The Road to Power in Ukraine Runs Through Donald Trump

When Kiev can’t reliably get hold of the White House, even Miss Universe contestants will start conducting diplomacy.

The White House is pictured on January 19, 2013 in Washington DC. Americans kicked off Barack Obama's inauguration weekend Saturday with a day of service, with the president and his family volunteering their efforts in Washington. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
The White House is pictured on January 19, 2013 in Washington DC. Americans kicked off Barack Obama's inauguration weekend Saturday with a day of service, with the president and his family volunteering their efforts in Washington. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

KIEV and WASHINGTON — A lot of Ukrainian is being heard around Washington these days.

Since the U.S. election in November, Ukrainian officials have descended on the District, but the pace has picked up noticeably since Congress returned to session in January: One recent trip brought more than 70 Ukrainian politicians to Congress at once. And a congressional staffer who works on Ukraine and Russia policy told Foreign Policy that not a day goes by where he doesn’t see Ukrainian lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

One reason for this sudden influx is the outsized role played by the United States in Ukrainian domestic politics: Recognition and support from influential Americans can make or break a politician’s career. “There is the perception of the U.S. as a kingmaker in Ukraine,” said Vasyl Filipchuk, a former diplomat and the current chairman of the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kiev. “So when [Donald] Trump was elected, all groups of influence — the elite — decided that they must establish or re-establish links with the new administration.”

But another reason is the lack of clarity about the Trump administration’s policy toward Ukraine and about who is responsible for communications between the two countries. And so, lawmakers from across Ukraine are flooding into Washington, in the hopes that they will be able to take advantage of this policy vacuum and make an impact — or at least get in on the action.

“There has been so much uncertainty and anxiety in Kiev surrounding Trump and what he will change with Russia and Ukraine,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is creating an opportunity for other politicians to shop their own initiatives.”

The transition from Barack Obama’s White House to the Trump administration has been tumultuous for countries around the world, thanks to both mixed messages in public and White House staffing issues that have made it impossible to get clarification in private. But nowhere have the messages been more confusing than in Ukraine, where a more than two-year conflict that has killed nearly 10,000 people shows no signs of stopping. The outbreak of intense fighting in late January threatened to break the fragile Minsk II peace agreements, and recent Russian provocations, including recognition of passports from Ukraine’s breakaway regions, are deepening tensions.

The Trump administration’s contradictory statements on Russia have only increased anxiety in Kiev. Trump has said he wants to pursue more cooperation, particularly on Syria and counterterrorism — but his administration has also said new cooperation isn’t currently possible, and key members of his team, including Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have emphasized the threat posed by the Kremlin. In the absence of a clear line from the White House, Kiev has looked elsewhere to shore up support. Senate Republicans, under pressure from Russia hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have sounded the alarm about the Kremlin in recent days and called for supporting Kiev. But the Ukrainian government is also scrambling to establish a reliable line of communication with the White House, both to ensure it can plead its case and to avoid being undermined by any one of the lawmakers currently looking to capitalize off the uncertainty.

“We want to understand who is responsible for the foreign policy of the United States in the European region,” Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, told FP last week. “Currently, it is not obvious who this person will be.”

Meanwhile, the hollowing-out of the upper echelons of U.S. diplomatic institutions has opened the door to amateur — and, in some cases, rogue — diplomacy.

One example of such informal Ukrainian liaising was described last weekend by the New York Times. It reported that Andrey Artemenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker representing Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party, took relations with the Trump administration into his own hands, working with Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and a longtime Trump business associate, Felix Sater, to deliver a secret “peace plan” to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Artemenko, a marginal but ambitious politician with an affinity for Trump who has ties to the far-right military-political group “Right Sector,” seems to have acted without authorization from the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian officials were livid with Artemenko, who has since been kicked out of his political faction in parliament and is being investigated for treason by Ukraine’s General Prosecutor. Since the revelation was first reported, Artemenko has denied passing a peace plan to Trump officials and has since threatened to sue the New York Times for libel.

In the days that followed, other proposed peace plans for eastern Ukraine have come out of the woodwork. Former President Viktor Yanukovych, who lives in exile in Russia after fleeing Ukraine following the Maidan protests in 2014, spoke with Western journalists on Tuesday and announced a nine-page proposal for ending the war. According to Der Spiegel and the Wall Street Journal, which interviewed Yanukovych, the former president had sent the plan to Trump and the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, and Poland. On Wednesday, Radio Free Europe reported that Konstantin Kilimnik, a former associate of Paul Manafort, Trump’s erstwhile campaign chairman who worked for Yanukovych, has also drawn up a peace plan. What’s more, Kilimnik said he briefed Manafort on the plan during the 2016 U.S. election.

Other interventions have been motivated more by electoral considerations than anything: Ukraine has presidential elections slated for 2019, and jostling among top political players is well underway. On Feb. 2, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a vocal opponent of President Petro Poroshenko, met in Washington with both Vice President Pence and Trump, who reportedly assured her that his administration would “not abandon” Ukraine and that it would not lift sanctions on Russia until it withdraws its troops from the country. Politico reported that Poroshenko’s team was “apoplectic” about the off-the-cuff meeting. Chaly, the Ukrainian ambassador, however, denied having a visceral reaction to the informal meeting and said Tymoshenko and Poroshenko were working toward the same goal together. “They can compete for political influence and ratings in Kiev, but they do not compete when it comes to the defense and security of Ukraine,” Chaly said.

But even as it disapproves of these unofficial exchanges, the Ukrainian government itself has also sought to create its own back channels to reach Trump. Kiev is “making use of informal contacts,” said Taras Berezovets, a political consultant and director of the Fund for National Strategies, a Ukrainian think tank.

One rumored interlocutor in this relationship is Oleksandra Nikolayenko, a Ukrainian model and former Miss Universe contestant who is married to Phil Ruffin, a close friend of the president. Trump was best man at Ruffin’s wedding to Nikolayenko in 2008, and Ruffin has been a faithful supporter of Trump’s campaign from the beginning, donating $1 million to Trump’s Make America Great Again PAC just two weeks after it was launched. According to one source close to the Ukrainian presidential administration, Nikolayenko told Chaly that she could put him in touch with “anyone in the administration” and that she had already started setting up meetings for him. Chaly told FP that he had met Nikolayenko at an “informal event with the new American leadership” and that she was later invited to the Ukrainian Embassy but denied that she had helped establish any new contacts.

Other unlikely conduits to Trump that have emerged in recent months include the billionaire businessman Victor Pinchuk, who published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in December calling on Ukraine to make “painful compromises” in order to resolve the conflict in the east. When it was published, the Poroshenko administration shot back, saying it wouldn’t back down from Russian aggression. Less than a month later, however, despite intentionally ignoring an invitation to attend a breakfast hosted by Pinchuk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Poroshenko took a meeting with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Pinchuk had personally organized — reportedly through his connections to officials in the Trump administration — in the hope that Gates, though not a part of the Trump White House, might be able to facilitate a relationship with the president’s entourage.

Whether through traditional channels of communication, informal ones, or a combination of both, Ukraine has had some successes reaching Trump and his inner circle. Chaly has played a central role in this effort, establishing contact with Trump staffers following his victory and meeting with Trump and other members of his team in person in the days leading up to the president’s inauguration. In early February, Poroshenko became one of the first foreign leaders to speak with Trump, shortly after an escalation of fighting along the front lines in Ukraine’s eastern regions, which marked an impressive achievement for Ukrainian diplomacy. Filipchuk, the former diplomat and think tank chairman, who has written in favor of making compromises to achieve peace that many in Ukraine have found provocative, said he was surprised and impressed by the extent to which Chaly has been able to establish relationships with the Trump administration.

After a confusing first few weeks, the Poroshenko administration seems to have fallen back on more formal methods of communication. The Ukrainians are in the process of trying to arrange a visit from a delegation led by Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin to rekindle working ties with the new administration. Poroshenko and Pence met at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18, and the Ukrainians are hoping to arrange a visit to Washington for Poroshenko in March. But the Trump administration’s disorganization has already taken a toll, by fueling domestic political rivalries that could threaten the country’s stability.

“There is a gathering domestic political storm in Kiev,” said Jarabik, the Carnegie political analyst. “And soon it will hit.”

FP‘s Dan De Luce contributed to this report. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

 Twitter: @isaacdwebb

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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