Ukraine, which has been fighting the Russian aggression in the Donbas for almost three years, has recently found its interests in the eye of the storm which is brewing in Washington, D.C. What does the “Buzzfeed Dossier” scandal mean for Ukraine? Is the President-elect Donald Trump really dancing to the Russian tune (whatever the reason), or is he just planning to try and reset the relations with Russia like a couple of his predecessors, or maybe his national security appointees will dissuade him from doing that? Ukrainian and global experts have a whole array of hypotheses about all that. In search for answers, the New Pathway turned to Taras Kuzio of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.
New Pathway: Donald Trump and some of his top picks for the new administration have been criticized for their views on Russia that differ from the current Western policies related to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. But the confirmation hearings in the US Senate last week showed a different picture: even Rex Tillerson, who is nominated for the Secretary of State and had close business ties to Russia, said all the right words about the Russian aggression and even said that Ukraine needs to be provided with the lethal weapons to defend itself. How do you think the US policies towards Ukraine are going to develop?
Taras Kuzio: Donald Trump so far doesn’t know what he wants to do domestically and in the foreign domain, so it’s difficult for outside experts to know, because he says one thing and does another, and he keeps changing his mind. His Russian politics may be influenced by the fact that he, as a narcissistic individual, gets extremely flattered when a foreign leader praises him, as in the case of Vladimir Putin. It could also be something more sinister in terms of the “kompromat” that the Russians may have over him. There has been a lot of discussion about the released “kompromat”, and I find it difficult to believe it’s all not true. Now, the people that he has chosen to fill national security positions are all critical of Vladimir Putin as they should be. And this is the general view of the both houses of the US Congress. I always believed that any reset of the US-Russian relations will fail as it already had failed under George W. Bush after 9/11 and under Barack Obama after the 2008 invasion of Georgia. There is simply incompatible interest between the US and Russia. But, more importantly, Russia believes it’s never done anything wrong, in the Crimea, Donbas or Syria, or anywhere else. You cannot reset the relations if one side believes that the other side is at fault. A reset would be dangerous because during that period when Trump might try to do the reset, say for six month or one year, Putin would be given a green light against Ukraine and the Baltic states. And maybe that will not happen anymore because if Trump tries to be too friendly with Russia now and get rid of the sanctions, or negotiate some kind of new Yalta agreement where the former USSR is recognised as Russia’s sphere of influence, people would say “aha, he’s being pro-Russian because Russians have ‘kompromat’ on him.” But he would not be able to abolish the sanctions himself, because he would be in conflict with the US Congress – the sanctions are the law and only the Congress can abolish them, which they will not do. There is simply no possibility of a pro-Russian mood in the US today because what Russia did in the US election in 2016 which is simply unprecedented in the Russian and American relationships. And for a majority of American senators and congressmen, this was something that crossed a very important red line.
New Pathway: Even if the worst scenario does not materialize and the US keep the sanctions against Russia, the war in the Donbas is continuing. How can the new administration help Ukraine solve this problem?
Taras Kuzio: The majority of western governments including Canada have not supported the supply of defensive military equipment to Ukraine. I doubt the new foreign minister Chrystia Freeland will change this and support the sending of arms. All of them have pretended that the Minsk agreements will eventually work, and whilst we are waiting for the agreements to be implemented, they argue that no lethal weapons should be sent to Ukraine. This was the argument used by the EU and the Americans. And the Canadians supported this, conservatives and liberals. In fact, all the Western leaders understand perfectly that Putin will never implement the Minsk agreements. Putin has done the opposite to what he signed up for in the Minsk Accords. He has strengthened Russian command and control over the separatist forces, and maintains 5,000-10,000 occupation troops there, and established complete financial and economic control over the Russian proxy states of the Donbas. So the Western leaders have been deceiving Ukraine and the global public opinion, so that they would not have to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine. The good thing about Trump – I think – is that he changes his mind all the time while Russians have a historical habit of turning friends into enemies. I am waiting for the first tweets by Trump against Putin where he might say “Down with Putin, I’m gonna supply Ukraine with arms.”
New Pathway: Do you think that Trump will approach the current Ukrainian administration negatively because many Ukrainian representatives said bad things about him during the election?
Taras Kuzio: This happened because President Poroshenko has a non-professional diplomat as ambassador in Washington D.C., Valeriy Chaly, who wrote that column in the Hill criticizing Donald Trump. Washington, alongside Brussels, is the most important capital city for Ukrainian diplomacy. President Poroshenko’s cronyism sent a non-diplomat to Washington. And this was a big mistake – Ukraine should be friends with both sides in any election, you just never know what the outcome will be. This mistake may have an impact on Trump’s attitude to the Ukrainian government, but one thing that might be good for President Poroshenko is that Trump may pay less attention to whether Poroshenko is or is not fighting corruption because Тrump is more concerned with geopolitics rather than human rights or European values. This is good for Poroshenko, because he is not fighting high-level corruption or oligarchs, but bad for Ukraine and the Euromaidan values he was elected to fulfil.
New Pathway: Is Europe going to become less supportive of Ukraine after the elections in France and Germany, scheduled for this year?
Taras Kuzio: In Germany, the far right, which have ties with Russia, will never come to power. But the biggest threat to Ukraine in Germany is the social democrats because they are historically very pro-Russian. In France, the presidential contender Marine Le Pen said that the West should recognize that Crimea is part of Russia, she is pro-Russian, but I don’t think the French establishment, or even French voters, would allow her to come to power. They have a strong habit of voting in the second round for whoever is opposing Le Pen. I am not worried about her opponent, François Fillon, although people claim that he is “pro-Russian”. For French democratic politicians, the most important foreign policy is their alliance with Germany because France and Germany are the historic core of the EU. This is now even more important because the EU is threatened on the one side by Brexit and on the other by Putin’s goal of seeking to destroy the EU. And therefore if Fillon is going to be more moderate on Putin, this is because of the traditional French approach of balancing Russia against America. For Fillon, France’s alliance with Germany and protecting the EU will always trump other foreign policy objectives. But if Le Pen was to win, it would be a catastrophe as it could lead to the breakup of the EU and a President Le Pen would be very bad news for Ukraine’s national security.