In the United States, and in most other countries, the border between internal and external affairs has never been water-tight. But there has been a settled expectation that national leaders would not endanger national interests for private advantage.
That expectation is, prima facie, embedded in the US Constitution and the oath that presidents take to uphold it. But whether the One Hundred Sixteenth Congress of the United States takes that view remains to be seen. Months before the Trump-Zelensky phone call of 25 July became public, James Mattis, who resigned as Secretary of Defence in December 2018, admitted that he found aspects of Trump’s conduct ‘beneath the dignity of the presidency’. But the future of Trump’s presidency is not the only matter at stake.
The equally important issue is how Trump’s conduct will affect the global interests of the United States, most immediately in respect of Ukraine and Russia. His frivolous and reckless reversal of more than five years of uninterrupted support for Syria’s Kurds is scarcely unrelated. International commitments do not uphold themselves. A president who cannot see that ‘getting along with Putin’ does not diminish the threat that Russia poses, who values the assurances of Kim Jong Un over the assessment of the US intelligence community, who makes Ukraine hostage to partisan grudges, who holds NATO to ransom over ‘unpaid bills’, who threatens adversaries with ‘obliteration’ and calls them ‘tremendous’ the next day and who abandons five years of war against ISIS on a whim is a president who cannot be trusted by anyone except those who profit from chaos.
Initially, one could be more measured in one’s judgements. During 2017 and 2018, there was every reason to draw a distinction between President Trump and the Trump administration. For whatever reason, this garishly Russophile president put in place a national security team of undiluted professionals with a marked coolness towards Russia and a very orthodox reading of US national interests. The budget established for EUCOM [US European Command] in May 2017 for FY [fiscal year] 2018 was 41 percent above the 2017 budget programmed by the outgoing Obama administration. Sanctions against Russia were deepened and military assistance to Ukraine increased. To Trump’s critics, this was the very picture of cognitive dissonance; to his defenders, a ‘good cop-bad cop’ approach. Even in Moscow, it was not clear whether Trump was in thrall to the ‘deep state’ or enamoured of it. That era came to a close with Mattis’s resignation, and the consequences are now alarmingly obvious.
But to Ukrainians nothing is obvious at all. Even before Washington intruded, the incoming Zelensky team found themselves in two vortices of turbulence. The first was caused by their all too recent electoral victory. Their unpreparedness for the task of governing Ukraine was as breath-taking as their popular support. To be greeted by Trump’s fixation on Hunter Biden and the descent of his personal lawyer, Rudolf Giuliani, was the least gracious of welcomes. The efforts of Kurt Volker, US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, to lead Zelensky through this maize might have clarified matters for Zelensky, but it cost Volker his job. This was a double injustice, because Volker was the most capable supporter of Ukraine in Washington. Its most capable supporter in Kyiv, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, had already been dismissed by Trump, who attached more credence to Giuliani and his discredited sources than to State Department professionals.
The second vortex is the pressure generated by French and German policy. This too must be seen in context. In 2014 the stalwart response of Berlin defied every post-Ostpolitik German stereotype. The same was true for France, whose UN Ambassador described Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a ‘veto’ of the UN Charter. No one in Washington matched Angela Merkel’s in her resolve that ‘the trampling over international law will not succeed…no matter how long it will take, however difficult this might be and however many setbacks it might bring’.
Today one no longer hears such adamantine views expressed in Germany, let alone France. Instead, at their insistence, we have witnessed the return of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the determination of France (in the words of Emmanuel Macron this past August) to ‘pacify’ relations with Russia, ‘balance’ between Russia and the US and ‘tie Russia and Europe back together’. Finally, at Franco-German urging, the sketchy and all but forgotten 2016 ‘Steinmeier formula’ has been elevated into a basis for resolving the Ukraine conflict. That formula — elections in the occupied territories followed by ‘special status’ – made no mention of the security provisions of Minsk: withdrawal of foreign forces, restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and control of its eastern border.
The question therefore arises, upon whom can Ukraine now rely? Assurances that sanctions remain do not diminish the impression that a soft euthanasia of the ‘Ukraine issue’ is now Europe’s preferred way of allowing Russia to ‘return to Europe’. US assurances that military support is ‘back on track’ do not reassure when the President himself says ‘the solution lies in you and President Putin get[ting] together and [solving] your problem’ and then adds for good measure, ‘I didn’t think [Crimea] was something you should have’.
In these miserable conditions, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Vadym Prystaiko, and his opposite number in the Office of the President, Andriy Yermak, have crafted a policy that introduces safeguards into the Steinmeier formula virtually indistinguishable from the security provisions of Minsk that Steinmeier excluded from it. This is a coherent position but an overly subtle one for Ukraine’s Armed Forces and its growing army of protestors. But then another question arises: for how long will the Prystaiko line hold in the face of Franco-German and (inevitably) Russian pressure and Trump’s insistence that Ukraine is ‘Europe’s problem’?
Apprehensive as Zelensky is, he appears to share the most dangerous illusion of Paris and Berlin: that Russia wishes to end the conflict. Doubtless it does and always did. But that it now is prepared to do so on terms other than its own is a proposition devoid of substance. Russia continues to adhere to its ‘principled position’: a ‘special status’ for the Donbas ‘republics’, their unfettered autonomy, the preservation of their ‘militias’, the representation of their ‘authorities’ in Ukraine’s political structures and their de facto veto over its policy. Ukraine and its partners did not accept this interpretation of the Minsk accords in 2015. What is the case for doing so now? What is the basis for assuming that concessions will alter Moscow’s objectives rather than vindicate its tenacity?
Whatever tangible losses Ukraine might suffer, the intangible costs could be far greater. Until now, it could be taken on faith that the West’s intrusions into Ukraine’s affairs were designed to advance the rule of law, the reform of its economy and the ‘full integration into Europe’ that its leaders always promised to deliver. Now, the West’s conduct strengthens the convictions of fatalists and conspirologists that Ukraine is a bargaining chip with Russia and a resource to be exploited by internal forces in domestic battles unrelated to Ukraine’s well-being or security. However short-lived Macron’s illusions or Trump’s fortunes, the damage to credibility and trust is likely to be long-lasting.