The Path Forward with Ukraine in the Post-Impeachment Era

Introduction

On Dec. 18, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment accusing President Donald Trump of both abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. This event was historic as it was only the third time in the nearly 250 years of our nation’s history when a sitting U.S. President had been impeached. Both charges brought upon the President by the House originated from a foreign policy affair that occurred over the course of the summer of 2019 involving the Eastern European nation of Ukraine. The affair stemmed from a phone call in which  President Trump allegedly urged the newly-elected Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. According to the Business Insider, roughly 90 minutes after this phone call, a planned package of $400 million of American military aid intended to assist the former-Soviet republic embroiled in its current conflict against Russia was coincidentally frozen. In the following weeks, an anonymous intelligence official aware of the affair launched a whistleblower complaint, which then made its way to Congress. A spectacular series of dramatic “breaking-news” style events ensued appearing on all major news networks in the country and ultimately resulted in the firing of the President’s National Security Advisor, the opening of investigations into the White House in multiple congressional committees, and of course the dramatic announcement on Sept. 24, 2019 by Speaker Nancy Pelosi that an impeachment inquiry was to be launched into President Trump over his dealings with Ukraine.

Taking into consideration this dramatic foreign policy blunder, coupled with the increased relevance of the Russian Federation often working contrary to U.S. interests on the world stage, any incoming 2021 administration, regardless of political party, who aims to be serious about reestablishing American presence abroad will need to pursue a dynamic and comprehensive strategy for bettering relations with Ukraine. In this article, I will analyze and recommend ways in which the next administration should pursue its Ukraine policy to ensure going forward that the U.S. relationship with this strategically significant national player is one of increased cooperation, coordination, and partnership. 

Expanding Current Aid Policy and Military Assistance

The first way that the next administration should pursue its future Ukraine policy would be by expanding current foreign aid policy and military assistance. For the last six years Ukraine has been engulfed in a complex civil war centered in the eastern part of the country. The central government has been consistently unable to regain control over multiple territories that are either being directly occupied by the Russian Federation or by pro-Russian proxy groups. Since the outbreak of the conflict, the U.S. government has stood consistently with the national government in Kiev and its declared right to maintain the republic’s territorial integrity, in addition to its view of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula as a violation of international law. In an effort to take action on these stances, the U.S. has taken multiple new steps in its foreign policy in the region. Military aid provided to Ukraine greatly increased and the U.S., in coordination with its allies, implemented a series of sanctions punishing Russia for its perceived aggression in the eastern part of the country. Since the current form of military aid started flowing into the country, Ukraine has been able to transform its army into a more modernized and trained force able to more effectively defend itself from Russian and separatist aggression. Until last June, over $1.5 billion dollars of money from the U.S. has been pumped into the nation’s military to date, resulting in the country’s armed forces transforming from being — by some accounts — “in woeful shape” to one that has regained substantial sections of previously occupied territory. By certain expert accounts, the aid has not only resulted in tangible improvements in the defensive capabilities of the nation, but also has given way to an “immeasurable, psychological impact — that the U.S. has our back”. 

The Trump administration’s reversal of this aid policy and alleged play for blackmail on the former-Soviet nation’s leadership has undoubtedly produced notions of mistrust and anxiety among Ukranian leadership. This most prominently was demonstrated when President Zelensky met and confronted Vice President Mike Pence about the aid freeze a couple of weeks following the Trump administration’s refusal to let the package pass through. If the U.S. wishes to continue to contain Russian influence and aggression going forward, it remains imperative that the close relationship the U.S.  has carefully crafted with Ukraine continues to strengthen. A crucial part of making this become a reality is ensuring that aid is provided consistently and reliably for the foreseeable future. The next administration, whether it be a second term of President Trump or otherwise, must do everything in its power to move past this diplomatic debacle and reestablish an understanding of military aid based on trust. Aid must be provided, and if need be adjusted, to fit the appraised needs of Ukraine’s defensive infrastructure. Furthermore, the U.S. should continue to encourage and put greater pressure on its allies in Europe, notably Germany and France, to maintain and increase their assistance and mediation commitments to Ukraine, focusing specifically on the sectors of military development and energy industry vulnerability. While aid is crucial in maintaining the current U.S. reactionary policy to what has been happening in the country for the last six years, what really will remain vital in ensuring a continued relationship of increased cooperation, coordination, and partnership is how future American administrations push for an expanded Ukrainian role in the greater European community.

Integration with the European Community

Another way the next U.S. administration should pursue its foreign policy with Ukraine would be by expanding its role in fostering Ukrainian integration into the European community. Ever since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine and its government’s foreign policy have been embroiled in a debate as to whether or not the nation should remain close to its former sovereign, the Russian Federation, or move closer to Europe. In fact, this issue of which sphere of influence the country should lean towards in its international affairs is what triggered the quagmire of a conflict we see in the nation today, notably culminating with the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. Since that year, the Ukrainian government and population have consistently been observed to be growing much more enthusiastic about the possibility of more closely integrating with its neighbors to the west. In fact, the Ukrainian government in the last two years has made amendments to its national constitution committing the country to a future in which seeking NATO and European Union membership are foreign policy priorities. 

Future American administrations should take advantage of this growth in pro-European sympathies in Ukraine to deepen in its relationship with the U.S., and should work towards encouraging the country’s integration into the European community. Two ways that the U.S. government can do this would be by pushing for Ukraine to become more integrated with the EU internationally, and increasing the availability of opportunities Ukraine has to partner with NATO. Since 2008, Ukraine’s national bid to join NATO has been stagnant and blocked from moving forward due in part to verbal threats issued by the Russian Federation against any furthering of NATO expansion eastward, among other security concerns. Given Russia’s clear willingness to intervene in order to protect its sphere of influence in current and future regional conflicts — and the security risk that comes with allowing Ukraine to become NATO’s newest member — incoming administrations will need to balance the local desire for integration with a thoughtful degree of caution to prevent further escalation. By providing open and transparent opportunities for Ukraine to partner with NATO’s defense activities internationally, while temporarily delaying talk of full defense integration, future administrations can maintain this equilibrium and avoid any possible future sparks of conflict. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has already received a green light to join upcoming NATO missions in the Mediterranean and Iraq, and the U.S. should continue to support such gradual integration into the organization’s international security apparatus. By pressuring allies in Europe to increase security cooperation between their respective national defense forces and those of Ukraine’s, the U.S.  will ensure that the possibility of closer security coordination between NATO and Ukraine becomes a reality and the hypothetical of Ukrainian NATO membership more palatable to current members of the alliance. 

Supporting Energy Independence and Economic Growth

One final way that the U.S. can continue to rebuild its relationship with Ukraine would be through ensuring that sectors vital to Ukraine’s economy and national income are protected. As of Feb. 2020, the Russian Federation is attempting to complete a gas pipeline project that is meant to more effectively transport gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. Ukraine has historically been a vital transit territory through which gas heading to Europe from Russia has passed. As a transit territory, Ukraine receives revenues for the gas being transported across its territory, which have been an important source of national energy revenue. The construction of this pipeline, however, allows Russia to completely bypass this usual transit land territory in Eastern Europe and rob Ukraine of historically significant transit revenues. The U.S. currently stands against this project not only due to this reason, but due to its own concerns regarding Europe’s increasing energy dependence on Russia. If the next incoming administration wishes to steer European energy needs away from Russia, future U.S. policy must put more pressure on European allies to prevent similar projects from happening and instead focus attention on encouraging EU allies to look towards resources in less security-sensitive regions of the globe. For example, ExxonMobil’s recent discovery of a big natural gas reserve off the coast of Cyprus, a member state of the EU, demonstrates that this search can not only yield results but also that all that is required is more research and the sheer will to do so. This would not only ensure that the looming threat of Russia’s state-owned gas companies exerting unbalanced influence over Europe’s energy requirements is minimized, but also demonstrate to the Russians that if they wish to play a dangerous game of politics in their quest for influence over Eastern Europe that it will be met with resistance for doing so.

Conclusion 

Whatever administration that comes into power in Jan. 2021 will be inheriting an Eastern Europe that looks and acts very differently than what it did prior to the 2016 election. U.S. policy towards Ukraine must take priority in its greater Eastern European policy if the stated national objectives of countering Russian aggression are to be proven true. While it may be by some observations just a small part of a larger foreign policy mess begging to be attended to in the region, it is my view that it remains imperative the U.S. begin its Eastern European policy cleanup in Kiev.