Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Two days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Artem Sytnik, the head of Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, announced that his office would end its investigation of Paul Manafort, a former chairman of Trump’s campaign who is still in contact with the president-elect’s team. Ukrainian officials previously alleged that Manafort had been designated to receive undisclosed cash payments totaling $12.7 million from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, a pro-Russian group that came to epitomize the corruption that contributed to Yanukovych’s ouster during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Sytnik said his bureau had abandoned the case because it had “enough of its own officials” to prosecute. But the subtext of his remarks was clear: continuing to investigate Manafort might have threatened Ukraine’s standing with the next U.S. administration.
Kiev hopes to establish a relationship with the incoming Trump administration that will ensure that Ukraine continues to receive the support it has enjoyed during the presidency of Barack Obama. Ukrainian officials have been outwardly hopeful that the Republican Party’s historical backing for their country will persist under Trump. But they are also concerned about how Ukraine will fit into the president-elect’s nascent foreign policy. If Ukraine is to develop close ties with the Trump administration, it will have to look past Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his misunderstandings about Russian activity on Ukrainian soil. And it will take a significant diplomatic and political effort to mobilize U.S. support, particularly from Republicans who have aligned with Trump’s neo-isolationist platform. With U.S. sanctions on Russia up for annual review in March, Kiev has little time to try to persuade Trump to modify the foreign-policy agenda he articulated during his campaign and to ensure that his declarations of admiration for Putin do not turn into a policy of appeasement.
RUSSIA’S TRUMP CARD
On November 18, Obama and several European leaders issued a joint declaration expressing their commitment to maintaining Western sanctions on Russia until it meets its obligations under the Minsk II Treaty, the framework for peace in eastern Ukraine signed in February 2015 by French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders. The declaration clearly reflected Obama’s interest in shoring up support for Ukraine before leaving office. Yet it was only symbolically important: Ukrainians still fear that the Trump administration will abandon the sanctions when they expire in March.
Because Obama introduced the Ukraine-related sanctions by executive order, Trump could decide to eliminate them either through an executive order of his own or by choosing not to renew them. Much hinges on the resoluteness of the incoming administration: if European states believe Washington’s commitment to the sanctions is wavering, the European Union may lift its own sanctions regime on Russia when it comes up for renewal in December.
There is also the matter of Washington’s financial support for Kiev. Like the U.S. sanctions, Congress’ short-term spending bill, which is slated to be approved on December 9, will expire in March, giving the Trump administration control over federal spending. The 2017 fiscal budget makes $952 million available for “countering Russian aggression,” with most of that money allocated to Ukraine for programs aimed at “improving democracy and good governance, increasing defense capabilities, [and] promoting European integration, economic and trade diversification, and energy security.” If the Trump administration cuts that funding in March or afterwards, the Ukrainian government would lose a crucial source of economic support. It would also lose an important incentive for domestic change, since foreign aid from the United States and elsewhere has long been the most important carrot for reform in Ukraine.
Ultimately, Ukraine’s efforts to safeguard U.S. aid and Western sanctions are stopgaps.
Obama has said that he hopes to reach a peace settlement on Ukraine before his term ends. If that is to happen, the European Union’s support will be crucial. So far, Ukrainian officials have approached peace talks with the expectation that Russia will first fulfil Minsk II’s security obligations, including the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and foreign fighters from Ukrainian territory and the restoration of Kiev’s control over the entirety of Ukraine’s eastern border. Only then would Ukraine seek to fulfill the treaty’s political obligations, including the holding of elections in the Donbas. But Moscow has little incentive to fulfill the security obligations that Kiev has prioritized, at least for now. The Kremlin will likely wait to pursue a settlement until after next year’s national elections in France and Germany, which may bring to power governments that would be more accommodating toward Russia. “Next year will be very difficult for Europe, and Putin understands this,” one senior Ukrainian official said last month. “Without [Merkel], it is difficult to imagine what would happen on the ground in the Donbas. A lot of things depend on the German position.” As a result, it is highly unlikely that there will be a new settlement for eastern Ukraine before Obama leaves office.
THE UKRAINE LOBBY AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY
Ukrainian officials will likely try to convince their counterparts in France and Germany to stay involved in the Minsk peace process regardless of the outcome of those countries’ elections. Of particular importance to Ukraine will be maintaining European sanctions; as the senior Ukrainian official argued, they are “the only issue that could bring the Russians to the negotiation table.” Still, there are limits to what sanctions can achieve: although they may convince the Kremlin to negotiate, they are not powerful enough to allow Kiev or its Western partners to dictate the terms of a peace settlement.
As for the United States, Poroshenko is reportedly planning a trip to Washington in February, a few weeks before U.S. sanctions are up for renewal. Officials in Kiev hope that Trump’s and Poroshenko’s business backgrounds (Poroshenko made his fortune as a confectionery manufacturer) will help them forge a strong personal relationship despite the fact that Trump reportedly snubbed the Ukrainian president during the UN General Assembly in September. (Ukrainian officials have downplayed the significance of that episode; as one presidential administration official told me, Poroshenko and his team were not put off by Trump’s not having met with them because they had “too much faith” in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election.)
If Poroshenko is unable to lobby Trump directly, Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States and a close Poroshenko ally, could do so on his behalf, as could other surrogates. Ukrainians are aware of the Republican Party’s historical support for their country’s sovereignty, a legacy that still resonates with officials in Kiev. As isolationism gains traction in the GOP, Kiev may turn to not only Republicans in Congress but also their Democratic counterparts.
The Senate Ukraine Congress and the House of Representatives’ Congressional Ukrainian Congress are important bipartisan caucuses that could pressure Trump to extend sanctions on Russia and continue providing U.S. aid to Ukraine. Regardless, Ukraine’s own lack of capacity in Washington—its public relations campaigns and lobbying initiatives pale in comparison to Russia’s—may hamstring its efforts to build ties with the incoming administration.
ASK AND YE SHAN’T RECEIVE?
In addition to advocating for the extension of sanctions and continued financial support, Ukraine will likely lobby the United States to provide it with lethal aid—something the Obama administration has resisted doing—and to continue delivering non-lethal military equipment, as it has since the spring of 2014. Ukraine is prepared for a prolonged conflict. Indeed, it now seems that low-level fighting in the east serves Kiev’s political interests more than Moscow’s. The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas have helped consolidate Ukrainian statehood and have deprived the Kremlin of one of its most important political tools: a pro-Russian region that gives it leverage over Ukraine’s domestic politics. A simmering conflict in the east will be acceptable to Kiev as long as Russian-backed forces do not make significant territorial gains that would allow Moscow to impose a settlement on its own terms.
For the last two and a half years, the Poroshenko administration has lobbied for a bilateral security agreement with the United States akin to those Washington has with Japan and South Korea. Since NATO membership is not on the table, Poroshenko has also promoted the idea of making Ukraine a major non-NATO ally, which would lead to greater defense cooperation with Washington. But Poroshenko would be wise not to ask for too much from the incoming administration, since he is reported to have already irked Obama administration officials, who had little appetite for the agreements, with overly demanding overtures.
Officials in Kiev want to preserve the institutional relationships they have established with Washington in recent years. Since the 2014 revolution, Vice President Joe Biden has been the face of the United States’ relationship with Ukraine, travelling to Kiev multiple times and regularly speaking with Poroshenko over the phone. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who has taken a harder stance against Russia than Trump has, could take up that role in the months ahead. During the vice presidential debate in October, Pence criticized Obama and Hillary Clinton for their “weak and feckless” foreign policy and argued that their attempts at rapprochement with Russia “resulted in the invasion of Ukraine.” If Pence holds to that line after taking office, Ukraine would gain a great deal by keeping its connection to the office of the vice president alive. Ukrainian officials hope that they will be able to establish something like the Kuchma-Gore commission, a body named for former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore that was created to address bilateral foreign-policy and economic issues in 1996.
Ultimately, Ukraine’s efforts to safeguard U.S. aid and Western sanctions are stopgaps. In the longer term, Kiev needs to address its deeper problems with corruption, cronyism, and government mismanagement, which have plagued the country for the last 25 years. Considering Trump’s isolationist tendencies and preference for small government, it is easy to see how “Ukraine fatigue,” as diplomats like to call disenchantment with the slow pace of change in Kiev, could become more acute in the next administration. As Sergii Leshchenko, a Ukrainian anticorruption campaigner who has become increasingly critical of the Poroshenko administration in recent months, told me, U.S. support is important, but “it’s up to the executive power to demonstrate that Ukraine is reforming.”