The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The damage done to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tallinn, Estonia, on Tuesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tallinn, Estonia, on Tuesday. (Toms Kalnins/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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ONE EASILY overlooked aspect of the Ukraine affair is the ongoing damage it is doing to the young government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who won a free and fair election in the spring by promising to tackle endemic corruption and end a grinding low-grade war with Russia and its proxies. Mr. Zelensky has made progress on both fronts, pushing anti-corruption measures through parliament and negotiating several confidence-building deals with the Russians, including prisoner exchanges and troop pullbacks.

Now, however, Mr. Zelensky faces a crucial juncture. He is trying to complete a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which will require him to decisively break with an oligarch who backed his campaign and is trying to regain control of the country’s largest bank. Meanwhile, Mr. Zelensky has a summit meeting scheduled on Dec. 9 with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and the leaders of Germany and France, with the aim of advancing a long-stalled peace deal.

For years it has been the policy of the United States to stand strongly behind Ukraine at such moments — not just to support a struggling democracy but also to advance U.S. strategic interests, such as containing Russian aggression in Europe. Yet the chaos President Trump introduced into U.S.-Ukraine relations has created a de facto diplomatic vacuum. Virtually every senior official who worked on the relationship in the past two years has resigned or testified in the impeachment inquiry and been denounced by the president.

President Trump's attempt to extort Ukraine for personal gain signals a dangerous turn for American foreign policy, says Global Opinions editor Christian Caryl. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mr. Zelensky still has not been invited to the White House for the meeting Mr. Trump dangled in exchange for political favors. And Mr. Trump is still repeating false charges about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, even after being told that they are inventions of Russia’s intelligence services. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who should be trying to salvage the relationship, instead suggested that Moscow’s lies are worth investigating.

All this significantly weakens Mr. Zelensky’s position, particularly as he contemplates the meeting with Mr. Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The latter two will likely lean on the Ukrainian to make concessions to the Russian ruler, because a deal would allow them to repair European relations with Russia. Mr. Putin, for his part, will want Mr. Zelensky to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty over the territories of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia and its proxies. That would cripple Ukraine’s independence from Russia and its hopes to integrate with the West.

There remains strong support for Ukraine in Congress, including among Republicans who have been defending Mr. Trump. They should be pressing the president and Mr. Pompeo to revive U.S. support for Ukraine. The State Department ought to designate a new senior official to represent the United States on peace negotiations. Mr. Pompeo himself should get engaged. It’s vital that the United States shows it is still committed to Ukraine’s independence. Otherwise the damage done by Mr. Trump will be compounded.

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