Ukraine may soon again find itself enmeshed in U.S. domestic politics. To respond, it should adopt a strategy of not antagonizing President Trump and counteracting unflattering narratives about corruption and reform in the country, argues Steven Pifer. This post originally appeared in the Kyiv Post.
Ukraine unhappily found itself at the center of the impeachment drama that played out in Washington last fall and during the first weeks of 2020. That threatened the resiliency of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, a relationship that serves the interests of both countries.
With Donald Trump’s impeachment trial now in the past, Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ukrainians undoubtedly hope that their country will no longer feature so prominently in U.S. domestic politics. That would be good, but it may not happen.
Last year, Trump sought to get senior Ukrainian officials to announce an investigation of a political rival and extorted Kyiv to do so by withholding military assistance and a White House visit. Revelations of those actions led to the third presidential impeachment in American history. Last week, Republican senators voted to find Trump not guilty, disregarding damning testimony, rejecting further witnesses, and ignoring a courageous floor speech by their colleague Mitt Romney.
The impeachment hearings and trial proved a difficult time for Ukraine and for its friends in America. It had to be especially painful for Ukrainians to hear reports that the U.S. president referred to their country as a “terrible place” with “terrible people” and one of the “most corrupt countries.”
Impeachment is now over, but Ukraine may find itself again an object in U.S. politics, as America ramps up for the November presidential election.
Start with Trump. Rejecting the analysis of the U.S. intelligence community, State Department and Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, the president has bought fully into the Kremlin disinformation lie that it was Ukraine—not Russia—that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “They [Ukrainians] tried to take me down.” Mr. Trump revels in playing the victim. As the campaign heats up, he almost certainly will depict himself as the victim of the “Ukraine hoax.” He will repeat the falsehood that the Ukrainian government organized an effort to sabotage his 2016 bid for the presidency.
If anyone believes Trump will let this go, or that the impeachment experience left him somewhat chastened, look at how he has behaved in the week since his acquittal.
Then there is Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who oversaw the effort to extort Kyiv. He wants to drag Ukraine into U.S. domestic politics. He continues pursuit of the discredited claim that former Vice President Joe Biden sought to have Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin fired to protect his son, and he is not going away. Attorney General William Barr said he would take information provided by Giuliani, even though Giuliani himself reportedly is under U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
In the Senate, Lindsey Graham plans to conduct hearings to investigate the Bidens and their connection to corruption in Ukraine. Mr. Graham, who has become one of the president’s biggest cheerleaders, seeks to boost Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects.
So Ukraine may find itself again enmeshed in American politics. How should Kyiv respond?
First, Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian government should keep walking that narrow path that they have walked successfully over the past five months: say or do nothing that would antagonize either Trump or Democrats in the Congress.
The Ukrainian president can continue to stay silent when Trump asserts that he said there was no pressure; Ukraine gains nothing by contradicting and alienating the U.S. president. By the same token, the Ukrainian government should not announce or launch bogus investigations, which would undermine the strong bipartisan support that Ukraine has enjoyed in both the House of Representatives and Senate for nearly three decades. This is a real asset for Ukraine, which should do nothing that would risk it.
Second, Kyiv should work to change the unflattering narrative that has taken hold in the United States. It has good news stories to tell. The Ukrainian government and Rada should work to get members of the House and Senate, particularly Republicans, to visit and see for themselves how the country is changing. Kyiv should send some of the bright young faces in government and Rada to Washington to tell their country’s story, not just in the halls of Congress but on CNN, PBS, Fox News and MSNBC.
Third, Ukraine’s political leadership should take steps that will reinforce the story of a country changing for the better, despite being the victim of Russian aggression: press the fight against corruption; enact and implement land reform; get back on program with the International Monetary Fund, which offers low-interest credits and a seal of approval that will help attract foreign investment.
After the last half-year, few in Ukraine presumably want their country again in the middle of American politics. If that nevertheless happens, Kyiv needs to position itself to avert damage to U.S.-Ukraine relations or to Ukraine’s image in the United States.