Ukraine and the US – Initial thoughts with Trump on the horizonNovember 9, 2016
There will be terabytes of commentary about the relations with “nation X” and the USA in a President Trump environment between now and his taking office.
Naturally much commentary will be regarding US – Russia relations. Clearly some of that will overlap upon Ukraine. US-Ukraine relations however, are not the same thing as US-Russia relations. Unless President Trump immediately surrenders the post Soviet space to The Kremlin within days of taking office – which he won’t – there will be a period of policy pondering beyond anything that took place during his campaign .
Nevertheless for Ukraine there will be no “Uncle Joe (Biden)”. There will be a far more “pragmatic” and perhaps a far less “values” approach to geopolitical issues. Where any Trump red lines will be drawn remains very much to be seen – as will his reactions should they be crossed.
As such, most importantly it is not what President Trump says. What matters is what President Trump is heard to say (or understood/interpreted to have said) which is not the same thing.
In short, what he says (or thinks he has said) may not be what is heard by either The Kremlin in Moscow, or The Bankova in Kyiv – or the capital of any other nation. It is the interpretation of what he says (and does) that will be a factor in any understanding and/or response by The Kremlin, The Bankova (or any other capital the world over).
Ergo Kyiv will need to plan contingencies for whatever he says, and also for the interpretations of those words within The Kremlin.
The worst case scenario for Ukraine in the immediate future is the removal of sanctions within 6 months of President Trump taking office and the recognition of Crimea as Russia, which if his campaign rhetoric is to be believed (and campaign rhetoric very often fails to match actions when actually in power), he stated he would “consider”.
It then matters how those actions would be interpreted by The Kremlin – as being given carte blanche to re-assume control over Ukraine by hook or by crook with no meaningful US response should it do so, or not? Ukraine should be prepared for either or both of those eventualities – as should Europe, for there would be repercussions.
Sanctions upon Russia will not last forever, and whether it be President Trump or a crumbling position within the EU that is the catalyst, to visualise sanctions as they currently exist remaining in effect in 2018 may prove to be a little more than wishful thinking even if The Kremlin position remains unchanged, and thus the reasons for their imposition remain unchanged.
Thus far The Kremlin position has not given any ground over the past few years. A policy of exhaustion is still one The Kremlin believes it will win, regardless of any pain it suffers meanwhile. It is particularly difficult to believe such a policy will be dropped if President Trump turns out to be less than hoped for within The Kremlin.
The best case scenario is that Ukraine will have to fight very hard to prevent a US drift from the current US policy position – and succeeds in doing so. Yet a drift seems much more likely than not unless Ukraine has a critical mass, (or a very influential mass), within both the Senate and Congress that will prevent a US policy drift – be that drift permanent or temporary. Ukraine surely has some supporters of influence in both US institutions, but are they enough, are they stalwart, and can they manage/manipulate the unpredictable personality of Donald Trump sufficiently?
What of the Nuland-Surkov channel – is there to be a similar channel? If so with whom? A Kremlin dove like General Flynn, or a more hawkish Republican? What of the behind the scenes liaisons between the US and the nations within the Normandy Four?
Once sanctions are undone, they will not replaced even if a Trump led US drift results in The Kremlin misreading him and crossing whatever lines he may have. The European unity that has lasted thus far would not see them lifted and then once again find the unity to reapply them if removal is realised.
Perhaps far more important is the “consideration” of recognising the Crimean annexation per the Trump campaign rhetoric – which is hopefully just that.
Ukraine therefore requires some dependable and predictable partners capable of supporting its diplomatic and political line within the White House in the event of a very probable US drift (temporary or otherwise) – for what occurs within the space left by that drift may prove exceptionally difficult to undo.
2017 will see the UK, Germany and France internally distracted.
Confrontations over historical issues with Poland would certainly not be timely, and the political and/or diplomatic weight of Poland with a Trump White House is as yet unknown anyway.
Attempting to become a part of whatever European policy solutions emerge to deal with a President Trump White House will have to be pursued with the maximum vigour possible by Ukraine.
Perhaps of all the current and actively supportive partners Ukraine has, only Canada and the IMF will see no distracting and/or significant changes in 2017.
Thus unless Ukraine very rapidly becomes a poster child for swifter, deep and implemented reform from which no nation would want to disassociate itself regardless of its internal issues, the Ukrainian position seems set to diminish unless it helps itself.
Whether President Poroshenko can rein in the appetites of those around him such as Igor Kononenko to the point where the mere mention of his name no longer makes a diplomat’s eyes roll remains to be seen – but it would seem prudent to do so quickly. What meaningful reform can be thoroughly implemented between now and a probable US drift in relation to Ukraine and/or tempo reduction of US action within Ukraine remains to be seen. There were only so many fires it could and would fight within Ukraine under the Obama Administration. It is likely to be fighting fewer fires under a Trump Administration.
Despite that which has been achieved with regard to reform, there is much to do. What will get the attention and support sufficient to insure US policy toward Ukraine both remains unchanged – making any US policy drift short and swift? Will anything prevent that drift, or at the very least is a temporary drift inevitable?
Ukraine requires contingency plans. It should also perhaps decide upon a carefully assembled policy regarding just how to influence a personality like President Trump – who is not lacking in narcissism nor unpredictability (and to be charitable clearly has some appetites).
Whatever the President Trump policy toward Ukraine and whatever his policy toward The Kremlin will ultimately be – good or ill from a Ukrainian perception – there is far too much rhetoric on his campaign trail that forewarns of at the very least the likelihood of a period of drift which may be exploited by The Kremlin if Ukraine does not defend that space.
The immediate challenge for Ukraine is to prevent as much damage during that period as possible, whilst preparing contingency plans for a Trump led US policy toward Ukraine that as yet remains to be seen – and in all likelihood is yet to be formulated.