Five takeaways from Donald Trump’s Ukrainian mess

Donald Trump’s decision to withhold a vital US military aid package unless the Ukrainian government investigates former US vice president Joe Biden is likely to be seen not only an abuse of presidential power in order to discredit a political rival, but a severe blow to the international position of both the US and Ukraine. The only beneficiary will be Russia.

US Democrats have launched impeachment procedures against the country’s president, Donald Trump, over a July 25 phone call he made to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

In the call, Mr Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to relaunch a corruption probe against 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. The Democrats’ move to push for impeachment is based on accusations which claim that Mr Trump linked a 400 million US-dollar defense aid package for the Ukrainian military to the reopening of the investigation.

At the same time, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, also reached out to Mr Zelensky’s staff to convince them to relaunch the Biden probe – reportedly on behalf of the US government and with the help of the US State Department.

“No push, no pressure, no nothing,” Mr Trump has said, denying the allegations. However, the evidence would suggest otherwise: the discussion between the two leaders took place only a few days before the White House decided to withhold the military aid, ostensibly “for review.”

What is happening now in the US will impact not just the 2020 US presidential election, but international support for Ukraine, whose number one supporter has long been the United States.

Here are five takeaways on what the situation reveals and what it means for Ukraine’s relations with the US and the EU.

1. Whistleblower complaint to Congress triggers Trump’s impeachment

Despite denying that Mr Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Vice President Biden in return for congressional defence funds, the recently released transcripts of the phone conversation between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky, as well as a whistleblower complaint made by a US intelligence official, shows that the US president did push his Ukrainian counterpart to influence his country’s legal system.

“We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” Mr Zelensky told President Trump during the call, pointing to a 2018 US sale of the Javelin-type missiles and rocket launchers to Ukraine.

“I would like you to do us a favor though,” the US president replied immediately after the issue of military aid was raised, hinting to a potential quid-pro-quo. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike (…),” he went on, asking the Ukrainian president to look into to a firm that investigated a data breach into the Democratic Party headquarters during the 2016 presidential election and concluded that Russia was behind the cyberattack.

“The other thing, here’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Mr Trump continued.

Although Mr Zelensky was reportedly unaware that the defence funds approved by the US Congress were being withheld by the White House, the transcripts reveal that he did know that Mr Trump’s personal attorney was looking into how to find dirt on the US president’s main political rival for the 2020 presidential election. And he promised to help. “My assistants spoke with Mr Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine,” he told President Trump.

The transcripts released by the White House have been widely described as “rough” since it was not the actual tape of the conversation, but a summary made by senior staff members.

The US House Judiciary Committee was given access to a complaint made by a US government employee who asked for protection in return for revealing further details.

“I learned from multiple US officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced – as is customary – by the White House Situation Room,” the whistleblower told the US Congress in a summary, adding that the US president “sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the president’s 2020 reelection bid.”

The complaint suggests that Mr Trump moved to interfere the 2020 US presidential election and senior White House officials tried to cover it up.

After a congressional hearing where Joseph Maguire, the acting director of US National Intelligence said that the whistleblower “acted in good faith”, the US House Judiciary Committee endorsed advancing the impeachment procedure.

2. Trump narrative on the Bidens’ alleged corruption in Ukraine misses context

The US president’s claims regarding Mr Biden were based on a 2015 corruption probe into Burisma Holdings, Ukraine’s largest private oil and gas company where Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son was serving as a board member. In reality, however, Mr Trump’s accusations have largely been false when it comes to the issue since there was absolutely no evidence backing up the claims that Hunter Biden himself has ever been investigated. The probe was into the misdealings of Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner and director of the Ukrainian company against whom investigations had been launched well before Mr Biden’s son joined the company’s board in April 2014.

Mr Trump claims that Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, who opened the 2015 corruption investigation, was fired due to political pressure from Joe Biden, who was at that time responsible for the White House’s Ukraine policy. Nonetheless, what the US president declined to mention was that aside from the Obama administration, Ukraine’s other international partners – including European countries and the International Monetary Fund – also called for Mr Shokin’s resignation as he had been widely criticised for not delivering on anti-corruption reforms. Mr Shokin’s deputy, Vitaly Kasko, resigned in February 2016, claiming that the prosecutor general’s office itself was also involved in corruption.

In February, the former US vice president did acknowledge that he threatened to withhold one billion US dollars of loan guarantees for Ukraine unless Mr Shokin was not fired. While Mr Trump claims his firing was a consequence of a call Mr Biden made to former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in December 2015, the Ukrainian parliament decided to dismiss him only in March 2016.

In May, Yuriy Litsenko, Ukraine’s former prosecutor general and Mr Shokin’s successor, told Bloomberg that no evidence of wrongdoing had been found in either of the two cases.

“Ukraine’s parliament is planning to hold hearings about the various corrupt schemes,” Ukrainian MP Valentin Nalyvaichenko told the Daily Beast, adding that this also means revisiting the Biden case, but not the way Mr Trump wanted it to be relaunched, rather in an attempt to deliver on president Zelensky’s anti-corruption promises.

“Hunter Biden cannot be responsible for violations of the management of Burisma that took place two years before his arrival,” Mr Litsenko said, reaffirming his earlier findings on September 26.

3. Ukraine’s president must reassure his Western allies

Speaking at a joint press conference with the US president in New York on Setpember 26, Mr Zelensky doubled down on President Trump’s claims, saying that he felt absolutely no pressure during their conversation.

“Since we have won the absolute majority in our parliament; the next prosecutor general will be 100 per cent my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September,” the Ukrainian president told Mr Trump in the call, adding that “he or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company” that his US counterpart mentioned.

Given this statement, it is no surprise that Mr Zelensky reportedly believed that his parts of the phone call were not going to be released, calling the conversation “private and confidential.”

For Ukraine’s new president, the aforementioned words indicate that despite his strong anti-corruption platform, he is willing to interfere with the country’s judiciary system to achieve a politically motivated outcome in a case that has previously been closed.

Strategically, however, the Ukrainian president was offered no choice. His country heavily relies on US support, especially when it comes to upgrading the Ukrainian military. On the other hand, he stressed that the primary goal of relaunching the probe against Mr Biden and his son was “to restore honesty”.

An additional problem Mr Zelensky created for himself while trying to flatter Mr Trump was that he seemed not to value EU support for his war-torn country. In his first response to the accusations, the US president said that the reason why he decided to withhold the defence aid for Ukraine was to call on Europe – France and Germany in particular – to provide more support for Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky agreed vehemently. “They are not enforcing the sanctions. They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine,” he told Mr Trump on the phone, referring to his conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

“We highly appreciate the support of the European Union as a whole. We highly appreciate the support of Germany and France,” Ukrainian deputy PM Dmytro Kuleba was quick to reassure the two Western European leaders after the European Commission said that the phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky was “unprecedented.”

At the same time as the EU has given Ukraine more than 3.5 billion euros in financial aid, it is true that Europe does not provide the country with as much military support as the US does, not to mention Nord Stream 2, a Russia-built gas pipeline endorsed by the German government which significantly endangers Ukraine’s role in gas transit to Europe at a time when Ukraine is still faced with Russian military aggression.

“The support, which was provided by the EU, has been unprecedented. The EU sanctions would have been impossible without Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron,” former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said.

“I stand by every word I say. I have many times thanked, I thank, and I’ll keep thanking [Ukraine’s European partners],” Mr Zelensky noted on September 26, adding that his phone call with Mr Trump took place in a “difficult period” when Nord Stream 2’s implementation was moving forward and Russia was readmitted to the General Assembly of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organisation. Both were facilitated with Western European support.

As the domestic political turmoil continues to unfold in the US, it will be crucial for both Mr Zelensky and the newly sworn-in Ukrainian government to seek the support of both the Democratic and Republican parties to prepare for any future scenarios.

4. Russia benefits

Mr Trump’s attempt to discredit his political rival was detrimental to the national security interests of both the United States and Ukraine. The US president’s revealed effort to solicit an investigation against Mr Biden comes amidst a renewed effort to resolve the Ukraine crisis and get Russia back to the negotiating table.

While American and Ukrainian positions have been weakened and the Donbas war is still ongoing, there is one clear winner of the US domestic political turmoil: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Is it the US Democrats’ job to turn their country into the laughing stock of the world? That’s exactly what [US House Speaker] Pelosi has done with Congress, the White House and other government agencies,” Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry said after the scandal broke out.

The turmoil will provide Mr Putin with a reinforced position ahead of peace talks within so-called Normandy summit in October when the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia will meet to find an end to the war in eastern Ukraine.

Furthermore, Mr Trump’s move to withhold military aid from Ukraine will encourage the Kremlin to stay away from a peaceful resolution in the Donbas and continue its proxy war.

According to Paul Grod, the president of the Ukraine World Congress, Ukraine “is at risk of coming to the table with a weak hand, unless the United States throws its full support behind it and encourages Europe to do the same.”

“The US for all the past five years has been the most important ally, not only in the sense of military aid, not only in the sense of pressure and sanctions but fundamentally leading the international community, so now the Russians should be crazy happy about it,” former Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin told CNN.

5. What if Mike Pence takes over?

At this point, the key question for US lawmakers is if Mr Trump’s actions were unethical (but not necessarily illegal), misconduct or an explicit quid-pro-quo. Further evidence, including the transcripts of his first phone call with Mr Zelensky in May, as well as conversations between him and US Vice President Mike Pence – which Mr Trump, for some reason, advised the press to look into – might also prove crucial.

While impeachment procedures are gaining more and more momentum in the US House, it still remains a long shot for the president’s opponents, with Mr Trump’s removal being highly unlikely given the Republicans’ support in the US Senate where the final act of impeachment has to be voted.

In the highly unlikely scenario of Mr Trump’s removal, vice president Mike Pence, who on September 25 told the press that his boss “did nothing wrong” when he called Mr Zelensky, would be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.

While the US would be faced with significant damage to its international reputation if Mr Trump is indeed impeached, a Pence presidency would mean that the US would have to offer immediate reassurance to its alliances, starting with Ukraine, in order to reinforce the United States’ Transatlantic commitments to NATO and Europe.

Despite showing continuous support to his boss, Mr Pence has been highly critical of Russia both during his term as vice president and before. The situation is no different when it comes to Russian aggression in the post-Soviet sphere.

“I can assure you that we will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine on security, on territorial integrity, including Ukraine’s rightful claim to Crimea,” Mr Pence told the Ukrainian president when the two met in Warsaw.

“With its efforts to meddle in elections across Europe and around the world, now is the time for us to remain vigilant about the intentions and actions being taken by Russia,” he told reporters, shortly after Mr Trump’s controversial call to reinstate Russia’s membership in the G7.

Given Mr Trump’s reluctance to unconditionally support Ukraine and an increasing amount of bipartisan pressure in the US Congress to do so, Mr Pence’s presidency would also mean further military commitments towards Ukraine, including the sale of the Javelin missiles President Zelensky has been wishing for unless the Normandy talks in October do not provide for a solution.

Main Photo: Official website of the president of Ukraine