Welcome to the United States of Ukraine
It’s no coincidence that Washington’s increasingly dysfunctional and violent politics are coming to resemble Kyiv’s.
Ukrainian and U.S. politics have become deeply intertwined, with U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holding one another’s political fates in their hands. Trump can offer or deny the weapons and political support Zelensky needs for Ukraine to survive another onslaught by its aggressive neighbor, Russia. And Zelensky can choose whether to deliver the 2020 election to Trump by concocting dirt on his rival or, alternatively, contribute to the impeachment proceedings by leaking information about Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine.
The connection is more than just coincidence—it derives from a common source. The tumult and dysfunction afflicting Ukrainian and U.S. politics today result, in large part, from Russian hybrid warfare attacks that have exacerbated existing political divisions and rained down chaos on both countries. As a result, U.S. politics is becoming more and more like politics in Ukraine, a country that has borne the brunt of Russian hybrid war and electoral hacking for at least fifteen years.
Everyone knows that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, captured and annexed Crimea, and seized parts of Eastern Ukraine. But long before that, Russia also hacked Ukrainian elections. In 2004, Russia hacked Ukraine’s electoral commission so blatantly to seize victory for then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential election that it had to be rerun after mass protests known as the Orange Revolution. Russia appears to have blackmailed Ukraine not to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union, sparking the Euromaidan protests in 2013. In 2014, pro-Russia hackers attacked Ukraine’s electoral commission and planted malware on its servers that would have declared a fringe candidate the winner had it not been discovered one hour before results were announced. There are many other cases, including a Russian cyberattack on Ukraine’s power grid that left 200,000 in the dark in 2015.
Russia’s repeated and often underhanded interventions in Ukrainian politics have had two seemingly contradictory effects. On the one hand, they served to further polarize politics in Ukraine. Russia’s struggle to keep Ukraine in its own sphere of influence and ban it from joining the European Union and NATO has pitted Ukrainians against one another. A clear majority today wants Ukraine to join those Western institutions, seeing them as a guarantee, or at least a prospect, of prosperity and normalcy. Yet a significant minority feels closer to Russia, part of the Russian world, and views Russia as Ukraine’s natural partner. Elections in Ukraine generally offer voters a “civilizational choice” between a Western version of modernity and an Eastern alliance with Russia based on a common Orthodox or Soviet culture. It is a stark choice with potentially enduring repercussions. As a result, politics occasionally turns violent, with fist fights in the Ukrainian Rada and acts of intimidation in the streets.
Yet paradoxically, many of the leading politicians and oligarchs in Ukraine seek to play both sides. Rather than making a definitive choice, they jealously guard their fortunes and their flexibility, often supporting multiple candidates behind the scenes and often changing positions as the political winds shift. Ironically, in a sharply polarized environment, flexibility is the greatest political asset. Most Ukrainian oligarchs made a fortune under the pro-Russian presidency of Yanukovych from 2010-14, survived his ouster, and then lent their vigorous support to nationalist President Petro Poroshenko, in some cases even raising private armies to fight Russian incursions in the east. Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk famously supported NATO membership for Ukraine before he opposed it and donated to the Clinton Foundation before switching to supporting Trump. When your country is wracked by pressures from powerful outsiders, it makes sense to have the flexibility to play both sides.
Increasingly, this politics of polarization and power brokers has settled in the United States. Political polarization, of course, is not new in Washington. It was worse in certain historical periods, notably the Civil War. And many studies have shown that polarization has grown as economic inequality increased throughout the post-Reagan era. Yet, Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election further polarized American politics, as intended. Russia’s troll farm propagated anti-immigrant messages and web content targeting black voters to spur division. Today, many Americans believe their political enemies have committed treason and are in league with a foreign power. Each election appears to present a civilizational choice, between well-functioning democracy and, depending on whom you ask, either nationalist authoritarian rule or elitist oligarchy. We already see increasing calls for violence from the right. This week, Republicans took a page from Ukrainian parliamentary norms by disrupting impeachment hearings where they were taking place and holding a pizza party instead.
At the same time, Trump displays the same flexibility and drive to enrich himself as a Ukrainian oligarch. One of the most remarkable—and least remarked-upon—features of the current impeachment scandal is that it shows Trump to be incredibly disloyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Trump gladly took Russian support for his 2016 presidential bid, his conversation with Zelensky shows that he would willingly provide anti-tank missiles to a country at war with Russia, so long as that country helped him with his 2020 bid. For Trump, it is all about Trump. He has no ideology and no loyalty, just sells U.S. foreign policy to the highest bidder.
So America’s political entanglement with Ukraine is no coincidence. The politics that Ukraine has suffered through as a result of its conflict with Russia have become our politics as well. This conflict between Russia and the West has polarized both nations and given rise to nonideological power brokers who benefit from the conflict by driving up the price they can command for the resources they have at their disposal. The United States, under Trump, has become small on the international stage and vulnerable at home—like Ukraine, a land in between.