(Foreign Policy in Focus) – When it comes to Ukraine, Trump has been manipulated as deftly as a mindless marionette. It’s going to cost him.
In fantasy sports, participants draft their own dream teams out of the rosters of existing players. That’s what Donald Trump has done with Ukraine.
He and his advisors have created a fantasy team involving a number of key players, including the Ukrainian president, the former U.S. ambassador, and the former vice president’s son. Then they’ve created a fictitious narrative that brings these players together in what amounts to the president’s own geopolitical game.
And the president continues to bet that his fantasy narrative — a misreading of Ukrainian politics that lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry — will ultimately win the jackpot. He’s still banking on acquittal in the Senate, reelection in 2020, and all the economic rewards that come to a president unshackled by constitutional restraints.
But the real Ukraine — as opposed to Trump’s fantasy version — may well lead to the unmaking of the president. Revelations from the real Ukraine, also known by the quaint shorthand phrase “facts on the ground,” have already produced a jail term for Trump’s former campaign manager and are threatening to bring down his personal lawyer.
The real Ukraine unseats corrupt autocrats. And Trump may well be next in line.
Trump as Marionette
Trump didn’t come to office with any particular view of Ukraine. He knew Russia to a certain extent, and he liked Russia because Russians invested in his properties and he dreamed of building a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Ukraine, however, was a mystery to him. The Trump Organization contemplated building a hotel and golf course in Kyiv and a resort in the coastal city of Yalta, and Trump’s children (Ivanka, Trump Jr.) visited the country in the 2000s to push these deals forward. But politically Ukraine didn’t register on Trump’s radar as anything other than Russia’s poorer stepbrother.
Take a look at this video of George Stephanopoulos interviewing Trump in July 2016 on the Republican Party’s position on military aid to Ukraine. First, Stephanopoulos had to remind the candidate about the relevant portion of the party platform:
STEPHANOPOULOS: They took away the part of the platform calling for the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves. Why is that a good idea?
TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?
TRUMP: OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there.
It’s quite clear from the interview that Trump didn’t have his own ideas. He had no ideas at all other than the ridiculous notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “not going into Ukraine” even though the Kremlin had already incorporated Crimea and provided support on the ground for secessionists in the eastern flank of the country. With only a tenuous grasp of what was going on in Ukraine, Trump soon lapsed into utter incoherence.
But as president, Trump quickly developed a view of Ukraine that was built on a number of fanciful tales fed to him by advisors at home and abroad. Trump thinks of himself as an unconventional actor on the world stage, someone who listens to his own gut.
When it comes to Ukraine, however, he has been manipulated as deftly as a mindless marionette.
The Charge of Corruption
Ukraine is one of the few countries that Donald Trump routinely calls corrupt.
He has never called out Russia, for instance, on corruption, though it routinely ranks as a more corrupt country. But the president doesn’t care about corruption in general in Ukraine. He is only obsessed with how Ukraine’s corruption intersects with his own political ambitions. Thus, he has focused on two false narratives: how Hunter Biden’s involvement in a Ukrainian energy company influenced U.S. policy during the Obama administration and how Ukraine tried to undercut the Republican Party in the 2016 campaign.
There’s no question that Ukraine has been very corrupt since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Partly, this corruption has been a legacy of the Soviet system and the highly irregular transition from communism to crony capitalism. The privatization of state resources — and the privileged position of canny insiders — produced the same kind of economic oligarchy that prevails in neighboring Russia.
The concentration of economic wealth and its myriad connections to political power inspired two social uprisings in Ukraine. Both were centered around the Maidan Nezaleznosti (Independence Square) in the capital of Kyiv and the various malfeasances of the very Trump-like figure, Viktor Yanukovych.
In 2004, the Orange Revolution targeted Yanukovych’s electoral fraud and managed to force a revote that went in favor of Yanukovych’s opponent. The second uprising in 2013, the Euromaidan, protested the deal that Yanukovych, having become president in the interim, made with Russia at the expense of closer association with the European Union. At the heart of this second uprising, however, was Yanukovych’s rampant corruption, which he even boasted about to other heads of state. During his mafia-like rule, criminal activities spirited as much as $100 billion out of the country.
But this isn’t the corruption that Trump and his allies have fretted about. In fact, they’ve been all too cozy with precisely that set of corrupt actors.
Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, for instance, helped remake Yanukovych in the wake of his electoral loss in 2004 and helped him win the presidency in 2010, earning tens of millions of dollars in fees. Manafort would eventually be convicted of corruption himself — bank and tax fraud — as a result of the Mueller investigation.
Beginning in 2016, Manafort also began pushing the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Writes Michelle Goldberg, “Manafort seems to have picked up that narrative from his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian intelligence officer who, according to federal prosecutors, ‘has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.’”
After Trump’s election, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani made his own connections to Ukraine, signing on to help improve the image of the city of Kharkiv in 2018. But Giuliani has had links to shady operators in the region for some time, people like Ukrainian real-estate develop Pavel Fuks, who was part of the effort to try to build Trump Towers in Moscow.
Also in 2018, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both Soviet-born American citizens, hired Giuliani to construct a shadow Ukraine policy designed to promote Trump’s interests over the national interests of both countries. The trio visited Ukraine at different points to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponents and pressured the president to remove U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was devoted to cleaning up Ukrainian corruption.
Giuliani also took advantage of former President Petro Poroshenko’s desperate desire to curry favor with Trump, which basically put prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko at Giuliani’s disposal. Lutsenko, a thoroughly unsavory character, very conveniently blocked investigations connected to Mueller’s inquiry and moved forward on investigations into Joe Biden and family.
Both Parnas and Fruman have been arrested and charged with campaign finance irregularities. When Trump denied knowing Parnas, who’d been an obsequious devotee of the president, the businessman reversed himself and decided to cooperate with the impeachment investigation.
Why the campaign to remove Yovanovitch? She was knowledgeable and clearly unwilling to be a Trumpian brownnose. She’d alienated Lutsenko by putting pressure on him to clean up his act. But the precipitating factor was the embassy’s decision, on her watch, to block Viktor Shokin, another Ukrainian prosecutor general, from visiting the United States. According to The Washington Post:
Consular staffers at the embassy blocked the application because of Shokin’s “known corrupt activities,” Yovanovitch testified. “And the next thing we knew, Mayor Giuliani was calling the White House” to inform Trump loyalists that Yovanovitch was denying entry to a Ukrainian who could provide Trump “information about corruption at the embassy, including my corruption.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Not only was Giuliani working with corrupt forces in Ukraine, he wanted the Trump administration to focus on an entirely different hotbed of corruption: the American embassy.
Trump, in other words, has never been concerned about the real corruption going on in Ukraine. As the impeachment inquiry has revealed, corruption had nothing to do with Trump’s holding up of military assistance to the country.
Trump has only ever been concerned about the imaginary corruption that Giuliani, Manafort, and others had manufactured to fit the president’s conspiratorial worldview: by a government that didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections (non-spoiler alert: it was Russia), by a vice-presidential son who didn’t affect U.S. policy (Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of Burisma was stupid and nepotistic but there’s no evidence of wrongdoing), and by an American ambassador who was trying to help clean up corruption in the country (she deserved a commendation, not expulsion).
It’s bad enough that Trump was misled by his corruption cronies, one who’s in prison and another who, if there’s any justice in this world, will soon join him there. The president’s view of Ukraine was also being influenced by two leaders who have had designs on that country.
The first is the most obvious: Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has wanted to keep Ukraine as weak as possible and disrupt any potential military deals between Washington and Kyiv so as to consolidate dubious territorial claims on the country. Toward that end, he has emphasized that Ukraine is a “den of corruption,” according to a former U.S. official familiar with the phone calls between Putin and Trump.
Like Giuliani and Manafort, Putin was not referring to the corruption of Yanukovych, whom he counted on as an ally. He had more contemporary targets, including Volodymyr Zelensky, who’d been elected president in 2019 on a wave of anti-corruption fervor. The Washington Post reports:
Trump turned to Putin for guidance on the new leader of Ukraine within days of Zelensky’s election. In a May 3 call, Trump asked Putin about his impressions of Zelensky, according to a Western official familiar with the conversation. Putin said that he had not yet spoken with Zelensky but derided him as a comedian with ties to an oligarch despised by the Kremlin.
Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, shares Putin’s worldview on many issues, including Ukraine. Added to that is Orban’s not-so-hidden desire to expand his influence over the trans-Carpathian section of Ukraine that was part of Hungary prior to World War I. On May 13, over the objections of National Security Advisor John Bolton and the National Security Council’s Fiona Hill, Trump invited Orban to the White House for a meeting. Orban, who has steered Hungary away from democracy and many European Union norms, had been persona non grata in Washington until Trump took office.
Orban has not been enthusiastic about Zelensky and the faction within Ukraine eager to repair its relations with Europe. Following Putin, he prefers those in the country who lean toward Russia. To that end, the Orban government has referred to Ukraine as “semi-fascist” to make it as undesirable as possible to European sensibilities.
This narrative pushed by Putin and Orban, that Ukraine is a semi-fascist den of corruption, is worth examining more closely.
Corruption has been rampant in Ukraine. The country ranks 120 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International list, which puts it behind Pakistan and Moldova. A number of journalists have been attacked and killed for covering the corruption beat.
But even before the current president took over, there were signs that the government was getting a handle on the problem. As Karl Volokh wrote in The National Interest in March:
Reforms now in place in Ukraine have reduced national corruption by a staggering $6 billion per year — a figure equivalent to nearly six percent of the country’s official GDP. These reforms, and the increased effectiveness of state tax and revenue authorities have also helped to significantly reduce the size of the country’s once-formidable shadow economy.
And instead of encouraging corruption in Ukraine, the Obama administration (including Biden) did the opposite. “Back in 2015, we relied on the solidarity of our U.S. and European allies to push our elites to take the right steps — steps that would make Ukraine less corrupt and strengthen the rule of law,” writes Maksym Eristavi in Foreign Affairs. One of those steps was firing Viktor Shokin, which Trump has repeatedly pointed to as exhibit number one in his case that Biden, who wanted Shokin out, is the corrupt politician, not him.
Zelensky, despite his anti-corruption exhortations, has faced charges of being too close to a corrupt oligarch, in this case Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV station that aired Servant of the People, the show that brought the president-cum-comedian to worldwide notice. The station was a big supporter of Zelensky’s campaign. Kolomoisky himself left Ukraine in the wake of embezzlement charges connected to the bank he owned, PrivatBank, and took up residence in Switzerland and then Israel.
In what looked a lot like a quid pro quo, Kolomoisky returned to Ukraine just before Zelensky’s inauguration. A district court in Kyiv, meanwhile, ruled that the government’s nationalization of Privatbank was illegal, which means that Kolomoisky might be able to regain control of it.
So, when it comes to corruption, Ukraine is in a better place now than a few years ago, but it’s not out of the woods.
The assertion that Ukraine is semi-fascist is more problematic. True, in the wake of the Euromaidan protests and Russian intervention, far-right and neo-Nazi formations became more powerful. In the government, the Svoboda party controlled three ministries; in the military realm, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion acquired battle-hardened credibility.
Nationalists have meanwhile attempted to enforce Ukrainian language laws and resurrect far right figures from history. Right-wing paramilitary formations still launch pogroms against Roma and try to terrorize the LGBTQ population. The far-right National Militia served as official monitors in the 2019 elections.
But fascism has little popular appeal in the country. Svoboda, though it created an electoral alliance with several other parties for the 2019 elections, couldn’t get anywhere near the electoral threshold of 5 percent to get into parliament (though it did win a single constituency seat). As a result, the infamous head of the Azov Battalion, Andriy Biletsky, lost his seat in parliament.
The government, meanwhile, has shed any connections to the far right. The current president and previous prime minister are both Jewish (though non-practicing). The president is also, primarily, a Russian speaker, and is not happy with the language law crafted by his predecessor that makes Ukrainian mandatory for public servants.
Ukraine has 99 problems, but a fascist state ain’t one. The organizing of the radical right remains a major problem in the country, as it is throughout Europe and in the United States. But in Ukraine, the radical right has virtually no political power.
So, to recap, a group of self-serving statesmen and craven consultants created a fantasy Ukraine that fed into Trump’s primary preoccupations: the supposed crimes of his political predecessors, the embarrassment of his loss of the popular vote in 2016, and his ruthless determination to win a second term.
That fictitious narrative prompted Trump to break the law. And now he is scrambling to prove that he didn’t do anything wrong and that his understanding of Ukraine is correct. If this were a real fantasy league, Donald Trump’s team would be in last place.
When ousted by popular demand in 2014, Viktor Yanukovych had few places to turn. He ended up in exile in Russia. Booted from office by impeachment or popular vote and hounded by investigations into his myriad financial improprieties, Trump may discover that he, too, might need Putin’s protection. Nancy Pelosi’s challenge to Trump that “all roads lead to Putin” may turn out to be prophetic.
The real Ukraine of anti-corruption advocates will have had its revenge once again.
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