Ukraine, Trump and the new unpredictability

Kyiv’s relationship with Washington could get very bumpy, very quickly.

Like most of the world, Ukrainians did not really expect Donald Trump to win. As Alyona Hetmanchuk of Kyiv foreign policy think tank, Institute of World Policy, wrote on the eve of the election, ‘there is a clear consensus regarding Hillary Clinton: her politics will be similar to Barack Obama’s, but tougher. As for Trump there is also is a kind of consensus: he's so unpredictable that spending time on forecasts is a thankless task in his case (and, as a good half of the world hopes, is unnecessary, given his smaller chances of victory)’.

Initially, some in Ukraine were interested in Trump. But a bizarre video link appearance at the annual YES conference in Kyiv in September 2015 provided a foretaste of the eccentricities to come. His increasingly frequent apologies for Vladimir Putin then made many Ukrainians downright hostile. Ukrainian Americans, who number an estimated 980,000 and have leaned Republican since at least the Reagan era, were often strongly negative about Trump.

Kyiv even hoped that Trump’s more egregious moments – openly calling for Russian hacking of Clinton, excising support for Ukraine from the Republican Convention platform in July – had backfired and helped to refocus attention both on Russia’s modus operandi and on Ukrainian victimhood. There were rumours that the United States may have helped Ukrainian hackers leak emails from the office of Kremlin éminence grise Vladislav Surkov, as a means of getting Russia to back off from any more interference on election day.

The Russians’ overt interference in the campaign was truly shocking. And it showed that it is not just Ukraine in the frontline against Russian ‘soft power’ and cyberwars. In the immediate term, Ukraine may now get more assistance. Or Trump may scale down the countermeasures that Joe Biden hinted at in October. Or Obama may do something before Inauguration Day in January.

But Kyiv now has to cope with Trump as president. In July he was widely mocked for saying, “He’s [Putin is] not going into Ukraine, O.K”. When it was pointed out that Putin had already done so, Trump continued “O.K., well, he’s there in a certain way”. “But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama”. This might actually imply a tough guy promise to sort the situation out. But then Trump continued, “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

During a brief meeting with Petro Poroshenko in Washington in the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, ‘Clinton stressed her commitment to stand with the government and people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, and discussed ways to help Ukraine strengthen and defend itself’. Trump avoided arranging a similar meeting.

Ukrainians cannot but be worried by Trump’s broader statements downplaying NATO and about reaching some accommodation with Russia. In August, when Trump was asked about the lifting of sanctions, he replied, “Yes, we will be looking at that”.

Ukrainians cannot but be worried by Trump’s broader statements downplaying NATO and about reaching some accommodation with Russia.

But Trump is nothing if not unpredictable. Since 2014, Obama has opposed a series of measures passed by Congress to send military aid to Ukraine, and many of those votes were Republican. For example, when the House of Representatives voted in March 2015 to provide lethal defensive aid, the vote was an impressively bipartisan 348 to 48.

According to Anatoli Martsinovsky of the newspaper Ukrainian Truth, “The main question for today is: will the USA remain the key Western ally for Ukraine? … It is perfectly possible that after Trump’s victory, Kyiv’s importance for Washington will be re-examined”. There is clearly a bumpy ride ahead for all. For Ukraine and all in Russia’s neighbourhood, the journey is set to be a particularly difficult one. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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