(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the 1997 black comedy “Wag the Dog,” an unscrupulous political consultant (played by Robert De Niro) invents a U.S. war with Albania to distract attention from a White House scandal. “Why Albania?” he’s asked. “Why not?” the consultant replies. “What did they ever do for us?”
Ukraine is the new Albania.
In this case, U.S. Democrats are using the distant land as a prop in their campaign to impeach President Donald Trump. Sadly, the scandal may scuttle the actual country’s plans to end a real war with Russia – a goal that Ukraine’s new leader had been counting on the U.S. to help him achieve.
Since before his election in April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said he wants the U.S. to help mediate talks about ending hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists hold a large swath of territory. He sees the U.S. as more sympathetic to Ukraine than France and Germany, which have so far proposed compromises that are easier for Russia to accept. The Americans have, for example, insisted that Ukraine get full control of its eastern border before separatist-controlled regions hold any elections. Their involvement could prevent the Europeans from going soft on Russia simply to get rid of an unwanted problem.
Ukraine is hoping for Western protection, too. Before Zelenskiy’s trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, an aide said he wanted to negotiate a “second Budapest memorandum” – a reference to the 1994 document signed by the U.S., Russia and the U.K. to guarantee Ukraine’s security in exchange for its willingness to give up nuclear weapons. The nonbinding original didn’t stop Russia from annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backing the eastern Ukraine insurgency. This time around, the idea is to get more signatories – including China, France and Germany – to a legal guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a deal that would crown the peace process and rule out any further Russian depredations.
Zelenskiy, who is scheduled to meet with Trump today, is trying to maintain a decent relationship with both sides of the U.S. political divide. Asked by a Russian reporter in New York whether Trump had pressured him to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, Zelenskiy said that the only person who could pressure him was his 6-year-old son – a quip that Trump will surely like. He also won’t provoke Democrats by opening any official investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter. (In any case, it would be inadvisable for Zelenskiy, who was elected on an anti-corruption platform, to be seen using Ukrainian law enforcement agencies for political ends.)
But getting U.S. support for his No. 1 foreign policy project – ending the war in the east by enlisting a broad international coalition – is probably beyond Zelenskiy’s powers now. Even more so is the somewhat utopian memorandum plan. Whatever Trump does for Ukraine will be seen as transactional, and Zelenskiy will be suspected of providing unofficial quid pro quo.
The U.S. media are highly sensitized to any whiff of impropriety involving Ukraine. In May 2018, the New York Times and other outlets reported that the Trump administration had agreed to supply Ukraine with U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles in exchange for President Petro Poroshenko’s freezing investigations into the Ukrainian business of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. That report didn’t cause a crisis like the current one, perhaps because it didn’t involve a Democratic presidential contender. In any case, Poroshenko and his handpicked prosecutor-general, Yuri Lutsenko, weren’t interested in pursuing Manafort, Javelins or no Javelins, because they stood to gain nothing from it.
Now the question is whether Zelenskiy will do something for Trump in return for U.S. support. Should the U.S. suddenly take an increased interest in helping Ukraine negotiate a peace deal with Russia, the Democrats and the U.S. media inevitably will ask what Zelenskiy promised in compensation. After all, the U.S. president has publicly expressed a preference for the Europeans to take the lead on Ukraine.
Hence, U.S. domestic politics will likely put a freeze on any active involvement in resolving the Ukraine crisis, just as they froze U.S.-Russian relations during the Trump-Russia scandal. During Russiagate, Trump was careful to have as little to do with Russia as possible (an inconclusive meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was a public relations disaster for Trump). Ukrainegate will make it equally hard for him to engage with Ukraine, or with European partners on Ukraine.
The next “Normandy format” meeting of Ukrainian, Russian, French and German leaders is likely to take place in the coming weeks. Zelenskiy will have to participate knowing that the U.S., always an invisible but tangible presence at these talks, is out for the duration of the impeachment proceedings and perhaps until after the 2020 presidential election. His entire strategy of trying to broaden the process is in doubt. That makes it attractive for the Ukrainian president to drag out the talks, agreeing on baby steps like prisoner exchanges and military pullbacks, until he can have a substantive conversation with the White House again.
I doubt that worries Biden, who didn’t talk his son out of accepting big payouts from a politically connected Ukrainian company under investigation for money laundering. And I doubt it worries Trump, now plunging headlong into the impeachment battle. But for millions of people stuck in the limbo of eastern Ukraine’s separatist “people’s republics,” what Zelenskiy can do to make peace is more important than which of those two Americans wins an election. It’s unfortunate that U.S. domestic politics is about to prolong their uncertainty and suffering.
To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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