What Poroshenko's 30 Minutes With Trump Mean For Ukraine
25 June, 2017

It is important to recognize the significance of Poroshenko’s U.S. visit, says Hanna Thoburn, Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute. There is chatter throughout Ukraine as the details of the Poroshenko-Trump meeting on June 20, such as the lack of a red carpet has signaled speculation about its significance. Hromadske speaks to Hanna Thoburn, who reassures that “different countries demand different courtesies” and this was a working meeting, not an official.

On June 20, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with President Trump at the White House on his visit with this new administration. American Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yanokovitch accompanied President Poroshenko on his visit where, in addition, to President Trump, he met with the State Department and the Defense Department.

There are concerns in Ukraine that the new Trump administration would pursue a closer relationship with Russia at the expense of Ukraine and its eastern conflict zone. According to Thoburn, there’s nothing to be worried about.

Furthermore, Thoburn reminds that the new administration is still being made. There is no current head of the Europe/Eurasia Bureau.

Hromadske speaks with Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, to analyse this important meeting and what it signifies for Ukraine’s relationship with Washington and American involvement in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

In Ukraine, there’s a lot of talk about the Ukrainian President’s visit to Washington, D.C. But how is it seen from the U.S.? How successful was it? Can we assess it? There are all those details about the very short meeting with President Trump, but also there were meetings with the Defense Secretary, the State Secretary. So, can you elaborate on that?

It is a little bit difficult to tell. So a lot of us in Washington, frankly found it a little strange there wasn’t a statement from the State Department that the president of Ukraine was going to come. And after those meetings, most of the statements actually came from the Ukrainian side. I think there is a lot of questions here to whether or not it was done that way because the trip was so sudden and because it was organized very quickly, or whether or not it is because the State Department is very short-handed and they don’t have enough people who are working on this issue right now. But frankly, it was rather a strange trip. It is hard to see what is going to come out of it, other than President Poroshenko’s statement, which I think is true. How important it was for the Ukrainian President to meet with Trump before Trump meets with Putin.

What can we know about the current state of affairs regarding the support of the U.S. and their role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

I think it is important to keep two things in mind. And one is that the U.S. Congress really feels very strongly about supporting Ukraine. I think it was important that you saw that new sanctions bill coming out of it, and has now gone over to the House. That really make mention of Ukraine. It attempts to enshrine the sanctions that are now only law because of executive orders created by President Obama, but could be very easily overturned by President Trump. So they are trying to put those in law. In large part because they do care about Ukraine. They do care the issues of Crimea and Donbas. And they are trying to force the administration’s hand to do something, I think, on the Ukraine question. The other interesting thing that did happen when President Poroshenko came to Washington was that the Treasury Department and Justice Department released their kind of maintenance sanction that they do every six months or so on the sanctions already put on Russia for what it has done in Crimea and Donbas. And very interestingly, in this set of maintenance sanctions, you had a whole group of people, you saw that the Ukrainian government really did want sanctioned. And those are people who are involved in the day-to-day violence that is going on in Donbas.

So there are bunch of issues currently discussed. Would there be a special envoy for the eastern Ukrainian conflict in the U.S.? Is there anymore general discussion that will be launched between Ukraine and the U.S.? Not just on the Minsk Agreement, but on the broader context of relations with Russia. We really don’t know if this discussion has already started. There is also the question of would there be someone else, instead of Victoria Nuland, to talk to the Russian politician Stukov who in charge of Ukraine in the Kremlin. So really, to what extent are those things discussed in Washington by those who are deeply interested in the issue? And who could be the specialists and experts on the topic?

So that first question, the question about a special envoy, that is being discussed. It has been reported in the news media here that that is a position that Secretary Tillerson wants to create. It has also been rumoured that they have offered that position to several people, and they have been turned down. I do think it is clear that Victoria Nuland is not going to be in that position, because she is no longer at the State Department. One other thing that is clear is that the Ukraine-Russia conflict which has really become Secretary Tillerson’s portfolio. He is the one that seems to be deciding what the next steps on this are. I think it also important to mention that we still don’t have someone that is directing the Europe-Eurasian Bureau. There’s a lot of rumours on who that person may be. But we are already six months into this Trump administration, and we still don’t have someone, officially, that bureau. Ambassador Heffern is the acting head of that bureau. He is doing a fine job. But he is not politically empowered in the way that a political appointee in that position would be. So there’s lots of problems, lots of questions as to the seriousness with which the Trump administration takes this question. But there’s a lot of growing pains. I have hope that within six more months, we might get to something that seems a more workable arrangement.

When we read the U.S.’s press on that visit, there were a lot of details on the problems with protocol? On the red carpet that wasn’t there, on how short the meeting was. Ukrainians paid attention, but how do you see that coverage? Were there anything essential to pick up from the details of the visit, and from the coverage itself?

I am a little wary on focusing in on all those details, because it is not clear to me how far in advance this particular visit was planned. There was note that when President Trump had met with, I believe, was the President of Panama, just a day or two before. They have spent time taking a walk around the rose garden, around the White House and that was not courtesy afforded to President Poroshenko. But I think those questions could often be explained away by how far in advance the trip was planned? What kind of communication was there on it? I think it was noticeable and notable that Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch did come to the United States alongside President Poroshenko. I think that was an important signal that this is something that the U.S. is taking seriously. You know, to have a diplomat of her status being able to work alongside President Poroshenko, State Department, Defense Department. I do that think that was a positive signal. But you know, on the whole, I think a lot these concerns about, well, the carpet wasn’t red, there wasn’t a meeting with the wives; it is a little bit overblown, frankly. I think different countries ask for different courtesies. And this was labeled specifically a working visit, not an official visit. So it is not surprising that there was no red carpet and that there was no pomp or circumstance. On the whole, I do think that it is a good thing that this visit was able to happen, and to happen early on in the Trump administration. We’ll just have to see how things go. I think a lot of it depends, as I have just said, on what happens within the Trump administration as they are putting people in place. I think that is going to make a large amount of the difference. That has been slow going until this day, and that’s not only in Europe, in Eurasia, but in other parts of the world as well.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Chen Ou Yang