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Ukraine is at the center of today’s east-west geopolitical battle, but it’s feeling increasingly alone and abandoned by its U.S. backers amid the impeachment drama unfolding in Washington.
The U.S. ambassador — who was pushed out earlier this year and testified Friday in Congress — hasn’t been replaced. Neither has the influential U.S. envoy tasked with helping Ukraine quell its Russia-backed separatist insurgency. The lower-level U.S. officials remaining in Kyiv are keeping an unusually low profile.
The erosion of Washington’s readiness to protect its Eastern European ally leaves Ukraine vulnerable to mounting Russian pressure, just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy heads into high-stakes talks next month with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to end the deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainians increasingly feel the U.S. impeachment inquiry is making their country toxic.
A member of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee told The Associated Press that U.S. officials have shown increasing indifference to Ukraine and have been reluctant to attend meetings.
This has been particularly visible, the lawmaker said, since the September resignation of envoy Kurt Volker, whose departure led to the disappearance of a coordination center made up of people who were engaged in Ukraine’s affairs.
The lawmaker discussed the sensitive issue of U.S. aid on condition that his name be withheld. Ukrainian government officials refuse to talk about relations with the U.S. while the impeachment inquiry is ongoing, and influential lawmakers are similarly wary of saying anything publicly that could make matters even worse for their country.
Moscow is happy to fill the void, further bolstering Russia’s position along Europe’s geopolitical front line, with consequences around the region. The mixed messages to Ukraine from President Donald Trump’s administration are also damaging U.S. diplomatic credibility at a time when American foreign policy influence is already waning.
“Trump’s policy toward Ukraine looks badly incoherent and inconsistent,” said Mykola Sunhurovskyi, the head of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based independent think-tank. “It’s like a swing, and Kyiv has found it difficult to adapt to that.”
In a July 25 phone call that triggered the impeachment inquiry, Trump pushed Ukraine’s newly elected Zelenskiy to investigate the country’s activities in the 2016 U.S. election and his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden, while the Trump administration was withholding about $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.
Democrats say that Trump was engaged in “bribery” and “extortion,” abusing his office for personal political gain. The president denies wrongdoing. The military aid was ultimately released in September after Congress was informed of the phone call.
U.S. military aid makes up about 10 percent of Ukraine’s defense budget, according to Sunhurovskyi. He said the American aid is necessary to shore up the underfunded and badly equipped Ukrainian army, but is even more crucial as an indication of Washington’s determination to stand firmly behind its ally.
“The U.S. military aid is an important political signal indicating that Ukraine is a victim and Russia is an aggressor,” Sunhurovskyi said.”
President Barack Obama’s administration provided Ukraine with nonlethal military supplies, including countermortar radars, night-vision devices and medical items. The Trump administration in 2017 agreed to provide lethal weapons, committing to sell $47 million in Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The U.S. handed over two repurposed patrol boats Wednesday to Ukraine’s navy, part of over $1.6 billion in U.S. security assistance since 2014. Speaking at the ceremony, U.S. envoy Joseph Pennington pledged continued U.S. support.
It was one of the rare high-visibility American appearances in Ukraine in recent weeks.
While American business people remain ubiquitous in Kyiv, arriving daily on flights to Boryspol Airport and filling lobbies of the city’s high-end hotels, U.S. officials appear to be lying low, notably those visiting from Washington. When Assistant Secretary of State Denise Natali visited last month, none of her schedule was made public and media had no access.
Volker, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine peace negotiations, used to regularly visit Kyiv, maintained close contacts with the European Union nations to coordinate their support for Ukraine and met with his Russian counterpart to defend Ukraine’s interests. The Trump administration hasn’t named a replacement since he resigned.
Trump himself encouraged Zelenskiy to meet with Putin and “solve your problem.”
“Trump’s hesitations and the absence of a clear U.S. strategy forces Kyiv to make concessions to Russia,” said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kyiv-based Institute of Global Strategies.
That’s worries many in Ukraine, especially ahead of Zelenskiy’s long-awaited meeting with Putin and the leaders of France and Germany on Dec. 9.
After Ukraine’s former Moscow-friendly president was driven from office by massive protests in 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and helped foment a separatist insurgency in the east. More than five years of fighting has killed over 13,000 and ravaged the country’s industrial heartland. The U.S. and the EU responded by hitting Russia with a slew of sanctions that hampered Russia-EU trade.
European nations also provide Ukraine significant aid, but Ukraine fears their support is slipping too. Some EU nations have pushed for lifting sanctions against Moscow, and French President Emmanuel Macron recently called for reaching out to Russia.
Lawmaker Iryna Gerashchenko said that could herald pressure on Ukraine to agree to a deal on Russian terms.
“The U.S. military assistance cemented the Western position,” Karasev said. “Any doubts, suspensions or delays will cause the Western coalition to collapse and allow Paris and Berlin to play their game and make a deal with Russia. Once the U.S. role in Europe weakens, Russia’s influence inevitably grows — it’s a historic pendulum that Trump has already set in motion.”
Karmanau reported from Minsk, Belarus. Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.