Yuri Polakiwsky is a Toronto-born writer, living in Kyiv. His work often appears in the Atlantic Council, the Kyiv Post and Brussels-based New Europe.
Ukraine’s people have long desired to be a free and rules-based society. And in the United States, the country had found an essential partner in its efforts to rid itself of the deleterious influence of Russia, as well as an inspiration for their cause.
The moral and financial support of the United States, under the skilled diplomatic hand of former ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, especially during and following the 2014 Maidan revolution that protested plans for closer ties to Russia, helped set out a clear path for fighting corruption and for building democratic rules-based institutions in Ukraine. The plan: transforming Ukraine into a market-based economy and establishing a societal institutional base that would prepare it for full participation in western security arrangements and economic markets. And while that agreed path was not always faithfully or diligently followed during Petro Poroshenko’s administration, the U.S. has nevertheless been a guiding spirit.
Indeed, though U.S. economic interests are not extensive in Ukraine – which is currently the U.S.’s 67th-largest trading partner with US$3.8-billion in two-way trade in 2018 – the U.S. has been at the forefront of western investment into Ukraine’s civil society, to the tune of approximately US$1.3 billion since 2014. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky – elected as Ukraine’s president in April on the strength of a clear mandate to reform civil society and economic practices – seems set, at least rhetorically, to enact a real change agenda.
But the circumstances surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump’s call to Mr. Zelensky, and the resulting, still-evolving events that may yet lead to the possible impeachment of Mr. Trump, have introduced a needless conflict into the narrative. That situation threatens the integrity of the legislative momentum around Mr. Zelensky’s domestic agenda, casts potential public doubt on the integrity of U.S.-Ukraine relations, and risks undermining Ukraine’s confidence and resolve in upcoming talks on Russia’s war of aggression.
In his phone call about the son of a political rival, Mr. Trump and his various non-diplomatic influencers have made clear that it sees Ukrainian relations as being a simplistic transactional one. Ties have been reduced to a “quid pro quo” footing, endangering a nation-to-nation relationship merely for a “favour” for President Trump to fulfill a partisan need.
This is a sad scenario. For too long, Ukraine’s domestic challenge has been to put away its historically transactional thinking and to stop individual freelancing in foreign policy, all of which has been driven by economic and political self-interest rather than by a clearly defined national interest.
However, last week’s testimony by acting ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor was a clarifying moment in this low point in relations. It showed how transactional freelancing in this relationship must be condemned and ended immediately, and that responsible government-to-government relations be re-established at the cabinet level. To avoid being mired in messy U.S. politics, though, Ukraine’s government must resist the temptation to continually comment on the ongoing saga taking place in Washington.
There will be continuing and mounting pressures to participate, but Kyiv must not fall into this trap. Being part of the daily narrative is a losing proposition for Ukraine’s government, as it would be forced to stake out a definitive position in this domestic U.S. matter, and at least be seen as having picked a side. Ukraine has greatly benefited from its strong standing among members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and it cannot afford to risk those relationships, especially because of the White House’s weakened state. Indeed, Ukraine would be wise to increase its focus on its outreach to Congress and encourage more public statements of fluid co-operation.
This said, Ukraine cannot remain silent.
Although there is no factual dispute that it was clearly pressured to conduct an investigation by Mr. Trump, Ukraine’s government – as a sign of goodwill toward both the House of Representatives and the Senate – should offer to provide Congress with a legal statement of facts. In response to a bipartisan congressional request and under the carefully chosen leadership of retired and respected political representatives, it should allow the FBI to access information that it has gathered. After that, it should recede into the background and allow the political process in the U.S. to take its own course.
U.S.-Ukraine relations face a difficult test ahead. Despite these challenges, there is an opportunity here for each country to clarify their mutual national interests, reset relations to the highest level, and recommit to the pursuit of a democratic, rules-based, and free Ukraine.
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