As the House opens public impeachment hearings into the Ukraine scandal, the bottom-line question is dead simple: Did President Trump, for political reasons, manipulate military aid to an ally in a war that has cost 13,000 lives?
What’s outrageous about the Ukraine story isn’t that it’s a unique example of Trump’s fecklessness in foreign policy, but that it’s so typical. In dealing with Ukraine, Trump has behaved the same erratic, unreliable way he has with the Syrian Kurds, and the South Koreans, and America’s NATO partners in Europe.
Trump’s Ukraine machinations have yielded something like what we’ve seen in these other theaters: the diminution of U.S. power and a corresponding increase in Russia’s military and diplomatic leverage.
Even Republican senators seemed to understand that when Trump abandoned the Syrian Kurds to attack from Turkey, he opened a power vacuum that was filled by Russia. The United States has slowed this capitulation by keeping about 600 troops in northeastern Syria. But Russia still has the leverage.
Russian diplomatic gains have also been evident in Ukraine. While Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was flitting around the country disparaging U.S. diplomats, Moscow was seeking a deal to stabilize Ukraine on favorable terms. The Russians are now discussing an agreement with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — the man Trump importuned in his infamous July 25 phone call for a “favor” in investigating his political rivals in return for military help.
Let’s widen our Washington lens to look at the conflict zone in Ukraine. There’s a nominal cease-fire there, but until recently, it has been shaky, at best. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), between July and September (while the Washington antics were happening), there were 50,259 cease-fire violations, with 244 explosions attributable to artillery, mortars or other heavy weapons. That was better than in the three previous months but still a nerve-wracking situation for civilians and fighters on the ground.
Zelensky had been elected in April as a peace candidate. He was eager to maintain U.S. military assistance partly to bargain more effectively with the Kremlin. As Zelensky has pursued negotiations, he has faced attacks in Kyiv from critics who thought he was capitulating to Russia. That’s another reason, as acting ambassador William B. Taylor told one of his colleagues in September, that it was “crazy” for Trump to play games with security assistance.
Catherine Croft, a State Department special adviser for Ukraine, explained in House testimony released this week the danger for Zelensky if it became known Trump had suspended aid: “It would be seen as a reversal of our policy and would . . . be a really big deal in Ukraine, and an expression of declining U.S. support for Ukraine.”
The United States was an important “backup” for Ukraine, explains Olga Oliker, who directs European programs for the International Crisis Group. “Losing that support puts Kyiv in a weaker bargaining position.” She told me that when she visited the Zolote crossing point between government and rebel lines in April, artillery shells whizzed overhead.
Zelensky has pressed ahead with his peace efforts, and Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces have now disengaged at Zolote and two other crossing points. And Zelensky announced Oct. 1 that he had agreed to Russian calls to implement a formula proposed in 2016 by then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that, in Zelensky’s version, would provide withdrawal of Russian proxy forces followed by elections in the separatist areas of the east.
How is the United States shaping events as Ukraine is rebalanced? America isn’t really a player. Trump said in September while meeting Zelensky in New York: “I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.”
Meanwhile, a low-level conflict continues. Here are some details from recent OSCE cease-fire monitoring reports: On Oct. 5, a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded in their apartment in Kurakhove; on Oct. 24, a man was injured by shrapnel near Luhansk; on Nov. 1, a man was injured by shelling in Spartak.
As you watch the impeachment hearings, remember this basic fact: While Trump was playing politics on Ukraine, people who depended on U.S. military aid were getting killed and wounded.
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