Why Ukraine? How an Eastern European country triggered tumult in American politics

Pro-Russian rebels, right, walk by plane wreckage as they arrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 22, 2014. (AP Photo)
Pro-Russian rebels, right, walk by plane wreckage as they arrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 22, 2014. (AP Photo)

Thanks to geography, Ukraine lies on the fault line between east and west. Now, it finds itself at the center of an American political battle over impeachment.

Part of the reason lies with the tug-of-war between Russia and the western powers. But part also lies with the vagaries of chance that linked Ukraine’s wealth and internal politics to both President Donald Trump’s inner circle and the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Events over the past two decades set the table for the conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that triggered an impeachment inquiry. They don’t add up to a tidy picture of historic inevitability, but they do show how Ukraine and the United States got to this place.

A quick history

Ukraine emerged from World War I firmly in the Russian orbit. It was one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union in 1922, subject to decisions in Moscow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Ukraine with nuclear missiles it couldn’t launch, an economic landscape ripe for control by oligarchs, and ambiguous relations with east and west. That has done much to shape United States-Ukraine relations since.

By 1994, Ukraine had given up its nukes. The primary legacy for the United States was an international agreement with some intentionally vague words about standing by Ukraine to ensure the integrity of its borders. (That emerged as a brief flashpoint in American presidential politics after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Republican candidates charged that the United States had promised to protect Ukraine. It hadn’t.)

Americans tuned in to Ukraine again in 2004, when it had its Orange Revolution. A popular backlash thwarted an effort to install the departing president’s hand-chosen successor Viktor Yanukovych. It wasn’t just the poisoning of Yanukovych’s opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, that rocked Ukrainian politics. It was the eruption of anger over widespread government corruption.

Yanukovych lost, but the hope that a different leader would clean up government and reduce the power of the country’s oligarchs quickly died, said Seton Hall political scientist Margarita Balmaceda.

"After 2004, what changed were the ways the elites dealt with the government, not the corruption itself," Balmaceda said.

But if 2004 marked the defeat of Yanukovych, it also planted the seed of a tie to American politics that would take a dozen years to spring into full view. In 2005, a Ukrainian iron and steel magnate close to Yanukovych hired political consultant and future Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. By 2006, Manafort was working directly with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

Ukraine seeks American insiders

In 2010, Yanukovych took the presidency, and Manafort continued to advise him. Yanukovych placated Russia with a long-term lease for its military bases in Crimea, but Manafort was Yanukovych’s gateway to Washington. 

"Yanukovych had a tremendous PR campaign to gain favor in the United States and Europe," Balmaceda said. "Manafort was at the center of that." 

Manafort brought a political network forged over the decades inside Republican circles. He and his partners had worked closely with the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole. His foreign clients included dictators in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Political scientist Alexander Motyl at Rutgers says Manafort had the qualities that attract Ukrainian elites, what Motyl called an "American mystique."

"Whatever comes out of America is the best," Motyl said. "And Manafort was a hired gun with a high price tag, American political connections, and an international client list that showed he would work for some questionable people."

Political tumult and war in 2014

Ukraine’s balancing act between east and west broke down when Yanukovych first said he would sign a major economic agreement with the European Union, and then abruptly backed out. After months of protest and a violent crackdown, Yanukovych was forced out and fled to Russia.

Once again, frustration with corruption was a driving force. By one summary at the time, 50 people controlled nearly half of the country’s GDP. Motyl has seen estimates that Yanukovych and his family had pocketed $15 billion. (Balmaceda cautions that Yanukovych didn’t just have problems with reformers. Some oligarchs wanted Yanukovych gone, she said, because he wasn’t favoring them.)

Russia responded to Yanukovych’s overthrow by sending special forces into Crimea and triggering the annexation of the semi-autonomous region — Ukrainian territory since 1954 but with many ethnic Russians living there. Russia then fueled open warfare between separatists and the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine.

As a hot war developed in the east, a Ukrainian energy company put Hunter Biden, the vice president’s son, on its board of directors. The oligarch behind the firm, Mykola Zlochevsky, faced money laundering charges in Britain. Adding the younger Biden gave the impression that the firm had powerful American backers.

Europe moved to bolster the western-leaning government with billions in loans and grants. But along with the aid came pressure to root out corruption. The west had seen in 2004 and 2014 how anti-corruption sentiment had upended Ukrainian governments. 

"The refrain you heard from western leaders and pundits was corruption is a greater threat to Ukraine than the war in the east," Motyl said.

The west successfully pushed for transparency in government contracting and the energy sector. But it wanted to see more elites facing charges in court.

"The European Union understood that reducing corruption was the key to a stable Ukraine," said Boston University professor Igor Lukes. 

That anti-corruption policy led to the moment in 2015 when Vice President Joe Biden threatened Ukraine with the loss of $1 billion in aid if a lackluster prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, wasn’t replaced. Trump has since recast that, without evidence, as Biden protecting his son’s business interests.

Arming Ukraine

The continuing fighting in eastern Ukraine posed a different problem. For both military and political reasons, Ukraine wanted weapons from the west. 

Europe, and initially the United States, too, held back.

"Giving weapons to a country in a hot war with Russia is a very serious step," Lukes said. "You could make the argument that it would make the situation worse."

The Obama administration argued exactly that, and despite calls for lethal aid, including a 2015 House resolution, U.S. military assistance was limited almost entirely to defensive hardware, such as radar to track incoming mortars.

In the last year of the Obama administration, Congress authorized lethal aid. By the second year under Trump, the Defense Department had signed off on two deals, one to sell Ukraine $47 million in anti-tank missiles. In 2018, Congress approved another $250 million in military assistance. The State Department had an additional $141 million available.

The threads come together

What happens in Ukraine has not stayed in Ukraine. 

In 2016, Manafort lost his job running Trump’s campaign after reports surfaced of under-the-table payments for his work in Ukraine. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation convinced a jury in August 2018 to send  Manafort to prison for tax fraud involving millions of dollars.

Before the conviction, in March 2018, the Pentagon anti-tank missile sale went through. Soon after, Ukraine hit pause on its investigation of Manafort. "We shouldn’t spoil relations with the (Trump) administration," a top adviser to Ukraine’s president told the New York Times.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was his man in Ukraine, looking for dirt on Biden. Separately, Giuliani had several large security service contracts in the country, including the national government.

The money Congress appropriated in 2018 took on a new importance. Before Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Zelensky, he had put nearly $400 million in aid on hold. Early in the call, Zelensky told Trump that Ukraine was eager to buy another round of missiles.

But Hunter Biden was on Trump’s mind. Trump linked Biden’s board seat to the vice president pushing for the removal of the Ukrainian prosecutor. He had "a favor" to ask of Zelensky.

"There's a lot of talk about Biden's son," Trump said in the White House summary of the July 25 conversation. "That Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great."

By mid August, an anonymous whistleblower had reported the exchange to the inspector general for the intelligence community. On Sept. 10, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., demanded to see the whistleblower’s report. 

Two days later, the Trump administration released the $250 million in military aid.

Sept. 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the American people.

"The President has admitted to asking the President of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically," Pelosi said.

And with that, an impeachment inquiry was underway.

 

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