As Wednesday’s impeachment hearing in Washington made clear, President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had consequences for Ukraine’s unequal, fraught relationship with Russia, too.
Russia sees Ukraine as its geopolitical backyard and natural trade partner, a neighbor with deep cultural and linguistic ties. The U.S. sees Ukraine as a bulwark against resurgent Russian imperialism, and a strategic foothold at an important crossroads of energy pipelines and east-west commerce.
Trump’s July phone call with Zelenskiy, at the center of the impeachment inquiry, further diminished Russians’ view of its weaker, poorer neighbor and bolstered long-held Russian suspicions that the U.S. is Ukraine’s puppet master.
And that hurts Ukraine’s negotiating position just as Zelenskiy is trying to end the five-year war with Moscow-backed separatists in the east, which has killed 13,000 and hobbled his country. Trump is suspected of pressuring Zelenskiy to investigate political rival Joe Biden's family, at the same time Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukraine is using against Russian-backed separatists. Trump says he did nothing wrong.
“The Russians, as I said in my deposition, would love to see that humiliation of President Zelenskiy at the hands of the Americans,” said William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, as he described the knock-on effects of Trump’s foreign policy.
“That rule of law, that order that kept the peace in Europe and allowed for prosperity as well as peace in Europe was violated by the Russians,” Taylor said. “That, Mr. Chairman, affects us, it affects the world we live in ... this affects the kind of world that we want to see abroad.”
Some Ukrainian lawmakers are worried that the U.S. political furor could threaten aid Ukraine has come to depend on. The United States has poured billions of dollars into Ukraine, and has been one of the country’s most steadfast allies since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014.
Zelenskiy himself is trying to steer clear of the impeachment hearings. Ukrainian officials won’t discuss them. And even ordinary Ukrainians paid little attention as they unfolded on TV screens across the U.S. and the world.
Maybe that’s a good thing. One word — “corrupt” — was used over and over again to describe their country on the floor of the U.S. Congress. It’s a moniker Ukrainians would love to shed. A big reason why they elected Zelenskiy – a comedian with zero political experience — as president this year was because he promised to fight the graft that’s long held back Ukraine’s economy.
And he remains popular despite the Trump debacle. Ukraine’s day was wrapping up by the time Wednesday’s hearing started in Washington, and local newscasts focused on heated debate in parliament over a law allowing Ukrainians to sell their land for the first time in years. Kyiv residents had strong opinions about that measure, but appeared perplexed by the details of what’s happening in Washington.
Former legislator Serhiy Leshchenko is among the few in Ukraine following the proceedings closely. “People have to know what happened. What is the truth in the story,” he told The Associated Press. He fears that Ukraine may have to wait for next year’s U.S. election to renew normal relations with Washington, however.
“It’s unfortunate, it’s a bit sad to me, but it’s a reality which we face now.”
Charlton contributed from Paris.