Vladimir Putin considers Ukraine to be his backyard. It shares a nearly 1,500-mile border with Russia, was part of the Soviet Union, and for centuries has been referred to as “Little Russia” by domineering leaders of its northern neighbor. The ousting of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president after mass protest in 2014 preceded Putin’s seizure of its Crimean peninsula and instigation of a separatist war in the country’s industrial east. If he couldn’t exert his will on the government in Kiev, then he could at least weaken it.
In pushing Ukraine’s new, pro-Western president to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, Trump has taken a page from Putin’s book—treating Ukraine as something like Little Trumpland and its president like a world leader who has to do his bidding.
The irony in this saga is that in Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump has been trying to strong-arm a Ukrainian leader who has vowed to root out the endemic corruption that plagues his country. So Trump’s admitted insistence, during a July 25 phone call with Zelensky, that Ukraine investigate discredited allegations against Biden over his eldest son’s business dealings in the country—against a backdrop of Trump freezing more than $391 million in military aid—appears to have fallen on the ears of a man who seems unlikely to bend to such demands.
It’s true that Ukraine relies heavily on U.S. support to defend itself against Russia. Though Trump has long called on European nations to take on a greater share of the burden of U.S. military assistance, America remains the primary guarantor of Ukrainian security and sovereignty. The separatist war in eastern Ukraine continues; the Crimean peninsula is still in Russian hands; there is always the threat of further Russian incursions. Any rollback of U.S. support, and any setbacks in the political relationship between the two countries, is cause for serious concern in Kiev.
At the same time, however, a rift in the Ukraine-U.S. relationship can also hurt America in its own struggle against Russia. Ukraine’s spy services and military forces have become an important U.S. partner in countering Russia—especially in the realm of hybrid warfare, which Moscow has deployed so effectively against America and its allies. Lost amid the accusations that Trump has used U.S. aid as leverage to push Ukraine to do his political bidding is the fact that while Kiev is heavily reliant on America to defend against Russia, America needs help from Kiev too.
This is the dynamic between the two men as they meet, amid the swirling American scandal, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York today.
On the one side is Trump, whose political standing is newly precarious as the crisis over his overtures to Zelensky intensifies in Washington. Trump’s go-to defense in the face of scandal—admitting much of it and asking, in effect, “So what’s the big deal?”—seems unlikely to head off the intensifying push for impeachment in the House of Representatives. Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry.
On the other side is Zelensky, who swept into office on an anti-corruption platform this spring and has pushed to enact it, starting with a bold move to call a parliamentary election that saw his nascent political party awarded a surprisingly strong mandate.
Like Trump, Zelensky is a political outsider who gained fame as the star of a popular TV show. His character was the polar opposite of the persona that Trump displayed on The Apprentice. Zelensky played a schoolteacher who unexpectedly finds himself leader of Ukraine and works to instill a sense of morality and patriotism in its government. In the kind of plotline that might have appeared on his series, Servant of the People, the man who played the humble and ethical public official now finds himself facing down the self-styled backroom dealmaker and master of the quid pro quo.
None of this is to say that Zelensky, and Ukraine more generally, are immune to Trump’s bullying. The details of the whistle-blower complaint that sparked the scandal are still unknown; the complaint reportedly involves multiple actions by Trump, including his correspondence with Zelensky. There are also no definitive answers to how Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have responded to Trump’s demands, though there have been no reports to suggest that they complied with them. Zelensky has yet to comment publicly on the scandal. Insisting that he said nothing inappropriate on the phone call with Zelensky that has fallen under scrutiny, Trump announced yesterday that he would declassify and release an unredacted transcript. The White House is also reportedly preparing to release the whistle-blower complaint to Congress and working on a deal to let the whistle-blower testify before its intelligence committees.
As the political drama unfolds in America, Kiev remains a front line of the continuing struggle between Russia and the West. Ukraine is often seen as a laboratory for irregular Russian tactics, like using disinformation campaigns or deploying shadowy mercenaries abroad. Russia has used Ukraine as a “focus group” when developing these weapons, Evelyn Farkas, who was a senior Pentagon official involved with Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration, told me. As a result, Ukrainian intelligence services have found themselves on the cutting edge of Russian destabilization efforts, and they provide valuable information to their American counterparts. “Close ties with the Ukrainian intelligence community help us to be prepared and also to defend ourselves against what the Russians are doing,” said Farkas, now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
For example, Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service, the Security Service of Ukraine, has been aggressively monitoring the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit with links to Russian intelligence. The Wagner Group started as a Ukrainian problem, playing a role in the early stages of the Moscow-backed separatist war, but eventually spread to Africa and Syria, where the mercenaries wound up fighting U.S. troops. Experts say that Wagner or a force like it could be deployed in other vulnerable places where Russia hopes to challenge U.S. interests, such as Venezuela or the Baltic states.
America also has strong relationships with the Ukrainian military, including the elite units of special-operations forces that America has trained and equipped since 2014, Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for Russia and Ukraine, told me.
“Ukraine provides us with a lot of intelligence on how Russia conducts hybrid warfare, which we aren’t able to glean from any other source in the world,” said Carpenter, who also worked as an adviser to Joe Biden in the White House and is a senior director at the Penn Biden Center, a think tank affiliated with the former vice president. The U.S. military-training program in Ukraine and liaison relationships with its intelligence services, Carpenter added, have helped the U.S. learn “not just what sorts of weapons systems Russia deploys in [eastern Ukraine] and what sort of tactics it uses but more broadly how it approaches full-spectrum warfare against an enemy.” This includes conventional and proxy warfare as well as political, cyber, and information operations.
Carpenter said these military and intelligence partnerships would likely survive any political turbulence between the U.S. and Ukraine. But Trump’s decision to freeze military aid underlined larger concerns over the strategic relationship between the two countries. “From the Ukrainian perspective, it threatens a broader potential break in U.S.-Ukrainian relations whereby the U.S. would no longer be the chief advocate on the international stage of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Carpenter said.
Trump has threatened to weaken U.S. support for Ukraine in its battle with Russia since the days of his presidential campaign; Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager who is currently serving prison time related to his work on behalf of the pro-Russian president who was ousted in Ukraine’s 2014 protests, infamously altered the 2016 Republican platform to remove a pledge to provide Kiev with weapons to fight Russia and its separatist allies. Trump has said that his decision to delay the military aid, which was later released, was tied to his long-standing demands for Europe to pay more of it.
Whatever Trump’s motivation, he has created fresh problems for an American partner in the struggle against Moscow. Given his sometimes contentious relationship with parts of the U.S. intelligence community, Trump’s critics have long worried that he might seek to politicize America’s spy services. In fact, in pushing a Biden investigation on Ukraine, Trump has instead sought to politicize the U.S. relationship with a foreign ally. “Interfering in people’s affairs like that for electoral purposes, that just goes way beyond the line,” Gregory Treverton, a professor at USC Dornsife who chaired the National Intelligence Council from 2014 to 2016, told me. “It is politicizing. It’s also the opposite of supporting Ukraine. It’s treating it like an errand boy.”