The Obama administration has been a strong supporter of Ukraine – a relationship many fear will evaporate once Trump enters the White House.
Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA
Kyiv was far from the only capital city in which the ruling elite reacted with alarm to the election of Donald Trump, but the Ukrainian government has more reason than most to fear the new US administration.
The US president-elect made a number of positive comments about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, during the campaign, and even suggested he might consider recognising Crimea, the territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine two years ago, as part of Russia. There has been talk of a “big deal” between Trump and Putin over Syria, which some have suggested could see Ukraine thrown under the bus.
“Everybody was tearing their hair and running around like crazies,” said Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, of the first days after Trump’s election victory.
While the current US administration has stopped short of supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons to fight Russian intervention in the east of the country, it has been a strong supporter of Ukraine with financial aid, and has slapped sanctions on Russia in protest at its actions. With Trump in the White House, amid suggestions that Russian hacking may have been employed to help his cause during the campaign, many in Kyiv fear they could be abandoned.
“It’s what everyone is talking about,” said a European diplomat based in Kyiv. “It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine.” Michael McFaul, formerly the US ambassador to Russia, declared when Trump was confirmed the winner of the election that Ukraine was “the biggest loser in the world tonight”.
Ukrainian officials made no secret of their preference for Hillary Clinton during the campaign. At one point, events in Kyiv even had a direct bearing on the race, as Trump’s controversial campaign chief Paul Manafort resigned after allegations surfaced in Ukraine he had received dubious cash payments as part of his work for President Viktor Yanukovych, deposed in the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who also served as a regional governor in Ukraine, hosted Trump in the country on numerous occasions. He said that he believed the president-elect was fond of Putin’s macho-man image rather than on board with Russia’s strategic goals in Ukraine.
“We spoke a lot and I never thought he had an enthusiastic approach towards Russia,” Saakashvili said. “I never detected any adulation or special respect for Russia; I thought he was a little bit looking down on them. However, he was saying things about Putin because he thinks Putin is successful.
Nevertheless, Saakashvili said, “Ukraine is very high on the list of countries that might be fired” by Trump. The former Georgian leader took Ukrainian citizenship last year and was made governor of Odessa region by president Petro Poroshenko. However, he quit last month and has become sharply critical of Ukraine’s leadership.
“Trump is attracted by success and he hates losers, and he expresses it. From both standpoints, Ukraine is not in the right place,” Saakashvili said. He said officials in the Obama administration “in private conversations say absolutely horrible things about Ukraine” but are prepared to turn a blind eye to problems of corruption, whereas under Trump, officials would be more frank.
The US has been a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government since the 2014 revolution that ousted Yanukovych, but critics say Poroshenko is pursuing the same kind of corrupt, oligarchic politics with a democratic facade.
Vadim Novinsky, a billionaire businessman and opposition MP who was a close associate of Yanukovych, said a Trump administration would feel less obligation to forgive Ukrainian authorities their imperfections.
“There will be a cooling of relations. The States won’t strongly and emotionally support these authorities, and close their eyes to the crimes and mistakes that this government makes,” Novinsky said. “They closed their eyes to everything before and looked through rose-tinted spectacles.”
Some critical MPs feel a Trump presidency might provide new opportunities to pressure for reform. “We all know Trump likes to be careful with money, and I hope that under the new administration, the cash they hand out will be scrutinised even more,” said the reformist MP Victoria Voytsitska, who over the weekend travelled to a conference in Washington DC on how US foreign policy might look under the new administration.
She said she travelled with two messages for the new US authorities. She wants them to be tougher on Poroshenko’s government, and to even consider sanctions on those people in the president’s inner circle she believes still to be engaged in the old corrupt practices. But at the same time, she will urge the US not to give up on Ukraine: “We reformers are already in a minority. Don’t abandon us, we really need your support.”
Despite a clear preference for Hillary Clinton during the campaign, even those in government are trying to put on optimistic face on the future, with hopes pinned on the people around Trump to behave like traditional Republicans and take a harder line on Russia.
“We already passed the period of depression,” said Prystaiko, the deputy foreign minister, who said much would depend on whom Trump appoints as secretary of state. He noted that traditionally Republicans were more hawkish on Russia than Democrats.
Now that the Republicans are again headed to the White House, Prystaiko also said it was possible to say openly that Kyiv had been a little disappointed that US support for Ukraine did not go further.“This was the first administration whose president never laid a foot on Ukrainian soil. In two terms, that was quite unexpected, not to show support to the country in need and having the last visit to where? Greece?” Prystaiko said. “I thought that it would be critically important for Americans to show Russia their place. There were times when presidents would at least go through the airport. But not to show up at all? Quite unexpected.”
As for the purported warm relations between Putin and Trump, Prystaiko said the honeymoon might not last for long.
“He [Trump] might bring his emotional overcharge to foreign affairs as well,” said the deputy foreign minister. “We think sooner or later they will stamp on each other’s tails.”
By Shaun Walker, The Guardian