The Oligarchs Who Lost Ukraine and Won Washington

How Kremlin-Backed Authoritarians Sought to Profit From Trump’s Presidency

A campaign poster featuring Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin in Kiev, April 2019 Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

A congressional impeachment inquiry seeks to determine whether U.S. President Donald Trump extorted a foreign leader, withholding a coveted White House meeting and U.S. military aid in order to promulgate a Russian-inspired conspiracy theory and smear his chief opponent in the 2020 election. The United States’ gravest constitutional crisis since Watergate is not just about preserving the integrity of U.S. democratic institutions from the president’s abuse of power, however. It is an episode in a broader geopolitical struggle between the defenders of democracy and the forces of oligarchic authoritarianism, from Kyiv’s Maidan to Hong Kong’s Mong Kok. In this wider global conflict, Trump and his surrogates have consistently aligned themselves with the forces of oligarchic authoritarianism—in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and other countries, too. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ukraine.

That Ukraine is at the heart of the U.S. impeachment inquiry is no coincidence. The country is ground zero for the struggle between democratic rule of law and authoritarian oligarchy. Halfway around the world from Washington’s halls of power, Ukraine sits along a civilizational and geopolitical fault line. To Ukraine’s west are the liberal democracies of Europe, governed by rule of law and democratic principles. To its east are Russia and its client states in Eurasia, almost all of which are corrupt oligarchies.

Competition between these two governance systems has twice erupted into violent conflict. Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 and its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 were both efforts to protect the Kremlin’s sphere of oligarchic interests from democratic reformers who had come to power through revolutionary social movements. This same motivation underlies Russia’s covert war of influence in other parts of the world, from Moldova to Montenegro and from Syria to Venezuela. In this war on democratic movements and democratic principles, Russia’s biggest prize and chief adversary has always been the United States. Until now, however, Russia has always had to contend with bipartisan resolve to counter

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