As when Trump told Zelensky that he should finalize a peace agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I’ve heard you actually have, over the last fairly short period of time, you’ve really made some progress with Russia,” Trump said to Zelensky. “I hear a lot of progress has been made. And just keep it going. Be nice to end that whole disaster.”
The “whole disaster” is apparently a reference to Russia’s incursion into Ukrainian territory, both its seizure of Crimea and its move into the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donbas and Luhansk. Trump heard that progress had been made on resolving this, perhaps in his July 31 call with Putin.
“I really hope that Russia — because I really believe that President Putin would like to do something, I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem,” Trump added later. “That would be a tremendous achievement. And I know you’re trying to do that.”
Last week, Zelensky announced his support for the Steinmeier formula, a compromise proposal developed by German politician Frank-Walter Steinmeier in which the separatist provinces in eastern Ukraine could be recognized as self-governing after local elections. While Zelensky insisted that the elections would occur only after Russia withdrew from the area, Ukrainians are concerned that the agreement is a concession that will strengthen Russia’s grip in the region.
“The Steinmeier formula means Putin’s formula,” former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said in an interview.
As the Daily Beast reported Friday, Russia agrees. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov — last in the news in the U.S. for his office’s contacts with Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen in 2016 — embraced the development. One commentator on a discussion show on Russian state television tied Zelensky’s acquiescence to Trump: “Trump let Zelensky down. Three times he told him: ‘Go meet with Putin.' ”
It’s in Russia’s interest to promote the idea that Zelensky’s decision was a function of his facing pressure from Trump. But Ukraine’s embrace of the Steinmeier formula is also not the only recent decision in which Trump has been depicted as aiding Russia.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered his view of Trump’s decision Sunday evening to let Turkey move forward with an operation in northern Syria. The civil war in that country has created a complex mix of competing interests, with Russian allying with Syria’s existing regime and Turkey opposing Kurdish fighters who’d received U.S. military aid.
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” the statement from McConnell’s office read. “I urge the President to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat ISIS and prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners.”
McConnell’s not alone in suggesting that Russia could benefit from Trump’s decision. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a strong Trump ally, described the decision as one that would “abandon our Kurdish allies and turn Syria over to Russia, Iran, & Turkey.” The president’s former envoy for the fight against the Islamic State offered a sweeping criticism of Trump on Monday morning — including describing the decision as “a gift to Russia, Iran” and the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Russia’s government was busy celebrating a different geopolitical win that came courtesy of Trump.
After the release of a whistleblower complaint centered on that Trump-Zelensky call, new attention was focused on Trump’s other interactions with world leaders. On Friday, The Post detailed a number of alarming examples, including this one involving former British prime minister Theresa May:
“In a summer 2018 call with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump harangued the British leader about her country’s contribution to NATO. He then disputed her intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s government had orchestrated the attempted murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.”
“'Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,' said one person briefed on the call. ‘A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.’”
The Guardian, a British newspaper, seized upon that anecdote under the headline, “Trump told Theresa May he doubted Russia was behind Skripal poisoning” — a reference to the former spy, Sergei Skripal.
As with other Russian interventions overseas (including in the United States in the 2016 election), there’s robust evidence that Skripal was in fact targeted by intelligence agents from his former country. As with those other interventions, Russia denies involvement. So Russia’s Embassy in Britain eagerly embraced the Guardian report.
This is mostly a troll, of course, leveraging Trump’s ongoing denials and diminishment of Russia’s efforts in the presidential election in which he was elected president.
It’s a reminder of the other gift to Russia embedded in Trump’s call with Zelensky.
When Zelensky mentioned to Trump that Ukraine might want to purchase more defensive weapons for its struggle against Russia, Trump responded with a request.
“I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump said. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine.”
The “situation” to which he was referring was an odd, unfounded theory related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 — a theory in which Russia wasn’t culpable for the crime.