Ukrainians are confused, and for good reason. Ever since winning election in a landslide in April, Ukraine’s new President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his team have been waiting for a promised invitation to Washington and a meeting with President Trump. When an Oval Office visit seemed stalled, Zelensky at least hoped he would rendezvous with Trump in Warsaw during Poland’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of that country, which both leaders were slated to attend.
That meeting got scrubbed, however, when Trump canceled his trip ostensibly to oversee preparations for Hurricane Dorian. Zelensky instead met with Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw. This was Zelensky’s second recent high-level meeting with a U.S. official; the week before, former National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Kyiv and met the Ukrainian leader there. Zelensky was not lacking for high-level American attention, but securing a meeting with Trump was proving increasingly elusive. After being one of the first leaders to congratulate Zelensky on his huge victory this past April, Trump has been giving Ukraine and Zelensky the cold shoulder.
Both Pence and Bolton, to their credit, reassured Ukraine of American support for a country that has been the victim of Russian invasion and aggression since 2014. Such messages are important, but it would be even better if Ukraine heard similar reassurances directly from the American President—particularly now that Bolton has left the Administration.
In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and then sent Russian forces into the eastern Donbas region, though Putin himself denies that Russian troops are active there. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed as a result, 298 passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 were shot out of the sky by a Russian missile, and close to 2 million Ukrainians have been displaced in the fighting. The human rights situation in Crimea, under de facto Russian control, is appalling, and Putin bears responsibility for all of this.
Trump’s assent in 2017 to provide Javelin missiles and other systems stood in contrast to President Obama’s stubborn and ill-advised decision to ban such assistance to Ukraine. It is widely known that Trump likes to do the opposite in many cases from what his immediate predecessor did.
But now Trump is resembling Obama, and not in a good way. Obama failed to visit Ukraine during his entire presidency, a missed opportunity to demonstrate American solidarity with a country literally under attack from Putin. Trump, too, has yet to visit Ukraine. Obama at least hosted Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, on a number of occasions. And not only has Trump resisted following through on an invitation to his Ukrainian counterpart to visit Washington, he has also held up $250 million in congressionally approved military assistance, a decision that has drawn bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill. According to administration officials, Trump tasked Bolton and Defense Secretary Mark Esper with reviewing the military aid proposed for Ukraine. The Pentagon has already given the green light, and Bolton cannot be the cause of further delay. The problem seems to lie with the President himself.
If ever there was a time to demonstrate American support for Ukraine at the highest levels, that time is now. Ukrainians are determined to integrate more closely with the European Union, and the election of Zelensky represents hope among the population that he would get serious about fighting corruption, a cancer that has eaten away at Ukraine for decades.
The disconnect between the support demonstrated from Trump’s top advisers and Vice President and the lack of interest manifested by Trump himself is not only confusing, but dangerous. Putin may well read Trump’s position as an opening to ramp up military and other pressure on Ukraine, notwithstanding the historic prisoner exchange over the weekend. Trump’s posture is demoralizing to Ukrainians who literally are on the frontlines defending against further Russian aggression and encroachment, with casualties on a daily basis. Trump, in short, risks both emboldening Putin and alienating Ukrainians. What for? Two explanations seem plausible.
First, Trump the candidate and Trump the President have been consistent about seeking an improvement in relations with Putin. At the G-7 meeting in France last month, just as he did at last year’s gathering in Canada, Trump called for reconstituting the G-8 by bringing Putin’s Russia back into the fold. Russia, of course was expelled from the G-8 in 2014 after Putin’s invasion and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and further Russian attacks against Ukraine in its Donbas region. Trump has made no mention of this fact; nor has he conditioned Russia’s return to the G-8 on its withdrawal from eastern Ukraine and its return of Crimea to Ukrainian control. Instead, he repeatedly and wrongly claims that Putin “outsmarted” Obama and, out of pique, Obama kicked Putin out. All G-7 leaders unanimously agreed in 2014 that Putin did not belong in their group. Trump never utters a negative word about his Russian counterpart and instead talks about how the world would be better off if Russia and the United States “got along.” Ukraine would undoubtedly be one of the casualties of any such rapprochement.
The second explanation for Trump’s position is arguably uglier. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has pressured the new Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into former Vice President and Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Giuliani claims that Biden interfered to kill a Ukrainian investigation involving his son, Hunter, and a controversial Ukrainian company. The recently departed Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Yuri Lutsenko, after initially playing along with Giuliani, finally acknowledged having no evidence to support any wrongdoing by Biden or his son.
Giuliani has also sought to flip the Russia collusion narrative by arguing that it was Ukrainian collusion with the Clinton campaign, not Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, that should be investigated both in Kyiv and Washington, as reported in the New York Times. He cites a former Ukrainian parliamentary deputy’s exposure of payments made to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as proof of such interference; in fact, the truly nefarious activity was carried out by Manafort, who now sits in prison.
Regardless of the deleterious effect his efforts may be having on U.S.-Ukrainian relations, Giuliani appears hell-bent on entangling authorities in Kyiv in American domestic politics. He has spun up certain members of the media to implicate Ukraine as conspirators with the Democrats, not the Russians with the Republicans. It appears Giuliani has convinced Trump to condition a White House invitation to Zelensky on Ukraine’s agreement to investigate Biden and possible collusion between Ukrainians and the Clinton campaign.
Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.
On Monday, three House committees—Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Government Reform— announced the launch of an investigation into the matter. “The Trump Administration’s decision to withhold vital security assistance to Ukraine is only the latest in a series of actions in which President Trump appears to undermine U.S. foreign policy to placate Russia and place his personal interests above the national interest,” the Democratic chairmen of the committees said in a joint statement.
At a time when Ukraine and Zelensky need a full embrace and support from the West and the United States in particular, Trump is placing his political and electoral interests above those of U.S. national security interests. Congress must step in and demand an end to such reckless behavior. It should make a full-court press to release the military aid being held hostage by Trump and Giuliani.
In addition, Zelensky is expected to travel to New York this month to speak before the UN General Assembly. Perhaps the House and Senate should invite Zelensky to visit the Capitol and deliver a joint address to Congress if Trump refuses to host Zelensky himself. There is precedent for such a decision: Congress bestowed the honor upon a previous Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko in 2005. At the end of the day, maybe it is just as well Zelensky doesn’t meet Trump.
Note: This piece was originally published before the departure of National Security Adviser John Bolton. It has been updated to account for that development.