KYIV – With the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki behind us, there was a general sense of relief in the air in Kyiv that has now given way to renewed anxieties as additional details fueling speculation have emerged. While the U.S. president’s attempt to publicly ingratiate himself with Moscow’s strongman, even by running down U.S. intelligence, and the country’s media and justice system, did not pass unnoticed and shocked many here, the initial impression that there was no sell-out of Ukraine is what mattered.
The general response was summed up by one of Ukraine’s leading journalists, Vitaly Portnikov, in his commentary for Espreso TV. The summit produced a favorable result for Ukraine because the outcome could have been a lot worse. Whatever the fears, clearly Ukraine was not uppermost in the U.S. president’s mind and hardly figured during the joint press conference given by the two leaders.
Donald Trump’s primary goal in meeting Vladimir Putin, Mr. Portnikov argued, was to provide a spectacle that would take the heat off him at home stemming from accusations that he and his team colluded with the Russians and allowed their interference in the U.S. presidential elections. Even the fact that on the eve of the summit 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted for interference in the 2016 U.S. election did not deter Mr. Trump from pressing ahead with this strategy.
By “solidarizing” with Mr. Putin and seeking his protection against the siege from U.S. intelligence and media, Mr. Trump humiliated his country and generated outrage all across the political spectrum, commented Mr. Portnikov. Ironically, the ill-conceived exercise badly backfired for the U.S. president, making everything connected with Mr. Putin even more “toxic.” Thus, having set himself against his very own state and raised its guard, the commentator argued, Mr. Trump will find it even more difficult to seek agreements with Mr. Putin above the heads of the American political establishment and society – including any deals on Ukraine.
Other Ukrainian observers also noted positive elements emerging from the U.S.-Russia summit for Ukraine. Former Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Volodymr Ohryzko was particularly pleased. Commenting in the weekly Novoye Vremya, he stressed that Mr. Trump, “despite all his quirks,” stated “unequivocally and clearly that Crimea is not Russia, but Ukraine.” Although there was no movement forward from the Ukrainian point of view on the issues of Crimea and Russia’s aggression in the Donbas, neither was there any retreat at Ukraine’s expense. Not only was the status quo thereby preserved, but in view of the affirmation of support for Ukraine’s position voiced repeatedly a week before at the EU-Ukraine and NATO summits that preceded the meeting in Helsinki, the net effect, the diplomat concluded, was a boon for Ukraine.
Mr. Ohryzko and other Ukrainian analysts also spotted what appears to have been a costly slip of the tongue by President Putin. During the press conference the Russian leader said: “The posture of President Trump on Crimea is well known and he stands firmly by it. He continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it. Our viewpoint is different. We held a referendum in strict compliance with the U.N. Charter and international law” It is the use of the word “we” that the Ukrainian observers picked up on. Mr. Putin had, in effect, acknowledged that it was Russia that organized the so-called referendum in Crimea while it was still part of Ukraine, and not some local “Crimean” entity as Moscow has usually claimed.
The vice-chair of the Ukrainian Parliament, Iryna Herashchenko, went as far as to say this on her Facebook page: “The most important thing that was heard at the press conference was the confirmation of Putin’s guilt, who admitted that it was the Russian Federation that organized the ‘referendum’ in Crimea. Our lawyers and diplomats should make use of this admission in preparing their lawsuits to international courts.”
What few Ukrainian commentators appeared to give Mr. Trump credit for was his reiteration in Europe of his strong opposition to the North Stream 2 gas pipeline scheme that is potentially so dangerous both economically and geopolitically for Ukraine, and strategically for Europe as such. Yet this issue, or rather Germany’s determination to cooperate with Russia on this project – to bring natural gas to Germany through a pipeline via the Baltic Sea that bypasses Ukraine – has become a source of major concern for Ukraine.
Mr. Trump was outspoken on this subject at the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12 and reaffirmed his stance, albeit less forcefully, at the Helsinki press conference with Mr. Putin on July 16. This forced the Russian president to adopt a reassuring tone: “Mr. President [Trump] voices his concerns about the possibility of disappearance of transit through Ukraine. I reassured Mr. President that Russia stands ready to maintain this transit,” Mr. Putin responded. “Moreover, we stand ready to extend this transit contract that’s about to expire next year in case, if the dispute between the economic entities — dispute will be settled in Stockholm arbitration court,” he added.
So, all in all, Ukrainian commentators initially felt that Ukraine’s interests had not been damaged by the Trump-Putin summit meeting, and that, if anything, the country had reaped some benefits from it. What was missing were attempts to place an assessment of what transpired in Helsinki against the broader background of the other significant events of the last weeks, ranging from the end of the soccer World Cup Final in Russia, to the EU-Ukraine and NATO summits and the anniversary on July 17 of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukrainian territory by a Russian missile.
And the critical question that was left largely unaddressed was what would be the longer-term effect of President Trump’s meetings and statements in Europe not only on U.S. politics, but also on the unity of the Euro-Atlantic structures into which Ukraine wants to be integrated. And how should Ukraine respond?
At first, the post-summit situation seemed comfortable enough for Ukraine. On July 18 the EU ambassadors announced additional sanctions against Russia, this time targeting persons involved in the illegal construction of the Kerch Strait bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland. On the previous day, President Petro Poroshenko declared that more than half of the country supports membership in NATO, for it represents peace, security and a European Ukraine.
But much of the confidence began to disappear again as details began to emerge, first from the Kremlin and then from the White House, that Messrs. Trump and Putin had indeed discussed Ukraine behind closed doors. The Russian president suggested that the two sides were considering proposals they had floated, which commentators in both Ukraine and the U.S. suspected would be damaging to Ukraine’s interests. In both Kyiv and Washington, officials and analysts quickly rejected any idea of a referendum being held in the areas under occupation in the Donbas along the lines favored by Moscow. But the nerves remained frayed.
Oleh Petrovets, for example, wrote in his blog for Ukrayinska Pravda that, with more and more information emerging, it appears that in actual fact Ukraine could have been the central issue discussed during the closed meeting.
President Trump has since continued to defy the mighty chorus of criticism that his wooing of Mr. Putin has generated, and has even invited the Russian president to Washington to continue their talks. To the dismay of Kyiv and the Ukrainian media, he has also made it clear that Ukraine will be on the agenda. Given the continuing lack of transparency, hidden agendas and personalities involved, it is not surprising that the Ukrainian media, and officialdom too, remain in a state of shock and relative helplessness as they await further developments.
Bohdan Nahaylo, journalist, veteran Ukraine watcher and former U.N. official, is currently based in Kyiv.