Anne Applebaum on Trump’s Ukraine Scandal: “I Would Not Count on the US”
6 October, 2019

Anne Applebaum is a long time Eastern Europe observer and a historian that has written a number of books on the region, most recently Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

Hromadske got in touch to get her opinion on a recent release of text messages between U.S. officials and a Ukrainian presidential confidante, as well as the blowback this scandal may have on Ukraine.

This week we read about correspondence between U.S. officials, like Special Envoy [to Ukraine Kurt] Volker, Charge d’Affaires [William] Taylor, the Ambassador [to the EU Gordon Sondland] and Ukrainian advisor to the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy [Andriy Yermak] that a possible meeting between the Ukrainian and American presidents may be connected to the fact that the Ukrainian president would somehow comment publicly that there is something wrong with Joe Biden, that there is something wrong with the Burisma company – what could this lead to? Because this is a new round to the scandal [that emerged] when the first conversation between the presidents went public.

So the interesting thing about those exchanges is that you can see on them that there are two kinds of public officials – there’s Bill Taylor, the [Charge d’Affaires to Ukraine] in Kyiv, there’s Kurt Volker, on the one hand. Those are State Department officials whose interests are in U.S. national interests and in promoting peace in Ukraine and protecting Ukraine against further incursions from Russia. On the other hand, you see a different kind of official that’s particularly interested in helping Trump win the next election. And they’re looking for, as you say, a public statement on two kinds of things: one is really anything connected to the Bidens, anything that could somehow smear or cast down on Joe Biden’s honesty, and the other thing they’re looking for is some kind of indication that something went wrong in the 2016 elections, that somehow Ukraine had something to do with maybe even the hacking of the DNC. This was in Trump’s phone call with Zelenskyy and so you can see this conflict between these two kinds of officials. This is really the story of American foreign policy in the last two years,  which is that on the one hand, you have sort of normal public servants that are still acting in the American national interest and on the other hand you have Trump people who are seeking to promote the president. That’s very clear in Washington that that was the dynamic of what was going on. Bill Taylor is very shocked, he’s saying things like no way we’re gonna trade aid to Ukraine for some kind of help for the president. On the other hand, you have Ambassador to the EU Sondland saying let’s not talk about this in a text message, let’s have a phone call. So you can see these different priorities. What happens now – there’s more to come, I think. We still have the testimony from the former Ambassador [to Ukraine], Ambassador Yovanovitch, who was very abruptly recalled. And there may be some more stories, maybe another whistleblower coming out of the [U.S. National Security Council] and the White House. The important thing I think for Ukrainians to understand is the existence of this conflict, that there were two kinds of public policies being run at the same time out of Washington. And one of them was the policy that had – by the way, the support of Congress, that has the support of the State Department, which has the support of the traditional foreign policy establishment. On the other hand, you have a kind of rogue operation being run by [Rudy] Giuliani, being run by – somehow coming from Trump. It’s not clear whether they were trying to please Trump or Trump ordered them to do it, we’re not sure, so, on the other hand, you have this kind of different thing happening. I think we’re gonna learn some more details in the next week or two and that will enable people in Washington to make some kind of judgment about what happens next.

What in this case – this what Ukrainians are concerned about – could the Ukrainian president do and also how is Ukraine seen from these exchanges? Because the debate I hear is could he or his team act differently. But Donald Trump is still president, there is still Rudy Giuliani, there is still the need for the American support. 

I do not envy President Zelenskyy, he does not have any good options, and I hope that Ukrainians understand that. Whatever you think of him, he’s in a really impossible situation. I mean you’re absolutely right on the one hand. You can see already that he and his team are trying to be as quiet as possible. He said ‘I don’t want to interfere in the U.S. elections.’ He wants to say ‘Trump has not pressured me in any way.’ He does not want to anger the U.S. President, on the other hand, of course he doesn’t want to anger the Democrats. So his best policy would be to keep as low a profile as possible and to really stay out of it. I know that it sounds strange, but in some really profound way, this isn’t even really about Ukraine. It’s about the nature of the White House and the nature of the Trump presidency. We have not had a president in modern times that seeks to use the levers of foreign policy for his own benefit. That has not happened – maybe it happened sometime in the 19th century and I can’t remember it – but certainly not since the Second World War have we had anything like that. So really the scandal is about that. And for Ukraine, the best policy is to kind of stay out of the scandal if you can. You’re sort of part of it, the name of the country is part of it, people are talking about events in Ukraine. But really, fundamentally, this is not a Ukraine scandal, this is a White House scandal.

Still if to look at U.S.-Ukraine relations – to what extent can Ukraine now wait for any kind of bipartisan support? Many people said that Ukraine is becoming toxic so any visits by politicians could cause problems. If we aren’t talking about just Trump but maybe Congress and people from different parties – how may they treat Ukraine? 

Paradoxically one of the effects of this scandal may be an increase of bipartisan support for Ukraine. In other words, people can see that Trump is exploiting Ukraine somehow. Remember that this military aid that he’s withholding was mandated by Congress. I think that one of the effects may be – certainly on the Democratic side, which is the majority in the House [of Representatives] – but even on the Republican side where there are a lot of people who still are committed to traditional foreign policy and who are committed to national security – I think that the support for Ukraine, both moral support, and maybe in the future military support, if it's necessary, in Congress will increase, as there’s a feeling that Ukraine is being played. In Washington, certainly in Congress nobody likes this president. The Senate does not like him. Many feel that they have to pay lip service to him or they have to publicly support him – but in private they don’t like him, and they say it all the time so it's not a  big mystery. There’s a lot of sympathy for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian position. Absolutely everything understands that Zelenskyy is in an impossible position. But yes you’re probably right that there aren’t going to be a lot of trips to Ukraine until this thing is sorted out somehow.

And at the same time we have a bit of a different momentum in Ukraine with the negotiation of the conflict in the Donbas. For a while Ukraine was waiting for the U.S. to have a stronger say in that because Europe is considered to be too mild. Now Kurt Volker who used to be a Special Enjoy from the U.S. is not there any longer. We don’t even know whether there will be a new person. But in any case it looks like at this particular moment, when there are possible negotiations – the U.S. president doesn’t seem likely to take the Ukrainian side. He wasn’t there openly before, but somehow there was still vague policy of support – so do you think that during the year run-up to the U.S. elections, can we at all expect U.S. support and in particular Presidential support on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

I’m afraid that even before this scandal Trump had no interest in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. And the support that you saw was coming from State Department officials and Congress, particularly Kurt Volker but also others. I am sorry to say that I would not count on the U.S. I don’t – you know I want to be very careful how I say that because if there was an emergency, if there was further Russian invasion, then the situation might change. But I think if it's a question of delicate negotiations and decisions to be made as to the future of Donbas, I think that Ukraine should make those decisions from its own perspective and what it thinks is the best to do and not worry about Washington. I don’t think you’re going to get strong support one way or the other. It’s not about support, it’s about interest, because Washington is now going to be distracted by something else.