KIEV, Ukraine ― As newly sworn-in U.S. President Donald Trump made his inauguration address in Washington, he promised to break with the foreign policy of outgoing President Barack Obama. Nowhere is the threatening ambiguity of that promise being felt more acutely than in Ukraine, which was a priority of the Obama administration and which continues to fight a proxy war with Russia in the east of the country that by conservative estimates has claimed some 10,000 lives.
During his last week in office former Vice President Joe Biden was in Ukraine’s capital city Kiev to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for his fifth trip to the country since the Maidan protests that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Throughout his tenure at the White House, Biden played the unofficial role of the administration’s special envoy to Ukraine, and since the 2016 election, has worked to instill Ukraine’s importance on the new administration. Asked if he thought his efforts were successful, Biden responded only that “hope spring eternal.”
Nowhere is the threatening ambiguity of 'America First' being felt more acutely than in Ukraine.
Ukrainians are concerned about Trump’s focus on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and that relationship’s potential to halt U.S. support for Ukraine. On the campaign trail Trump regularly praised Putin, and according to American intelligence and law enforcement officials, U.S. investigators are currently in the process of looking into contact between Trump’s national security adviser and a top Russian diplomat.
Trump also recently said that he would be willing to remove sanctions on Russia if the Kremlin agreed to a mutual reduction in nuclear arms, breaking with the previous administration’s position that removing sections be linked to ending Russian military involvement in Ukraine that the sanctions were originally imposed over. Kiev reacted to this proposition in an interview after Trump’s inauguration, urging the new leader not to remove sanctions on Moscow.
Trump’s praise of Putin has led Russia’s elite to publicly hope for warmer relations under Trump’s presidency, with multiple inauguration parties being thrown in the Russian capital. Ukrainians meanwhile worry Trump could relegate them to Russia’s sphere of influence, denying the country’s Western aspirations.
Ukrainian society has long feared that the West could “sell out” Ukraine by forcing a bad peace. In 2014, Ukrainian social media accounts launched a campaign against German Chancellor Angela Merkel after perceiving her to be too close to Putin, labeling her “Frau Ribbentrop” after the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who negotiated the partitioning of Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. With Trump, those fears have surfaced again.
“Commentators constantly refer to the Munich 1938 agreement, implying that the West will once again attempt to appease the aggressor,” Kostiantyn Fedorenko, a political analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, told The WorldPost. “This, in their view, would be done via [the] lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia.”
Prior to the election, senior Ukrainian officials reportedly hoped democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would win, but since the election they have focused on trying to raise awareness about Ukraine rather than provoking conflict with Trump. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin asked for Trump to be a strong leader for Ukraine as well as for the United States. In his remarks after meeting with Biden, Poroshenko said that he looked forward to working with the Trump administration, and Ukrainian media reported that Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly said he recently spoke with Trump and tried to emphasize Ukraine’s importance.
To avoid Ukraine being forgotten, Poroshenko has also reportedly hired a $50,000-a-month lobbying firm with strong Republican ties to amplify Ukraine’s voice in Washington. But it may be too little, too late.
For many Ukrainians, Trump’s success in the U.S. has also been reminiscent of the history of corruption and nepotism they tried to break with during the Maidan revolution that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. In August, Trump’s campaign took a surprising Ukrainian turn when Ukrainian anti-corruption investigators released handwritten ledgers indicating $12.7 million in cash payments to Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort from Yanukovych’s party. Manafort subsequently resigned.
In Ukraine, there has been frustration that American institutions have been unable to prevent the rise of a figure like Trump, who jarringly breaks with the values of liberalism and tolerance the U.S. promotes abroad.
“We got a lot of lecturing and lessons [about] how to behave and what to do. I expect the Americans to do likewise at home,” Oleg Naumenko, a former communications consultant to the Ukrainian presidential administration, told The WorldPost.
‘We got a lot of lecturing and lessons [about] how to behave and what to do. I expect the Americans to do likewise at home.’ Oleg Naumenko, former communications consultant to Ukraine presidential administration
Saturday’s Women’s March in opposition to certain expressed values of the new U.S. president provided hope to Ukrainians that American civil society was still vibrant, reminding some of the Maidan protests.
“I am inspired by the atmosphere and all the creativity. There are often anti-Russian slogans,” Alex Ryabchyn, a member of parliament who entered politics after the Maidan protest, wrote on social media while in New York City observing the march.
But while many express disappointment with Trump, he has also spawned political copy cats in Ukraine who are trying to take advantage of what they see as a new global political movement and a Trump administration willing to reward loyalty.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who received Ukrainian citizenship in 2015, said he attended Trump’s inauguration and has been regularly praising him in interviews with American television. He has even adopted Trump’s signature slogan, promising to “make Ukraine great.” In a press conference shortly after Trump’s election, Saakashvili also showed a video of him and Trump meeting while he was still president of Georgia in 2012. A Trump Tower was planned at the time for the port city of Batumi.
Oleh Lyashko, a Ukrainian populist who uses a pitchfork in his party’s logo, said on social media he had been invited to Trump’s inauguration in Washington, but would instead invite Trump to his own eventual inauguration in Ukraine.
Because Trump has just been inaugurated and it remains unclear what he will actually do, many in Ukraine are waiting for his actions.
“Nobody can say whether this administration will be worse,” Ukrainian Member of Parliament and two-time former Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, told The WorldPost. He added that only at the end has the Obama administration tried to take more definitive measures on Ukraine, leaving much to be desired.
Though the Obama administration was a boisterous public advocate for Ukraine, there have long been frustrations over the failure to take more concrete measures. One of the most major issues has been the failure to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine. The Obama administration opposed the move, fearing it would escalate the conflict and repeatedly ignored bills passed by Congress.
For now, Ukrainians hope that the Republican majority in Congress, which has traditionally been anti-Russian, and bipartisan support for arming Ukraine will keep pressure on Trump, who remains a wild card.
“We have seen the rhetoric. Now we are waiting for performance,” said Tarasyuk.