Many people don’t seem to understand it, but the West has a great deal at stake in Ukraine. Leaders in the United States and Europe have had every incentive to help Kiev secure its independence and territorial integrity — partly out of concern for the country itself, but primarily in order to safeguard a key principle upholding global security. When Russia annexed Crimea and sent weapons and troops into eastern Ukraine in 2014, it was vital that the West respond to these flagrant violations of international law as robustly as possible. The result was an array of sanctions and Russia’s exclusion from the Group of Eight, the club of wealthy democracies.
If Trump gives his advisers the chance, they will undoubtedly explain all of this to him. Were he to heed their advice, he would refrain from dragging the fundamental security interests of both his own country and Europe down into the swamp of his vicious campaign against his political opponents.
But if events so far are any indication, the U.S. president is far more likely to double down, dragging his country’s relations with Ukraine even further into the morass. The Kremlin is thoroughly enjoying the spectacle.
No doubt there has been an element of naivete on the Ukrainian side. Keen to secure the backing of a power they believed had the interest to stand up to the bullying of Russia, many officials in Kiev bent over backward to secure access and support in the United States.
Even by the standards of the hyper-corrupt former president Viktor Yanukovych, the sums that he poured into the coffers of Paul Manafort were extraordinary. It is said that Manafort helped him to buy a better suit, which was probably needed, and he tried to get some understanding in Washington for his vendetta against his archenemy, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In terms of political impact, however, the millions he paid to Manafort — tax-free, it turned out — had little impact.
But then Ukraine had a revolution. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Activists began to uncover the massive corruption schemes of his term in office. And Manafort went down in flames. Evidently, though, Trump hasn’t forgotten or forgiven what happened to his former campaign chairman.
And now Ukraine risks becoming a victim of a desperate game of revenge. Trump is taking aim at Joe Biden, who was the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine and who by all accounts did well in that function, playing an important role in the combined Western efforts to rid the country of its corrupt structures.
The international community put a lot of work into these efforts, with some success. Particularly significant was the West’s campaign to persuade the Ukraine authorities to get rid of the scandal-ridden public prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was actively blocking the anti-corruption push. When he finally left office, his departure was publicly celebrated by the European Union, which had been working feverishly with the United States to achieve this end. None of this ever had anything to do with Biden’s son.
But now Trump seems to have the idea that Ukraine was part of some scheme against his presidential campaign and is correspondingly demanding that the country actively participate in his efforts to attack one of his opponents. As domestic politics this is disgraceful; as foreign policy it is profoundly dangerous.
For Ukraine and other countries in similar situations, there can be only one conclusion: The politics of the United States has now become so poisonous that the only option is maintaining a safe distance. If you try to buy influence there, you risk buying destruction.
The scandal effectively presents the Kremlin with a huge gift. It could well turn out that Trump’s ill-advised pressure on the Ukrainian president will finally give Moscow what it has so far failed to achieve. If the mess continues, the only things the world will be hearing about Ukraine are corruption, dubious schemes and bizarre manipulations — a public relations disaster that might end up damaging the country far more than Russian battalions have so far managed to do. Ties between the United States and Ukraine will steadily weaken, giving Moscow additional opportunities to exert pressure.
It is hard to see how any of this is in the interests of Ukraine — or the United States.