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Ukraine feels the heat over Trump’s links to Russia

There can be no thawing of relations between Washington and Kiev until the small matter of the Kremlin's possible involvement in the 2016 election has been resolved

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 26 April 2017 16:00 BST
Paul Manafort served as Trump's campaign manager - after filling the same role for the ex-Ukrainian president
Paul Manafort served as Trump's campaign manager - after filling the same role for the ex-Ukrainian president (Getty)

The death of an American member of an international monitoring team in eastern Ukraine in a landmine blast, which also injured a Czech colleague, is the latest act of lethal violence putting enormous stress on the country’s fragile ceasefire.

The response of the US State Department has, so far, been restrained, praising the courage of the monitors, expressing “shock and sadness”, and urging Russia to use its influence with the eastern separatists to allow a “full, transparent and timely investigation” to take place.

Every move by the US in Ukraine is being watched anxiously by the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko. It is not just that he is worried that Washington may weaken its backing for his country against Russia; the President is seeking to rehabilitate himself with Mr Trump after his government made little secret of backing Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election.

Mr Poroshenko and his ministers had been alarmed by Mr Trump’s expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin and remarks suggesting that he would accept the Russian annexation of Crimea. Ms Clinton, on the other hand, has long taken a combative stance towards the Kremlin in the Ukraine crisis.

There is evidence that Ukrainian officials helped the Democratic Party attempts to uncover alleged illicit links between Mr Trump and Moscow. This included the activities of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, who had previously filled the same role with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president and an ally of Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian ministers and officials openly attacked Mr Trump during the election campaign. Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov called him a “clown” and described his comments on Crimea as “the diagnosis of a dangerous misfit” on Twitter.

Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN, posted: “It seems that clown Trump has finally gone monkey s*** amidst his circus tour. He is a bigger menace to the US than terrorism.”

And Vadym Denysenko, an MP in the Poroshenko Bloc in Parliament, had no doubt that “Trump has shown himself as a thick idiot who speaks whatever is needed to fit the mood of the crowd”.

After Mr Trump’s victory, Mr Sergeyev claimed his Twitter account had been hacked, while the others hastily deleted their posts. But anger in the Trump team has not been so easy to erase.

Mr Poroshenko is yet to see the US President. Efforts by the Ukrainian ambassador to Washington, Valeryi Chaly, to arrange a meeting have been hampered by the belief of Trump team members that much of the collusion with the Democrats was by people connected to the embassy.

During the election campaign Mr Chaly had declared: “Trump’s future policy is about the aggressor’s appeasement and maintaining of the violation of territorial integrity of the sovereign nation and other breaches of international law.” This changed, after the result, to: “Republican Trump’s electoral victory can have a positive impact for Ukraine… It will happen much faster with Trump coming to power.”

The Poroshenko government recently signed a contract – rumoured to be worth $50,000 a month – with a Washington lobbying firm with Republican connections in an effort to repair the damage. Their task is to set up meetings with Trump administration officials to “strengthen relations between the US and Ukraine”.

But it is Mr Poroshenko’s rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who got to see Mr Trump and was quick subsequently to publicise – to Mr Poroshenko’s chagrin – the meeting and the supposed discussion about Ukraine’s future.

A few days later the Ukrainian president finally managed to speak to the US President on the phone. But the talk, according to both American and Ukrainian officials, was somewhat general, dwelling on the need to end the violence in the east of the country, and lacking the robust backing for Kiev which used to come from the Obama administration.

President Poroshenko visited London last week and announced that Theresa May and Boris Johnson had assured him of full support against “Russian aggression”. But there is uncertainty about the West’s willingness to confront Moscow at this time. Mr Johnson failed in his much publicised attempt to get the G7 group to back tough new sanctions against Russia over chemical strikes in Syria blamed on its allies, the Assad regime. Any new punitive measures over Ukraine are highly unlikely in the near future.

Relations between the US and Russia have been strained by Mr Trump’s ordering of air strikes on a regime airbase in Syria. But Mr Trump continues to send out the contradictory signals which have been the trademark of his administration. A day after saying relations with Russia were at an “all time low”, the US President declared “things will work out fine between the USA and Russia.”

Meanwhile, the various investigations into Mr Trump’s Russian links continue with the spotlight once again on Ukraine. One recent allegation is that Mr Manafort received vast sums in “suspicious payments” from Mr Yanukovych.

Prosecutors in Kiev want to question Mr Manafort and say they have requested the assistance of James Comey, the director of the FBI, which is carrying out its own investigation into Russian links. The Poroshenko government would prefer this was not pursued, it is believed, so as not to further fray relations with the Trump team. But the prosecutors, who have been accused of covering up corruption by, among others, EU officials, are keen to show they are active and autonomous.

It seen as a sign of the Trump team’s nervousness about what may unfold that it appears to be trying to distance itself from Mr Manafort. At a recent briefing to journalists, the White House spokesman Sean Spicer brought up Mr Manafort’s name unprompted, and claimed, to general incredulity, that “he played a very limited role, very limited amount of time” in the presidential campaign.

But the investigations are not going away and the “Ukrainian connection” is likely to remain under critical scrutiny. The chill between the Poroshenko government and Mr Trump looks unlikely to thaw anytime soon.

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