the infamous 2009 gas deal), it is anybody’s guess.

Taras Kuzio in a professor in the Department of Political Science National University “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” and Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. Joint author of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.

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