Be Skeptical of Stories Trump Spins Out of Ukraine

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The announcement by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that he’s planning a trip to Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s rivals, along with the early recall of the U.S. ambassador from Kiev, signals that you’ll be hearing a lot about Ukraine in the U.S. presidential election next year. That’s both an opportunity and a risk for Ukrainian politicians — but they’ll handle it well: They’ve played a similar game with Russia for two decades.

When he travels to Kiev, two lines of questioning could get Giuliani useful cards to play during the campaign. One would concern the local exploits of the early Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, after President Barack Obama had handed him the Ukraine portfolio. I’ve noted before that Giuliani likely won’t find any verifiable corruption despite the controversial gig of Biden’s son Hunter with a politically connected Ukrainian oil and gas firm. That, however, won’t prevent the Trump campaign from dropping hints and “connecting the dots.” Besides, if Giuliani knows where to look, he’ll probably find plenty of eyewitnesses to Biden’s inept meddling in Ukrainian politics and to the boastful Democrat’s role in making Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity look like a U.S. coup to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The second possible line of questioning concerns Ukraine’s role in initiating special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into links between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Information from Ukraine certainly helped build a case against onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Again, I doubt any plot involving Ukrainians and U.S. Democrats can be unearthed: Under President Petro Poroshenko, who did his best to ingratiate himself to Trump (and received U.S. lethal weapons in return), Ukrainian aid to the Mueller investigation was extremely limited. But some people Giuliani meets will want to bet on Trump’s second victory, and they’ll tell Giuliani (and then any news media used by the Trump campaign) what he wants to hear.

The Trump administration wants Ukrainians to feel safer making that bet. It’s clearly for that purpose that the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was recalled this week. A career diplomat, she, according to some reports, had been critical of Trump in private; she’s certainly not a vocal Trump loyalist like, say, his ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. Trump will most likely send a partisan to work with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who, as a political novice and TV personality, has a similar background to the U.S. president.

The U.S. ambassador has played an extremely important role in Kiev since the 2014 revolution. It’s not uncommon for Ukrainian officials to seek the envoy’s advice before making important moves — at times, it has appeared that an audition with the ambassador is a prerequisite for high-level appointments. A partisan in the ambassadorial post would make it clear to Zelenskiy’s fledgling administration that loyalty is required if he wants support, for example, for his plans to bring the U.S. into Ukraine’s European-moderated negotiations with Russia on ending the war in the country’s eastern regions. A loyalist envoy will also help visitors on opposition research missions like Giuliani’s get high-level support from the Ukrainian authorities.

Being leveraged for U.S. campaign purposes is, in a way, reassuring for Ukraine. After what Ukrainian voters saw as a disastrous Poroshenko presidency, European donors and backers were getting tired of a needy but stubbornly corrupt Kiev administration. Now, Trump needs Zelenskiy’s cooperation to help him win next year. That’s an opportunity to ask for more — and to get the U.S. to exert more pressure on both Europe and Russia.

At the same time, helping Trump too openly could be counterproductive if a Democrat — especially Biden — beats the incumbent.

Handling the fraught situation will require skill from Ukrainian politicians, including the newcomer Zelenskiy. But they can lean on a quarter of a century of experience with another “big brother”: Russia. When it was Ukraine’s key trade and security partner, Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians learned to play the different Moscow factions, mainly for economic advantage. Now, the U.S. has inserted itself in Russia’s place.

It did so by meddling openly in Ukrainian politics, including key personnel appointments, since well before Trump’s election. Episodes include the participation of former State Department official Victoria Nuland and then-ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt in shaping the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government, Biden’s blackmail of Poroshenko into firing Prosecutor General Yuriy Shokin, and Ambassador Yovanovitch’s demand this year that Ukraine replace its top anti-corruption prosecutor Nazar Kholodnitskiy.

Ukraine can only leave the Russian orbit and join the West if its elite learns to follow clear rules rather than focus on personal ties. Today’s Ukraine is a country where the question to ask is whose man (or woman) you are, not what your formal brief is. The U.S. could have helped Ukraine to break out of this deeply post-Soviet pattern had its interactions with Kiev focused on rules and results rather than personalities. Instead, the lesson it taught the Poroshenko administration was that the rules of U.S. politics aren’t necessarily all that different from the Ukrainian rules and that personalities are what matters.

Trump’s clear intention to get Ukrainians involved in the 2020 campaign will only reinforce that impression. It’ll be interesting to see Ukrainian politicians make and hedge their bets. As for U.S. voters, they should take any Ukraine stories related to the campaign with a grain of salt: The true motives of the Kiev sources behind them won’t be transparent enough to outsiders.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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