Six ways the US can repair its relationship with Ukraine

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Now that the impeachment drama surrounding Donald Trump’s shady Ukrainian activities has come to an end, his administration and the US Congress have a unique opportunity to regain Ukraine’s trust by strengthening the strategic relationship between Washington and Kyiv.

After a historic trial in the United States Congress, Republican lawmakers in the US Senate have found Donald Trump not guilty of abusing his office by threatening to withhold 400 million US dollars of security aid for Ukraine unless the administration of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky investigated allegations about the activities of former US vice president Joe Biden, one of Mr Trump’s chief political rivals in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

The scandal has put US-Ukrainian relations under strain, not to mention the very fact that Mr Trump’s actions significantly damaged Ukraine’s international position at a time when the country’s government was gearing up for peace talks with Russia over the Donbas war in eastern Ukraine.

With the US president now acquitted, the end of the impeachment drama will open a new chapter in Mr Trump’s presidency and presents an opportunity for his administration to show its commitment towards the strategic relationship it maintains with Ukraine.

Over the six years which have passed since the Maidan Revolution in early 2014, Ukraine has clearly become a strategic priority for the United States, while Washington has become a strategic and crucial ally for Kyiv. During his visit to the Ukrainian capital on January 31, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was the highest ranking US official to visit the country in two and a half years, sought to reassure Mr Zelensky that the United States – and what is more important in the present situation – both the Republican and Democratic parties stand firmly behind Kyiv in its fight against Russian aggression.

Despite Mr Trump’s damaging actions, 2020 could (and should) be the year of a reinforced strategic relationship between the two countries and the US government is well-equipped to not just continue, but to strengthen support for Kyiv as Mr Zelensky and the Ukrainian government search new ways for putting their country on the Euro-Atlantic track.

Here are six policy recommendations that should be the priorities of the United States’ Ukraine policy in 2020.

1. Increase sanctions pressure on Russia in an effective way

Responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the Kremlin’s support of pro-Russian rebel forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine’s east, the United States – together with the EU, Australia, Canada and Norway – imposed sanctions on Russian public figures and entities associated with the country’s aggressive foreign policy.

Besides these restrictive measures, the US government between 2014 and 2018 introduced a number of sanctions that were not directly associated with the crisis in Ukraine, but which targeted Russia’s abuse of human rights, its corrupt officials, as well as its aggression and interference around the world. As part of these actions, 60 Russian diplomats were expelled from the US after the poisoning of former Russian secret service agent Sergei Skripal in London, Russia Today, Russia’s flagship propaganda machine was declared a foreign agent, 40 Russian oligarchs were prohibited from doing business in the US, and the list of corrupt and rights abusing Russian government officials was expanded within the framework of the Magnitsky Act.

Sanctioning European companies involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, the two newest Russian gas pipelines that will deliver gas to Europe and bypass Ukraine – endangering Kyiv’s energy security – was the latest addition to the list of indirect restrictions, while the US Congress is now considering sanctions against Western European companies that are part of the Russian-led consortium building Nord Stream 2.

What is more, Russia hawks in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee – led by Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a key Trump ally – recently endorsed “the sanctions bill from hell” (Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act; DASKA), bipartisan legislation that would target Russia’s sovereign debt, oil industry and IT sector, as well as Russian financial institutions and government figures associated with Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Despite accusations that he is cosying up to Russia’s authoritarian leader, Mr Trump and his administration has consistently approved all congressional initiatives against Russian aggression, with two exceptions. Firstly, the Republican majority in the US Senate lifted sanctions against Oleg Deripaska, a close-to-Putin Russian billionaire and his companies, arguing that the restrictive measures could damage the global steel industry. Secondly, the US State Department also warned Congress over the DASKA, claiming that the bill will hurt global financial markets and US companies present in Russia.

It is worth highlighting, however, that this sanctions regime, which has been much stronger during the Trump administration than in the era of its predecessor, Barack Obama, is rather the result of a bipartisan congressional majority that has been unshakeable in both houses of the US Congress.

Targeting Nord Stream 2 and the “sanctions bill from hell” show that the United States is continuing to aim for limiting Russia’s geopolitical influence over Europe. US policy is headed in the right direction, but it is not making full use of these sanctions.

Taking the past six years into account, the punitive measures of the EU, the US and Ukraine’s other international partners have largely been unsuccessful in changing the course of Mr Putin’s overall foreign policy. Still, there is a broad consensus arguing that sanctions have managed to avoid further Russian aggression in both Ukraine and elsewhere in emerging Europe, which is exactly why this sanctions regime has to be maintained.

2. Step up military cooperation with Ukraine

Between 2014 and 2019, the Obama and Trump administrations – excluding the 400 million US dollars at the center of the controversy – has provided Ukraine with 1.6 billion US dollars in the forms of foreign, defence and security assistance and the US Congress has approved an additional 300 million US dollars for 2020. In addition, the Trump administration – due to the bipartisan coalition of pro-Ukrainian US lawmakers – was also instrumental in approving the sale of Javelin-type anti-tank missiles in 2017, a deal the Ukrainian government was waiting for a long time since Mr Obama was reluctant to provide the Ukrainian military with lethal aid.

Although most Ukrainian analysts highlighted that the Javelin missiles, which were not in active use, had only symbolic significance, their sale was a turning point in the United States’s Ukraine policy.

In practice, other elements of the US assistance package, that has included providing financial aid, training programmes, US military advisors, anti-corruption programmes and high-level defense cooperation were much more important in Ukraine’s quest to modernise its military, which is now stronger than ever before.

During his now infamous July 25 call with the US president, Mr Zelensky also explored the possibility of another Javelin sale. Now that Mr Trump has to seek reassurances for Ukraine, considering this Ukrainian inquiry should be one of his priorities as the dust settles and a one-on-one meeting between the leaders in Washington again becomes a possibility in political regard.

Bilateral cooperation is also overshadowed by the US government’s decision to block six arms and ammunition sales US companies want to close with the Ukrainian military. However, withholding these sales, which total 30 million US dollars, has reportedly nothing to do with Mr Trump’s domestic agenda.

US government officials told BuzzFeed News that the decision was related to a Chinese attempt to buy Motor Sich, a large Ukrainian airspace and helicopter engine manufacturer. Beijing purchased minority ownership in the company in 2017 and the US interest now is to keep them from acquiring the whole of Motor Sich. Solving this issue will be just as much as dependent on Washington as it is on Kyiv since Ukraine has to consider economic aspects: in 2019, China overtook Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner, while the Ukrainian government is seeking 10 billion US dollars of Chinese investment in the near future.

Strengthening bilateral defense ties has to be a key element of US-Ukraine relations, given the fact that Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership – despite support from the Alliance and domestic support in Ukraine for joining it – hangs in the balance. Nevertheless, Ukraine-NATO cooperation could surely be lifted to a stronger level and the US State Department already endorsed Ukraine to join the Alliance’s Enhanced Opportunity Partnership, the highest cooperation format NATO has with third parties such as Georgia, Sweden or Finland.

3. Fight Russian fake news where its has the biggest impact

The US president demanded investigations from his Ukrainian counterpart about the alleged corruption of the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election in favour of Mr Trump’s then-rival, Hillary Clinton. The latter claim, which was promoted by Rudy Giuliani, the US president’s personal lawyer, was dismissed by the whole US intelligence community, while the accusations against the Bidens also stand on weak ground (even if it raises considerable ethical questions that Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company when his father was in charge of the Ukraine policy of the White House).

In his first public statement after the end of his trial on February 6, Mr Trump’s focus shifted to attacking Hunter Biden, and these attacks are unlikely to stop as long as the former US vice president is in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Should Mr Trump continue to push these conspiracy theories, Ukraine will be again in an unpleasant political situation since it counts (and depends) on bipartisan support from the US.

Taking disinformation in context, it is crucial that Ukraine is offered assistance to counter the spread of Russian fake news in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions: Donbas continues to be one of the top targets of Russian political propaganda and the Ukrainian government has limited capabilities in fighting it.

Over the past decades, the United States has spent billions of dollars on supporting media freedom in the post-Soviet sphere. This could be strengthened in both Crimea and Donbas by supporting Russian-language media channels and online outlets as both regions are dominated by pro-Kremlin media.

4. Continue to support a Ukrainian Crimea

While the US continues to condemn annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the US Secretary of State during his January 31 visit reportedly told Ukrainian NGO representatives that “Crimea is lost and the international community also believes that Crimea is lost.”

Mr Pompeo is certainly not the only politician who shares this opinion as the whole Western community understands that returning Crimea to Ukraine remains a long, if not impossible task. The future status of the Black Sea peninsula has remained largely undiscussed at official forums. In a strong geopolitical move, Crimea was also “nuclearised” by the Russian military that has stationed nuclear weapons in the area.

Abandoning Crimea to Russia would not just be severe blow to Ukraine. It would immediately greenlight further Russian aggression in Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

5. Strengthen political ties at the highest level

Aside from Mr Trump’s push for investigations and his decision to withhold military aid, his associates – former US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland – headed by Mr Giuliani also conditioned a White House meeting to an announcement Mr Zelensky was supposed to make about announcing investigations against the Bidens and about the debunked Ukrainian interference into the previous US presidential election.

This will, of course, most likely be a unpleasant for both governments as Ukraine was pushed to do something it clearly did not want to, and Mr Trump did not get the dirt he asked for. However, sooner or later, political relations also have to be restored, particularly because the US president has every chance of being reelected for another four years.

On February 11, Andrey Yermak, the newly appointed head of Mr Zelensky’s administration, announced that the date of the Ukrainian president’s “historic visit” to Washington would be revealed soon.

Furthermore, the White House could offer immediate reassurances by appointing a new special envoy for Ukraine: a highly qualified person, who – similarly to Mr Volker, who resigned over his role in Mr Trump’s actions – is committed to backing Ukraine, standing up to Russia where it is applicable and to engaging in the peace process at a higher level. Removing Mr Giuliani from any potential foreign policy decisions would also be highly desirable.

Domestic political hurdles in the US will most likely continue as some Senate Republicans will examine Hunter Biden’s activities and House Democrats will subpoena John Bolton, Mr Trump’s former national security advisor who also confirmed the quid pro quo. What matters is that they must not have an effect on the US-Ukrainian relationship.

Mr Zelensky’s advisors could also be reassured by the fact that Mr Trump is not the sole person responsible for the Ukraine policy of the United States and the bipartisan congressional coalition supporting Kyiv will not fade away even if some hardline Republicans continue to echo the US president’s rhetoric.

6. Help Ukraine reduce its dependence on Russian energy

While Ukraine and Russia – following months of unsuccessful talks stalled by Russian gas giant Gazprom – agreed on a new gas transit contract for the next five years, bypassing Ukrainian pipelines will be one of Russia’s top priorities. Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream make this easier. The former will have an annual transit capacity of 55 billion cubic metres, while the latter has already cut Ukrainian gas transit by 15 per cent. Once transit is halted, Ukraine will lose an annual 2.8 billion US dollars.

In the meantime, the US has become the third largest LNG (liquified natural gas) exporter globally and it is poised to be the largest exporter in the short term.

As pointed out by Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, US LNG imports could be vital for Ukraine for three reasons. Firstly, increased energy supplies from the US will add to the already traded volume of LNG, putting downward pressure on gas prices. Secondly, LNG shipments could offer Ukraine a diversity of supply and improve the country’s energy security. Third, Mr Cohen argues that the presence of US LNG alone has the power to break Russian monopolies in Central and Eastern Europe, since American contracts are more flexible and not conditional to politics.

Importing LNG will certainly have a premium price – together with its transport, cooling and regasification. Ukraine – and the whole of the CEE region – lacks the proper infrastructure. In the long term, however, as global energy needs increase and Europe looks to diversify its energy supplies, LNG from the US will become not just competitive, but a reasonable alternative Ukraine could benefit from.