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Ukraine still needs US, European support and the ongoing scandal must not undermine it

US-Ukraine relations have been undergoing a test in the recent months. The timing of the Trump-Ukraine scandal is unfortunate, as it takes place in the background of intensified talks on the settlement of the conflict in Donbas.

September 29, 2019 - Volodymyr Dubovyk - Hot Topics

Photo: U.S. Army Europe (CC) www.flickr.com

For the last five plus years Ukraine has enjoyed multi-faceted support from the West. The dominating presumption in the West, based on a certain consensus, was that the country, which was brushed by the dramatic EuroMaidan events and then roughed by Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas, should be helped. The escalation on the part of Russia, it switching from the soft power pressure on Ukraine to the direct use of hard power, was something that was not to be let go by the international community. In addition to fighting for its territorial integrity Ukraine was also striving to finally get out of the corrupt Eurasian space, stood on the eve of some long-awaited reforms, and thus needed assistance in this effort as well.

Historically the United States has had an outsized role vis-à-vis independent Ukraine. Naturally, Ukraine’s dependence on US support has grown exponentially since 2014 when Russia attacked. This being an asymmetric conflict by definition, Russia being a much stronger player, Ukraine was in need of external assistance. The US was troubled by Russian behaviour and its flagrant violation of existing international norms. This was not simply a small quarrel of two obscure former Soviet republics, but was seen, rightfully so, as a major assault on the established international order, where the US has had a leading part. Whether one believed in the need to counter the growing Russian threat or simply considered this an unforgivable violation of international law, there was an immediate drive to aid Ukraine.

Naturally, sending troops was out of question as this would have put the two biggest nuclear powers – US and Russia – in direct confrontation. Short of that, other avenues of assistance were explored. First only non-lethal defence aid was provided, but later Washington approved expanded support which proved Ukraine with “Javelin” anti-tank missiles. Annually, Ukraine was receiving around 250 million US dollars in defence and security assistance. The assistance only in this domain of defence and security has now reached over one billion dollars in recent years.

The aid was not limited to the domain of defence. Ukraine required support for its economy, which was crippled by the war with Russia and by the fact that hostilities were actually taking place in the most industrialised parts of the country. To keep Ukraine afloat Washington provided financial assistance, including the two billion dollars in loan guarantees. This was coupled by a series of US-funded projects designed to improve governance, the rule of law and more. A major effort was also directed at helping Ukraine proceed with its ambitious domestic reform agenda and attempts to eradicate persistent corruption.

The diplomatic support was forthcoming as well. American diplomats addressed the issue of Russian aggression in the United Nations Security Council on a number of occasions. Ukraine badly needed that sort of moral support as well, as its worst fear was to be left alone with an aggressive and powerful enemy. Thus it was not only the heroism of Ukrainian soldiers at the frontlines in Donbas that has stopped Russian aggression in its tracks, it was also thanks in part to the international support that helped enormously, and here the US has played a critical role.

Under President Barack Obama, the US coordinated its effort to help Ukraine with its major European allies. There were differences too. Europeans focused exclusively on non-military support, while Americans decided to provide greater defence aid as well. The Obama administration stopped short of providing lethal weaponry, a policy which changed with the Trump administration.

What is important here is that the Europeans have put up a substantial amount of assistance to Ukraine. There could always be more aid and the idea of mounting some sort of “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine was even discussed at one point. However, this did not happen; yet the scale of assistance is still rather significant. There is always the question of how to calculate the financial aid. Does one only count direct assistance like credits, or should it include the whole network of various projects funded by Europe? It seems that the latter is a fairer approach. It has been stated in the last days that if you follow this approach, the EU assistance has eclipsed a rather solid amount of 15 billion euros since 2014.

This whole business of looking into who gave what amount of aid was prompted by the President Trump, who has stated recently that his decision to delay a new portion of American assistance to Ukraine was a way of sending a signal to Europe to help Ukraine more. As seen above, this argument does not hold much water.

US-Ukraine relations have been undergoing a test in the recent months. It has been recently revealed that Trump, against the better judgement of many at the State Department and Pentagon, has tried to apply certain pressure on Ukrainian leadership in order to procure some political benefits for himself. Ukraine, quite unexpectedly and very much unwillingly, became involved in this scandal, becoming a focal point of one of the greatest challenges to the Trump presidency.

The phone conversation between President Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which took place on July 25th has now attracted special attention. In it, among other things, Trump chose to denigrate the significance and scale of the assistance provided by Germany, France and the EU to Ukraine. Zelenskyy apparently opted to agree with Trump on this subject. This surely has to be seen in the context of a confidential talk of two leaders, which was not meant for public release. The conversation also reveals that Zelenskyy clearly chose not to contradict Trump. Unsurprisingly he kept an eye on the ball, which to Ukraine is a continuation of bilateral co-operation and securing unimpeded flow of assistance to from the US.

On the one hand, Zelenskyy agreeing that Europe has not done enough to help Ukraine seems unfair. On the other, there is always room to do more. Many in Ukraine are not happy about sanctions on Russia sometimes being circumvented and suggestions of doing away with them altogether, which is the talk of the day in many corners of Europe. Some European leaders appear to want to push Ukraine to agree to conditions of settling the conflict with Russia that might not quite meet Ukrainian interests. In this context Zelenskyy’s words do not appear out of touch with reality.  

The transcript of the phone call between the two leaders being made public has been embarrassing enough for them both. But the following disclosure of the whistle-blower complaint, which has been at the roots of the scandal, has added even more damning information. It has painted a picture of a methodic pressure campaign elevated by Trump, helped with some of his surrogates and subordinates, on Ukraine in order to find dirt on Democrats both retrospectively with regard to the 2016 elections and prospective, going into the 2020 presidential campaign. It reads like a political detective novel, with secret meetings and honest public officials trying to undermine the president’s actions. All this activity of President Trump has happened in contrast to the US announced policy towards Ukraine.

The most dramatic fallout of the scandal is to be expected, naturally, on the American side of it. Democrats have started the process of impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives and they appear to have everything they need. The transcript of the phone call and the whistle-blower complaint is enough for them to proceed. The clear cut case of an abuse of power is shaping out. The looking for a quid pro quo element in president’s actions is taking place as well. Did he, indeed, used US assistance as a bargaining chip, a blackmail tool to achieve some personal political benefits? The scandal is growing. The representatives of the State department and others will be called to testify. It seems entirely realistic that the US House will impeach the president. What happens beyond that point is unclear. The full-scale impeachment by both chambers of Congress seems hardly possible as of right now, but the situation is quite dynamic.

For Zelenskyy this is a test as well, but not a vital one. It is not something that might lead to any dramatic domestic consequences for him or his power. He is still very popular in Ukraine and dominates all branches of power. Most Ukrainians have not been following the scandal closely. Zelenskyy came across as a bit naïve and inexperienced in that phone call, but that is it.

It is in dealing with the US and Europe where the danger lies for Zelenskyy and Ukraine. It appears that there will be no strategic rift between Washington and Kyiv. After all, support for Ukraine is bipartisan in the Congress and the foreign policy establishment. Trump will hardly risk pushing pressure now.

Also, there is no reason to expect that these passages from that phone conversation would lead to some dramatic rift in relations between Ukraine and its partners in Europe either. In Berlin and Paris they know rather well that dealing with Trump can be quite challenging and so they might understand the bind that Zelenskyy had found himself in. 

The timing of this scandal is pretty bad as it takes place in the background of intensified talks on the settlement of the conflict in Donbas. The major European powers – Germany and France – are very much involved as partners in the Normandy contact group. Washington had a say too and a role to play. Yet the position of the US Special Representative on Ukraine has now suddenly became vacant as the experienced expert and diplomat Kurt Volker has just resigned.

The main problem for Ukraine now is not some immediate rift in relations with Washington, Berlin or Paris, but rather this scandal putting into question and, perhaps, on hold the process of solving the Donbas conflict that might facilitate its return to Ukraine.

Volodymyr Dubovyk is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Studies, Odessa I. I. Mechnikov National University, Ukraine. He is a co-author of Ukraine and European Security (Macmillan, 1999).

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