Try as he might, Trump can’t shake Ukraine from US agenda

US president lambasts Kiev over election as Washington envoy gives hope for arms deal

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s then campaign chairman, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016. For nearly a decade Manafort was an adviser to the Regions Party, which was led by pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Photograph: Sam Hodgson/New York Times

When Donald Trump became US president and declared his still-puzzling desire to forge an alliance with Russia, it seemed he might try to ignore Ukraine and the undeclared war that Moscow has waged there since 2014.

Obscurity now seems unlikely to be Ukraine’s fate, but a few turbulent hours this week must have made Kiev’s leaders wonder whether they will be protected or badly burned by the spotlight of US attention.

They heard welcome news from the US special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, that the Pentagon may supply defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military; but they were also the target of a Twitter tirade from Trump himself, who claimed they had backed Hillary Clinton and tried to "sabotage" him in last year's election.

Mixed messages now come as no surprise from this US administration. Some senior officials criticise Russia and promise strong support for Ukraine, but Trump’s own intentions remain unclear and pursuing policy often seems less important to him than trying to deflect suspicion away from his inner circle.


“Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign – ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.” , Trump tweeted for the attention of US attorney general Jeff Sessions, whom he accused in another message of adopting “a VERY weak position” on Clinton’s “crimes”.

Trump turned Twitter fire on Kiev as his one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, prepared to face the Senate intelligence committee's questions about a June 2016 meeting between some of Trump's closest advisors and a Russian lawyer who allegedly offered them damaging information about Clinton.

Manafort was also issued with a subpoena to appear before a Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday, but this was withdrawn after talks with his lawyers, sparing him a potentially tricky public grilling over his affairs in Ukraine.

For nearly a decade Manafort was an adviser to the Regions Party, which was led by pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich until he fled to Russia in February 2014, after his security forces killed more than 100 protesters in Kiev.

Last month, Manafort belatedly registered some of his work in Ukraine under a US law regulating political activity for foreign powers, in a filing that showed he was paid $17.1 million by Yanukovich’s party in 2012-2013.


Manafort quit as Trump’s campaign chief last August amid allegations that between 2007-2012 he received $12.7 million in secret payments from Yanukovich listed in a ledger found by Ukrainian anti-corruption investigators.

It is these claims – which Manafort denies – that Trump may have had in mind when accusing Kiev of trying to sabotage his campaign.

Given their contrasting positions on Russia, there can be no doubt that Ukraine’s leaders wanted to see Clinton beat Trump to the presidency.

Yet there is no evidence that Kiev helped to boost Clinton, and it seems rather desperate of Trump to accuse Ukraine while denying there are any grounds for the numerous current investigations into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the vote.

“We stand by our words that the government of Ukraine didn’t help any candidate in [the] Election. Ukraine is proud of bipartisan support in the US,” Kiev’s embassy in Washington said on Twitter.

Ukraine is trying to woo Trump: it gave a glowing account of president Petro Poroshenko's brief "drop-in" meeting with him at the White House last month and plans to boost imports of US coal, while Kiev's prosecutors confirmed recently that they are not investigating Manafort.

Nevertheless, Kiev seems to be having more luck winning over other US officials. After visiting Ukraine, special envoy Volker said this week that the US was considering whether to supply defensive weapons to the country, and called it "flat-out wrong" to claim such a move would provoke Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“Russia is already in Ukraine, they are already heavily armed, there are more Russian tanks there than in western Europe combined,” he told Radio Free Europe.

“It would give Ukraine an opportunity to defend itself if Russia were to take further steps against Ukrainian territory. Russia says it won’t do that and isn’t doing that, so then there should be no risk to anybody if that’s the case.”

Kiev received another boost on Tuesday when the US House of Representatives’ defied Trump by voting to extend sanctions on Russia and to force him to obtain Congress’ approval for any bid to ease them.

It is not clear whether Trump will sign the Bill. What is plain is that he cannot easily brush aside Ukraine, and a war that has killed 10,000 people and forced 1.6 million from their homes.

As Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the Council of Europe, quipped on Twitter: “Trump writes that we interfered in the elections in the USA, while Putin says we threaten Russia. There was a time when we were peaceful buckwheat sowers who kept themselves to themselves.”

Those days, for better or worse, are long gone.