As Ukraine prepares to hold its second presidential election since the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity”, there is less focus on the country in the United States now that at any point in the last five years. That is not to say that it has fallen off the radar or that US policy circles no longer care about what is happening there, but rather that the situation in Ukraine is seen as being a fair way along the inevitable process of moving from crisis to normalisation.
Outside of those in government agencies and the think tank world whose daily professional focus is on the region, Ukraine’s election and more generally the state of the country are not attracting much attention in Washington. The top-level and media attention generated by the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s military aggression in Crimea and Donbass, and the burst of reformist energy that followed the revolution has declined steadily. Today, the US policy and political class has major international issues on its plate — from North Korea to Iran, China, Syria, Venezuela, and trade wars — that leave little space for sustained focus by senior decision-makers on anything else. What is going on in Ukraine has not been forgotten or downgraded, but it has been increasingly treated as another normal international matter to handle.
The US 2020 presidential election, which is already in its opening phase, will only take more bandwidth from foreign policy discussions on all but the most important issues. Realistically, only a significant new military move by Russia in eastern Ukraine, or perhaps a flagrant attempt at interference by Moscow to affect the outcome of the election, will drive the country up near the top of the US agenda.
Continuity despite the rhetoric
The Republican Party has long accused the administration of President Barack Obama of a dangerously naïve policy towards Russia, of neglecting Eastern Europe and of not being strongly supportive of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. Yet, the experience of the last two years, while Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, did not show any great difference from what was seen under the previous administration, either in US policy or in terms of results on the ground.
The Trump administration touts its decision to allow Ukraine to acquire offensive military equipment as evidence of its stronger support. However, beyond this, the United States’ ongoing — and significant — support for the build-up in the country’s defence capabilities and its diplomatic engagement have not been critically different from what came before. The United States still clearly supports Ukraine’s aspiration for greater Euro-Atlantic integration, even if there is no illusion that NATO or EU membership are possible in the near future. To that end, the US government, with strong guidance from Congress, has continued to invest significant sums in assistance for Ukraine’s post-revolution political and economic reforms. Since the Revolution, the United States has provided over $2.8 billion in assistance and three $1 billion loan guarantees to help Ukraine enhance its military capabilities and implement key reforms.
The Ukraine-related sanctions regime against Russian individuals and entities introduced under Obama continues under Trump and is unlikely to change soon. It has been built upon rather, alongside other measures such as the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017, though more as part of a general hardening of overall Russia policy than directly in relation to what is going on in Ukraine.
The Trump administration appointed a new special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker, who engages with his Russian counterpart. Meanwhile, much as was the case under Obama, US messaging and diplomacy has consistently and strongly supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and condemned Russia, while there is an unspoken recognition that the annexation of Crimea will not be undone anytime soon (if ever) and that the situation in Donbass is a frozen conflict. No major positive change in Eastern Ukraine is foreseen, and Russia is not seriously expected to change its policy there. In short, the US position and understandings have not changed fundamentally since the signing of the Minsk II agreement.
And despite the rhetoric emanating from the Trump administration, there has not been a noticeable intensification in diplomatic engagement with Ukraine at the very top. President Donald Trump met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the White House in 2017 but only on a “drop-by” basis after the Ukrainian leader had met with the US vice-president, and the two presidents have also met briefly on the margins of international meetings. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Kiev in 2017 but his successor, Mike Pompeo, has not travelled to Ukraine so far. By contrast, Secretary of State John Kerry made three trips to the country between 2014 and 2016.
More of the same?
Some in the United States see the slow pace of change and many reversals in Ukraine as justifying pessimistic views of the country sliding back from the progress made from the initial wave of post-revolution reformist energy. “Ukraine fatigue” is an enduring phenomenon. In the current context, though, neither an abandonment of Ukraine nor its return to a priority position on the policy agenda are likely.
Several factors continue to make Ukraine a concern for the US government and the broader policy world in Washington. Above all, Ukraine policy is inseparable from Russia policy and Russia is not going to move down the agenda. This also ties into broader concerns about Russia and Europe generally, and thus different European issues occasionally serve to keep Ukraine a live concern for policymakers; for example, US opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or Russian political interference in the Balkans. At the same time, Russia’s behaviour remains one of the primary reasons for US engagement with Ukraine, as occurred with the November 2018 incident in the Kerch Strait. More such aggressive moves by Russia in the Sea of Azov or on land would be guaranteed to increase US attention.
At the same time, while there are several figures in Congress with a strong focus on keeping the United States committed to its traditional support for European security and NATO, including engagement in Ukraine, there is no obvious high-profile champion for this line of thinking among Washington politicians since the death of Senator John McCain. As for the declared and expected candidates for the presidency in 2020, they seem to be by and large supportive of the stance taken on Ukraine since the revolution, but at the moment none of them looks likely to make this a special foreign policy issue during their campaign.
Meanwhile, the well-documented staffing shortcomings of the administration still hamper having strong political leadership on Ukraine and regional matters in the crucial mid-level positions in the State Department and elsewhere. The recent departure of Wess Mitchell as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs only adds to this.
The final factor is the president. Overall, it looks as though 2018 saw Trump hit a wall when it comes to his hopes for a rapprochement with Russia, or at least one that is unconditional. If anything, in recent months hawkishness towards Russia has become more constant within the administration, as seen most recently with the issue of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Trump no doubt still nurtures hopes for better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which would be very unlikely to occur without hurting Ukraine’s interests, but in recent months he has returned far less to this signature issue of his election campaign and first two years in office. Whether that is because his attention has wandered elsewhere or he has deliberately tried to steer clear of an issue that has brought him mostly political trouble, the president has not made the kind of Russia-friendly statements with the same frequency and loudness in recent months. This is probably even less likely as the election nears and the issue is not likely to be a vote winner. One of the consequences will likely be that US policy towards Ukraine will not change.