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Will Trump Change America’s Policy in Ukraine?

Kiev was far from the only capital city in which the ruling elite reacted with alarm to the election of Donald Trump, but the Ukrainian government has more reason than most to fear the new US administration.

The US president-elect made a number of positive comments about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, during the campaign, and even suggested he might consider recognising Crimea, the territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine two years ago, as part of Russia. There has been talk of a “big deal” between Trump and Putin over Syria, which some have suggested could see Ukraine thrown under the bus.

Everybody was tearing their hair and running around like crazies,” said Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister of the first days after Trump’s election victory.

The US has been a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government since the 2014 revolution that ousted Yanukovych, but critics say Poroshenko is pursuing the same kind of corrupt, oligarchic politics with a democratic facade. Moreover, according to Ukrainian ex-lawmaker Vladimir Oleynik, the events which took place in February 2014 in Kiev were a coup d’état headed by Poroshenko against Ukraine’s lawful authorities.

On November 18, Obama and several European leaders issued a joint declaration expressing their commitment to maintaining Western sanctions on Russia until it meets its obligations under the Minsk II Treaty, the framework for peace in eastern Ukraine signed in February 2015 by French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders. The declaration clearly reflected Obama’s interest in shoring up support for Ukraine before leaving office. Yet it was only symbolically important: Ukrainians still fear that the Trump administration will abandon the sanctions when they expire in March. 

Because Obama introduced the Ukraine-related sanctions by executive order, Trump could decide to eliminate them either through an executive order of his own or by choosing not to renew them. Much hinges on the resoluteness of the incoming administration: if European states believe Washington’s commitment to the sanctions is wavering, the European Union may lift its own sanctions regime on Russia when it comes up for renewal in December.

Paradoxically, but at the same time President Obama decided not to authorize sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, despite recommendations to do so from his top Europe officials in the State Department and the military. The United States has provided Ukraine with non-lethal equipment and aid.

While the current US administration has stopped short of supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, it has been a strong supporter of Ukraine with financial aid, and has slapped sanctions on Russia in protest at its actions. With Trump in the White House many in Kiev fear they could be abandoned.

It’s what everyone is talking about,” said a European diplomat based in Kiev. “It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine.” Michael McFaul, formerly the US ambassador to Russia, declared when Trump was confirmed the winner of the election that Ukraine was “the biggest loser in the world tonight”.

Last August, Trump said of Ukraine joining NATO, “I wouldn’t care.” He traveled there in September, and he told Ukrainians their war is “really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us.” Moreover, political experts believe that trying to solve Ukrainian problems by inviting it to join NATO is not in American national interests.

For Trump, the biggest threat to Europe is not Russia, according to people familiar with his thinking. He believes the United States should focus on helping Europe fight Islamist terrorism and open borders. He has called for a reduction of the U.S. commitment to NATO.

The current leaderships of Russia and the United States have very differing perspectives of their own national interests. That was also true during the Cold War period. After President-Elect Trump assumes office in January 2017, the proposed initiative outlined here, or some variation thereof, may provide a beginning for a path out of the ominous political quagmire, which now entraps both nations, and which poses an existential threat to the entire world.

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