While America watched the first day of public impeachment hearings unfold this week, Ukraine was at war. It has been for five years, since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fomented, funded and supported an armed rebellion in the country’s eastern Donbas region. Though that conflict faded from headlines until the whistleblower complaint that unleashed this impeachment inquiry into President Trump, at least 13,000 other people have joined the ranks of those killed on the Maidan.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian-turned-politician who was elected Ukraine’s sixth president this spring, ran his campaign on a promise to end the war — and the sacrifice of Ukrainian lives. But by reportedly making a White House meeting and military aid conditional on partisan political investigations, the Trump administration appears to have undermined Zelensky’s ability to deliver on that promise. Without the unquestionable support of its strongest ally, Ukraine is entering into future negotiations with Russia from a significantly weakened position.
Republicans seem eager to point out that the pressure campaign waged by the Trump administration and shadow diplomats Rudolph W. Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman didn’t work and, therefore, was inconsequential. As Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and others repeatedly said during the impeachment hearings on Wednesday, the military aid was released in September. The White House meeting has not happened, but Trump suggested earlier this month that it was still possible.
But none of that matters. Harsh daylight shines through the gap between Trump’s words and his administration’s actions on Ukraine. More than American military aid’s ability to “kill Russian tanks,” as one Republican representative ineloquently put it at Wednesday’s hearing, Ukrainians have counted on the rhetorical support that aid and an Oval Office photo op provides. Not a single Javelin missile has been used on the Ukrainian battlefield; they instead act as a deterrent, preventing further Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory and, until recently, carrying the weight of the U.S.-Ukraine alliance. Those weapons may still function as a deterrent, but their rhetorical power has been significantly dampened.
Zelensky had made meaningful progress toward ending the war: He oversaw a lauded prisoner exchange in September, a tentative de-escalation and disengagement in key areas along the de facto Russian-Ukrainian border, and the repair of a critical bridge at a border crossing. That progress is now in jeopardy. He reportedly is seeking a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has publicly endorsed a German peace plan that his predecessor had long resisted. Zelensky has maintained that he felt “no pressure” in his dealings with the Trump administration, undoubtedly to preserve what little relationship remains. But privately, he must question whether he is among the “terrible” Ukrainians whom Trump reportedly described in White House meetings. Heading into negotiations with Putin, Zelensky will wonder whether the White House and Congress have his country’s back, or whether the 30-year project of U.S. support for Ukraine will be undone via tweet.
Putin won’t wonder. As William B. Taylor Jr., our top diplomat in Ukraine, told the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, “The Russians always look for vulnerabilities,” and the sidelining of Ukraine’s staunchest and most powerful ally is undoubtedly one. Since Trump announced his candidacy, he has cast doubt on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and described Ukrainians as corrupt and terrible. Trump administration officials have wondered aloud why Americans should care about Ukraine. Trump’s weaponization of Ukraine’s corrupt justice system for personal gain is only the latest in a long line of revealing admissions that indicate to the Kremlin that the United States will be more lenient with and less attentive to Russia’s illegal incursions than it has been. With a political novice in the Ukrainian presidency, American diplomatic leadership on Ukraine eviscerated, and European leaders probably offended by the July 25 phone call in which both Trump and Zelensky disparage them, Ukraine’s negotiating position has weakened significantly.
Zelensky’s attempts to preserve U.S. support for Ukraine by pursuing a friendship with Trump were understandable. But by allegedly conditioning aid for a transitioning democracy on an unfounded investigation of a political opponent, the Trump administration has subverted democratic ideals. In impeachment, the men and women of the U.S. Congress have a consequential decision to make. But regardless of whether Trump is removed from office, the damage in Ukraine is done. On Ukraine’s front lines, where lives are lost on a weekly basis, the consequences of Trump’s apparent opportunism will continue to reverberate.