Will Trump's Phone Call Lead to Ukraine's Surrender and Putin's Victory?
Stephen Komarnyckj on the resignation of the US Special Representative and what the mounting scandal actually means on the ground in Ukraine.
On 26 September 2019, Rudy Giuliani entangled the State Department in the crisis around Trump’s 25 July phone call by reading out messages from Kurt Volker, the former US Special Representative to Ukraine, on Fox News.
Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president showed that the US president and Giuliani had pressured Ukraine to investigate his political foe Joe Biden. Giuliani argued that the messages proved Volker was involved. However, his attempted damage limitation backfired.
Zelensky is as reliant on public opinion as he is on oligarchs to remain in power.
Volker resigned as Special Representative to Ukraine a day later. On 3 October he confirmed that Giuliani was manipulating US foreign policy to benefit Trump during a closed hearing in the US House of Representatives. His resignation and the damage caused by Giuliani increase the pressure on Ukraine to surrender the Donbas on Putin’s terms.
The Background to Volker and the Impeachment Scandal
Volker had filled the role of special representative for Ukraine on a voluntary basis from 2017 because the administration’s foreign policy was chaotic. Trump opposed US support for Ukraine and, as the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller confirmed, had benefitted from Russian intervention in the 2016 election.
From his tweets, it was clear Trump was more influenced by Russian disinformation and crackpot theories than professional diplomats. The State Department’s morale had collapsed and several key posts were vacant. Volker realised the danger of Ukraine and Europe drifting towards Russia without US support. He filled the policy vacuum created by Trump and strengthened US support for Ukraine.
However, in 2019 Volker became aware that Ukraine’s departing prosecutor, Yurii Lutsenko, was feeding conspiracy theories to Giuliani. Lutsenko has no credibility in Ukraine and hoped that the US would push Zelensky to keep him in post. He understood Trump’s gullibility and claimed Ukrainians had interfered in the US election in 2016. They had supposedly hacked the Democratic National Committee’s server and made it look like Russia had done so to benefit Trump. He also suggested that Ukrainian gas firm Burisma paid Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, cash to gain influence in Washington.
Giuliani and Trump believed him. During the 25 July phone call Trump underlined that he wanted the hack of the democrat server and Biden investigated. Giuliani subsequently demanded that a statement on corruption being drafted by Ukrainian presidential aide Andrii Yermak referenced Burisma. Volker’s resignation was the result of Trump’s vindictiveness and credulity. There is now a vacuum left by his departure and a demoralised diplomatic corps. What will happen to Ukraine after his departure?
What this means for Ukraine – the Deal
On 1 October, Ukraine signed a deal with Russia in Minsk to regulate the situation in Donbas and forces are being withdrawn from the front line. Kyiv journalist Mikhail Golub argues that the move was dictated by oligarchic interests.
One of the signatories for Ukraine was ex-president Leonid Kuchma. His son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk owns the Interpipe firm which exports heavily to Russia. On the same day, Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who sponsored Zelensky’s presidential bid, renewed Russian energy imports for his Dniproazot firm.
President Zelenky’s chief US negotiator, Andriy Yermak, himself has ties to Russian businessman Valerii Ponamarov, who is linked to Putin’s Yedinaya Rossiya party. He is Zelenskyy’s equivalent of Giuliani and circumvents official channels to manage key Russian and US relationships. All these men might favour a peace deal which improves their access to Russian markets.
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The EU has been pressing for a reset of relations with Russia that would depend on a peace deal which allowed sanctions to be lifted. Russia would like the Donbas returned to Ukraine with its assets in situ as a trojan horse to destroy the country from within. If US policy on Ukraine now stagnates this scenario becomes more likely.
However, a Ukrainian surrender over the Donbas is unlikely. Pavlo Klimkin, who was President Poroshenko’s foreign minister, has been told by current diplomats that Ukraine’s red lines remain intact. These include a return of control over Ukraine’s Donbas border and Russian withdrawal. The same message was reiterated by current foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko.
Zelensky is as reliant on public opinion as he is on oligarchs to remain in power. His backers know that Ukraine’s return to Russian domination would result in their own businesses being carved up by Putin’s clique. Russia will probably not accept anything less than a full surrender. The peace process may only result in a fragile ceasefire, and an easier business climate for Ukrainian oligarchs linked to Russia. However, while the US is distracted, Russia will destabilise other European countries. Watch out.