‘We are on the brink’: Abandoned by Trump and with few options in Europe, Ukraine fights for survival

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If the Trump administration still had any hopes Ukraine could decide to open an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens, they likely evaporated on Friday. 

The phrase “he loves your ass” might not be the grandest line to go down in history. But already Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s awkward phone counsel to President Trump – as belatedly reported by US diplomat David Holmes in newly released testimony – has left the strongest of watermarks in Kiev. 

The disparaging remarks that Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky would do “anything” Trump asked of him – have only added to a sense the war-afflicted country is no longer treated seriously by its main military ally. 

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“Those words will have hurt President Zelensky greatly,” says Pavlo Klimkin, who served as Kiev’s foreign minister from 2014 until September this year, just before the full extent of Ukrainegate went public. “Zelensky doesn’t like critics in general, but this is humiliating, and he’ll have taken it very badly.” 

Since entering office, Zelensky’s administration has found itself at the receiving end of increasingly irregular campaigns of influence from the White House. The extent of that pressure is only beginning to become clear following dramatic public testimonies in House impeachment hearings, which continue this week. 

Those testimonies detail how the Ukrainians reluctantly – and apparently against their better judgment – contorted themselves to accommodate US presidential whims. 

A stream of text messages, for example, indicate how Zelensky’s officials first protested against, but were then cajoled into, opening an investigation into a gas company that employed Hunter Biden, son of Mr Trump’s clearest presidential rival.

That move would have meant seriously undermining bipartisan support in Washington, the cornerstone of Ukraine’s security policy. But the alternative – the continued hold-up of $391m in military assistance at the time of a hot war with Russian-backed separatists – was apparently considered to be even worse. 

In the event, Zelensky’s administration was saved by circumstances. 

In early September, on the eve of what appears to be a planned Ukrainian announcement of an investigation into Burisma during a CNN interview, a US whistleblower broke ranks. His complaint led to the immediate unblocking of military support to Ukraine and the cancellation of the interview. In time, it would also lead to impeachment proceedings against the American president. 

In Kiev, the Zelensky administration has entered crisis management mode. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one high-ranking official told The Independent that government policy was now not to give any interviews on the subject. 

“Any words can now be used against Ukraine,” he said. 

As a result, a lot still remains unclear – most especially about what the Zelensky administration knew and when. In his marathon press conference in October, for example, Ukraine’s President Zelensky claimed he did not know about military aid being withheld until after his infamous 25 July call with President Trump.

Writing on Twitter on Sunday, the US leader picked up on Mr Zelensky’s denial. “They didn’t even know the money wasn’t paid, and got the money with no conditions,” he wrote.

But others have suggested a radically different timetable. According to Valeriy Chaly, the former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, for example, Kiev was first made aware of a delay to military aid in early July. Speaking on local radio earlier this month, Mr Chaly said that this was the time he found out that the Pentagon had failed to renew deals with several US military sub-contractors. 

Mr Chaly has said he passed on the worrying news immediately – via a cable to President Zelensky’s office. 

It is possible the presidential office ignored or failed to grasp the significance of the ambassador’s cable. According to the independent political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, relations between Zelensky’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are somewhat fraught.

“Zelensky and his team are sensitive to trust issues, and they don’t believe in the Foreign Ministry, and its diplomats,” he said. 

A more likely interpretation is that Zelensky’s staff were aware of problems at the time of the now-infamous 25 July call – but are choosing not to admit it out of fear of implicating President Trump in an obvious quid-pro-quo. 

The former foreign minister Klimkin admitted to The Independent that he heard “rumours” about problems with military aid “much earlier in the year.” Initially, his foreign ministry did not immediately link those problems with Mr Trump’s desire for an investigation into the Bidens. But the linkage became explicit “sometime in July,” he said – in other words, well before the military aid hold-up was published in Politico on 28 August. 

Kiev has long worried about Donald Trump. In his election campaign, the American president showed little interest in the country or its war. He suggested he might recognise Russian claims to Crimea. Since taking office, Mr Trump’s foreign policy outlook has consistently aligned itself with Moscow. He supported President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence services. He undermined Nato and the European Union, and abruptly pulled out of Syria. 

But nobody in Kiev was prepared for the near breakdown in bilateral relations that has occurred in the last few months. 

Links with Washington are now only functional along Pentagon and Congress lines, The Independent understands. Elsewhere, the United States is a largely absent player.

Traditionally strong links to the State Department, the embassy in Kiev, White House and National Security Council have all been broken by the scandal. There is a growing expectation that US ambassador to Kiev Bill Taylor, considered a strong champion of Ukraine, will be recalled to Washington following his very public criticism of Trump’s informal diplomacy. 

Ukraine also has ambassador problems of its own. For unclear reasons, the United States is stalling on confirming a replacement for Valeriy​ Chaly in Washington. By some accounts, President Zelensky’s office is now on to its third candidate. 

All of this has contributed to a sense of nervousness in Kiev. Some even wonder if the country is about to be sacrificed to a bigger game – whether, like the Kurds in Syria, Ukraine is about to be forgotten by its most important military ally.

Things do not look much better in Europe. There, Brexit; pro-Russian sentiment in Italy, Austria and Hungary; and French president Emmanuel Macron‘s increasingly maverick foreign policy in regards to Russia have combined to weaken the security consensus on Ukraine.

“Ukraine no longer feels the solidarity it felt in 2014 and 2015,” said Valery Kalnysh, the host of Ukraine’s leading political radio talk show.

“Europe already has a new generation of leaders, people who have no experience of the horrors of our war. Putin has always viewed his opponents as temporary actors that are here today and gone tomorrow. He doesn’t see them as equals. He is there for the long haul.” 

But experts suggest dramatic policy reversals on either side of the Atlantic are unrealistic – at least in the short to mid-term.

Steven Pifer, a former United States ambassador to Ukraine, and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Congress retained the upper hand in United States Ukraine policy and was on Kiev’s side.

“Even Republican members of Congress challenged Trump over Syria, and it’s clear members care much more about Ukraine than they do about Syria,” he said.

Marie Mendras, professor at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs, said the emotions of crisis risked overshadowing what she described as the “fundamentals” of security. Europe and NATO were still “committed” to protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, she said.  

But, she added, Mr Macron’s efforts to engage in a dialogue with Vladimir Putin have added new dynamics to the relationship with Ukraine. The French president has, for example, encouraged President Zelensky along a high-risk trajectory to a truce with Russia. It is yet to be seen if Vladimir Putin is seriously interested in negotiations.

“The stakes are high, and Macron wants to believe in his relationship with Putin,” she said. “He sees peace in Donbass as a way of furthering that goal, and he expects Kiev to make more concessions than Moscow.”

Somewhere along the line, Ukraine has moved from being a true subject of international relations to being an object of negotiations. 

“Ukraine is now essentially a problem you discuss,” she said. “Something you think you can barter with. Ukraine is partly to blame for that, but the French president also needs to remember that the Kremlin does not wish a sovereign, democratic Ukraine well.”   

The former foreign minister Klimkin said the next year was gearing up to be a make or break period for Ukraine. Kiev was being stretched on multiple fronts, he said: from US domestic politics to war in the east and the prospect of losing lucrative gas transit fees as NorthStream II comes online in early 2020. 

“I’m increasingly worried about the predicament we find ourselves in, and I believe our very survival as a nation at risk,” he said. 

“I last felt this at the height of the war in 2014. We are on the brink again. It’s that serious.”