from The Water's Edge

The President's Inbox: Stephen Sestanovich on Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with President Trump at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

October 9, 2019

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with President Trump at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live. I sat down with Steve Sestanovich, CFR’s senior fellow for Eurasian and Russian studies and the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet states, to discuss Ukraine. Here are three quick takeaways from our conversation:

1. Ukraine’s size, location, and wealth help explain its many troubles. Ukraine is one of the largest states in Europe, it has significant natural resources, and it sits on the dividing line between East and West. So lots of people have a stake in which way Ukraine tilts. Their conflicting efforts have kept the country from making a decisive choice one way or the other.

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2. The Trump administration has a lot of cooks in the kitchen trying to implement its Ukraine policy. That dynamic is hardly new. Lots of administrations have appointed diplomats with overlapping responsibilities and divergent views on what needs to be done. What is unusual about U.S. policy toward Ukraine today is how far some of those involved stepped out of their assigned lanes and how they engaged directly with the president. 

3. President Donald Trump has narrowed his freedom of maneuver on Ukraine and complicated his own policies. The impeachment inquiry puts Trump under great pressure to provide Ukraine with security assistance and to not be seen as blocking possible IMF economic assistance to Kyiv. The Ukrainians see the controversy justifying their decision to resist doing the favor that Trump requested. And Russian officials see the scandal as confirming their view that he cannot open a new chapter in U.S.-Russian relations.

If you want to learn more about the potential fallout from the favor Trump asked of President Volodymyr Zelenksy, you should read Steve’s piece, “Is Russia Winning the Ukraine Scandal?” While noting that Russia officials argue that the United States has made itself “the laughingstock of the world,” he argues that the real lesson from the scandal is “the enduring strength of U.S. support” for Ukraine.

Molly McKew offers a somewhat contrasting take on the scandal’s consequences, arguing that “the biggest winner of the Ukraine scandal is, sure enough, the Kremlin.” But she also makes the same point that Steve made to me, that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to “keep Ukraine in limbo between Russia and the West.”

If you are wondering why Ukraine keeps popping up in so many U.S. scandals, Julia Ioffe, who appeared on The President’s Inbox last year to discuss what Vladimir Putin wants, has an answer: “money.” As she put it, “There’s a lot of it sloshing around.” She also warns against trying to reduce Ukrainian politics to a morality play with “neat binaries—the forces there are either pro-Russia or pro-West; leaders are either corrupt actors or laudable reformers; the good guys versus the bad guys.” She sees lots of grey.

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Vox has a video explainer on the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call and why supporters of an impeachment inquiry say Trump crossed a line he shouldn’t have. It makes a nice pairing with the article that Edward Foley, an Ohio State University law school professor, has written asking: “Is it ever OK for a president to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival?”

While the focus here in the United States is on where the impeachment inquiry is headed, Nolan Peterson writes that Ukrainians are focused on whether new talks with Russia will bring an end to more than five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Some Ukrainians are happy that Zelensky agreed to talks, even though they are on the terms that the Kremlin demanded. Other Ukrainians are angry that Zelensky agreed to hold elections in the parts of the country controlled by Russian-backed separatists as the price for getting to the negotiating table.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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