When the impeachment hearings opened in Washington last week, two questions were uppermost in most minds: how convincing would the evidence against Donald Trump turn out to be and would it reach the bar set for impeachment? Almost as soon as the first witnesses began their testimony, however, another, rather different, question sprang out: what on earth has the United States been doing in Ukraine?
The witnesses on the first day were George Kent, a senior State Department official, and William Taylor, a former ambassador to Ukraine, and currently charge d’affaires. They emerged as exemplary foreign service professionals: considered, scrupulously factual and non-partisan — which only made the picture that emerged from their testimony all the more extraordinary.
What it revealed was the extent and depth of US involvement in Ukraine, going back well into the Obama presidency. To describe it as meddling in another country’s internal affairs would be an understatement. The actual trigger for the impeachment hearings — a whistleblower’s charge that Trump had put pressure on the Ukrainian President to help him potentially slur a rival before the 2020 election — came across as just one aspect, if a particularly murky one — of a longer and continuing saga.
The single most striking point to emerge was that the United States regards Ukraine as “vital to its national interest”; not to Europe’s interest, nor to Nato’s, but to its own national interest — despite the Cold War being over and Ukraine being rather a long way from the US.
A second point, which might come as news to a lot of people and not just in the United States, was the extent of military assistance being supplied by the Washington to a country that is in no sense a formal ally, and whose prospects of even starting the process of joining Nato in the foreseeable future are pretty slim. With Russia — and China — designated enemies of the United States, Taylor said, Ukraine was a “strategic partner” and at the “front-line” of US defences.
In fact, as can be learned from other sources, both the US and the UK have what amounts to a permanent military presence in western Ukraine, which is where the Javelin missiles — controversially denied to Kyiv by Obama, but supplied early in Trump’s presidency — are kept. Their location suggests that they are under US, or Nato, rather than Ukrainian, control. What does this say about Ukraine’s sovereignty?
A third point to emerge was how casually US officials and others seem to have approached what was potentially another big violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. In the overheard phone call whose contents triggered the impeachment hearings, the US President broached the possibility of Kyiv opening an inquiry into the affairs of a Ukrainian company that had previously appointed Hunter Biden to its board — Biden being the son of Joe Biden, then US Vice President and latterly a prospective Democratic rival to Trump for the presidency.
The question on which impeachment hinges is whether Trump tried to pressure, even “bribe”, his Ukrainian counterpart to agree; was there, in the now celebrated phrase, a “quid pro quo”? Specifically, did Trump make the resumption of US military aid — then suspended — conditional on Ukraine looking for dirt that could compromise a potential rival?
Will the West ever understand Ukraine?
But look what is revealed almost in passing. The son of the then US Vice President joined the board of a Ukrainian company, Burisma, operating in the notoriously corrupt energy sector. If you wanted to defend Trump, you could almost argue that an investigation into this alone was warranted as a matter of US public interest — but surely in the US, not Ukraine.
In fact, Biden junior was just one of many American businesspeople drawn to the honeypot of Ukraine during its lurches towards a free market economy. Paul Manafort, briefly Trump’s campaign adviser in 2015, now in jail for tax evasion and money laundering, was another.
In essence, what emerged from the first days of the hearings was that that the Obama and the Trump administrations both treated Ukraine almost as an extension of US territory and a bastion of its security and other interests. In that context, whether or not Trump was withholding military aid for a particular purpose, hardly matters. For a long time before then, favours seemed to be advanced and withdrawn almost at will, even as a lot of Americans made a lot of money in what was, and remains, a poor country.
Some have hazarded that Donald Trump deliberately set out to exploit the naïveté of the Ukraine’s president, a complete political novice who had been in office barely three months, when he placed the fateful phone call on 25 July. If so, this would have been nothing new, merely the continuation of the US interfering almost unhindered in Ukraine’s affairs on the assumption that it could bend key individuals in Kyiv to its will.
In fact, though, if Trump had hoped to take advantage of a new President, he was very badly informed on two counts. Any linkage he might have insinuated between the resumption of military aid and Ukraine launching an investigation into Hunter Biden, would have meant little, because Zelensky, it seems, was still unaware that the aid had ceased. Even if he had had any inkling, he might well have put it down to uncertainty in Washington about how to deal with Zelensky’s unexpected victory — unexpected, that is, to most of Ukraine’s Western patrons, who had banked on continuing their cosy relationship with his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.
He would also have been gravely underestimating Zelensky. Contrary to a widespread Western view, Zelensky is not “just” an actor who rode his television celebrity to the presidency. He has a law degree and was highly successful in the production business, alongside his acting career. Both as a candidate and in office, he has also exhibited several qualities rare in a political novice: one is patience; another is an awareness of potential pitfalls, and another is his judgement of people.
In his testimony to the impeachment hearings, Bill Taylor noted that Zelensky had been concerned from an early stage not to become embroiled in another country’s domestic politics. He also said that another US diplomat (Kurt Volker, the US special envoy on Ukraine) had warned him about giving any impression that Ukraine was a US “plaything”. In some ways, Zelensky seems to have been more aware than either his predecessor, Poroshenko, or the US President of the lopsided reality of US-Ukraine relations.
Whether it was Zelensky’s innate savvy that kept him out of trouble or whether, for whatever reason, he never became aware of any linkage between US military aid and a Biden investigation may be clarified in the hearings that follow. US military aid resumed in September, without any evidence of Ukraine having ceded anything in return.
Then again, Zelensky’s has still not been received for a full-dress summit at the White House, despite reportedly angling hard for such a meeting to demonstrate his own, and Ukraine’s, standing, especially to Russia. Zelensky did meet Trump one-on-one in September at the UN General Assembly, but an invitation to Washington remains elusive. Whether this is a mark of Trump’s displeasure is unclear, but William Taylor in his testimony clearly inferred that it was something the US might use as a bargaining chip. “It is one thing to leverage a White House meeting,” he told a questioner; “another to hold up military aid.”