In Brief

Is Russia Winning the Ukraine Scandal?

U.S. military and economic support for Ukraine has so far weathered the widening impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s contacts with Kyiv. This backing could strengthen Ukraine in the next round of diplomacy with Russia.

The U.S. House impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump’s attempt to enlist President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in a campaign against Joe Biden and his family has produced more than a little gloating in Moscow. There have been claims, even in the West, that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the big winner in the affair, that it gives him a freer hand to dominate Ukraine. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the whistleblower scandal has made the United States “the laughingstock of the world,” while the chair of a Russian parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, called the revelations “humiliating for Ukraine.” Despite these claims, the American consensus in support of Ukraine remains intact.

Strong Backing for Ukraine

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The enduring strength of U.S. support is, in fact, one source of the scandal’s intensity. Trump’s suspension of military aid to Kyiv was opposed both within his own administration and by Congress, and the move was reversed even before details of the famous July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky became public late last month. At this point, military aid could not be suspended again even if the president wanted to do so. Trump will also probably have little choice but to back strong economic aid for the new government. That Trump is boxed in could help Zelensky and his allies, as they develop plans to spur economic growth, take on a deeply corrupt system, resist Russian efforts to hold on to Ukrainian territory, and try to sustain the popular movement that brought them to power.

A tattered Ukrainian national flag flutters in the wind near the town of Maryinka, eastern Ukraine.
A tattered Ukrainian national flag flutters in the wind near the town of Maryinka, eastern Ukraine. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

A good outcome in Ukraine depends on broad Western support—more military equipment, more training, a robust aid package from the International Monetary Fund—and that assistance will almost certainly continue. Much less certain is the degree of day-to-day U.S. engagement in diplomacy over the country’s future. The U.S. State Department has lost its ambassador in Kyiv and its special envoy for multilateral talks on Ukraine, both of whom were capable professionals. This sidelining of U.S. diplomats, plus the increasing chaos of American politics, is seen by some observers as one reason that Zelensky decided this week to accept a negotiating formula that could conceivably make it easier for Russia to preserve its military presence in—and political control over—eastern Ukraine’s two small separatist enclaves.

Zelensky’s Peace Mandate

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If Ukrainian resolve begins to crumble in the next round of diplomacy, Trump’s bizarre actions may be one part of the story. But U.S.-centric explanations are not the best way to understand what’s happening. Zelensky’s strategy was unfolding long before he talked to Trump in late July. He was elected last spring on a promise to find some way to end the war. That’s what the Ukrainian public wants, and other European governments—especially the French—have urged the new president to seek out possible Russian flexibility. Zelensky must show that he’s not standing in the way of progress toward a settlement. At the same time he knows that, to hold Ukraine together, he can’t let Putin push him around. That’s why he coupled this week’s new formula with tough talk about not negotiating “at the point of a gun,” and with strong demands for total Russian withdrawal from separatist zones in the east.

Zelensky’s ability to find his way through the minefields of Ukrainian domestic politics and talks with the Russians requires strong U.S. and European support. He needs this backing to avoid concessions that would weaken his country, including by damaging its international standing, slowing its reforms, or undermining his capacity to govern. Trump, shockingly, has been willing to do all these things. But, so far at least, he has not succeeded.

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