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Why Trump’s Ukraine Shenanigans are Actually Good for … Vladimir Putin

A little history lesson on Ukraine, the European Union and American foreign policy.
September 25, 2019
Why Trump’s Ukraine Shenanigans are Actually Good for … Vladimir Putin
Putin and Trump. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

It’s time to give up the argument that, actually, Trump has taken a much harder line with the Russians than his predecessors. If the reports are true – that President Trump, in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, threatened to withhold aid unless the Ukrainian prosecutor-general opened an investigation into Joe Biden’s son – Vadimir Putin is the big winner. 

The obvious cynicism and abuse of power aside, blackmailing the Ukrainians to become more corrupt isn’t a great way of advancing American interests in Europe.

In contrast to Trump himself, the Trump administration has been anything but soft on Russia. Supporting healthier military budgets, lethal aid to the Ukrainians, and new sanctions (originating in Congress) are all policies that fit a more confrontational stance toward Moscow.

But President Trump has rarely, if ever, been on the same page with his administration. Despite claiming that he’s ben “FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush, or Clinton” and “Maybe tougher than any other president,” Trump himself has been pusillanimous toward the Kremlin.

America’s goal in Europe for the last 75 years has been to expand, whenever possible, a zone of stable, democratic, rule-of-law states in a free-trade zone. This policy led to the formation of the European Union. Although it’s famously anti-democratic, sclerotic, overly bureaucratic, and cloyingly progressive, the EU counts as a major American foreign policy achievement. It sure beats the alternative, which consists of millions dying in global wars every generation or so.

The policy of uniting Europe worked so well that even a country like Ukraine, long the crown jewel of the Russian Empire and a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, took steps to integrate with the EU in 2014. It was only when then-president Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Moscow, reneged on a commitment to sign a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU that protests forced him from power.

When Yanukovych fled Kiev, the last impediment to Ukraine leaving the Russian geo-economic sphere and aligning more closely with the EU seemed to disappear. That’s why Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and then invaded Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Russian strategy didn’t work as planned. Ukraine and the EU signed the DCFTA and began implementing it in 2016. While Russia struggled under Western sanctions linked to its invasion of Ukraine (and the shoot-down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014), Ukraine’s military stymied the Kremlin’s goal of building a mini-state in Russian-occupied territory.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Russia plummeted while pro-Western feeling intensified. To replace wartime president Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainians elected Zelensky in April. During the campaign, Zelensky had stated his support for Ukrainian integration into the EU and NATO. A comedian before entering politics, he played an anti-corruption president on TV before running for president against an oligarch.

Zelensky has made curbing corruption a top priority of his young administration. He signed a law creating a new anti-corruption court earlier this month, and has proposed allowing the private sale of farmland for the first time in decades.

As rule-of-law democracies are retreating around the world, Ukraine has found a way to build a more democratic, freer, less corrupt country since 2014. Freedom House currently ranks the freedom of Ukraine’s political system as about on par with Mexico’s. The Ukrainians have paid the price for their independence and democracy: The war in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

That’s exactly why President Trump’s reported extortion of the Ukrainians is such good news for the Russian regime. The more the Ukrainians provide an example of free, fair, and legitimate government, the more insecure Putin feels. If Trump wanted to be the tough on Russia – or corruption, or authoritarians, or anything else Putin embodies – if he even just wanted to assert naked American self-interest as his “America First” slogan would suggest, he would find a way not to undermine a struggling ally on Russia’s border.

Then again, if those were his goals, he also wouldn’t have publicly defended Putin against allegations of election interference by the American intelligence community, revealed classified information to the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office, or congratulated Putin for winning a rigged election.

The national security community in both parties has trended hawkish toward Russia since 2014, which accounts for some of the more muscular policies of this administration (and the end of the last one). But there’s no evidence those are Trump’s policies.

So much for “America First.”


Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.