[This post first appeared on Dan Rather’s News & Guts on Oct. 8, 2019]
Trump’s heavy-handed dealing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky produced more than an impeachment inquiry. It also gave Vladimir Putin another geopolitical victory.
After Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian-backed nationalists seized large parts of eastern Ukraine’s nearby Donbas region, which borders Russia. As Ukraine’s army tried to recapture rebel-held areas, conflict broke out. Since then, Russian-backed forces have been trying to separate the area from the rest of the country.
Putin’s goal is to force local elections in Donbas as a prelude to rejoining the Russian Federation. America has stood steadfastly on Ukraine’s side of the battle to retain its sovereignty — until now.
In the months preceding Trump’s July 25 phone call to Zelensky:
- Russia continued aggressive attacks in the Donbas region.
- Trump withheld desperately needed military aid from Ukraine.
- Trump used US ambassadors and diplomats in the State Department working with Rudy Giuliani and representatives of the Ukrainian government to deliver on Trump’s personal political demands.
The Infamous Call
Based solely on the White House’s “summary memorandum” of the July 25 conversation between Trump and Zelensky, Trump’s own words incriminate him: “…do us a favor though…”
In addition to seeking “dirt” on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, Trump also asked Zelensky to pursue Trump’s discredited conspiracy theory, promoted by Russia, that interference in the 2016 presidential election actually originated in Ukraine.
With or without a quid pro quo, Trump abused his presidential power for personal political gain. But the evidence of a quid pro quo is mounting. Highlights from the Trump-Russia Timeline tell the story of what happened after Trump’s call:
- Throughout August and September: Russian-backed forces continue to mount attacks in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
- Sept. 1: US charge d’affaires for Ukraine, William Taylor, texts Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU (a $1 million contributor to Trump’s inauguration committee before Trump appointed him): “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”
Sondland responds: “Call me.”
- Sept. 9:Taylor reiterates, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
By that time, the White House had known for almost a month about the whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was abusing presidential power for personal political purposes. The CIA’s general counsel had referred the claims to the Justice Department.
Before answering Taylor four hours after receiving his message, Sondland speaks with Trump, according to The New York Times.Then he tells Taylor that their conversation should move to phone rather than text.
- Sept. 10: The House Intelligence Committee demands a copy of the whistleblower complaint
- Sept. 11: Trump releases his hold on military aid to Ukraine.
- Sept. 25: At a joint press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly Meeting, Trump tells Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “I really believe that President Putin would like to do something. I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement. And I know you’re trying to do that.”
- Oct. 1: As Russian-backed attacks continue in Donbas, Zelensky accepts the “Steinmeier formula” for the region. Consistent with Putin’s goal, it calls for local elections in the Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, followed by special self-governing status for the region.
Ukrainian nationalists decry the deal as “capitulation.” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, calls it a “positive development.”
- Oct. 4: Ukraine’s general prosecutor announces that he will review cases involving Biden’s son.
Domestic and International Ramifications
At great expense to America’s fundamental institutions and the world order, Trump is getting his way on two counts:
- Ukraine is once again looking at Hunter Biden — a controversy that has been debunked. But to achieve that result, Trump compromised the US State Department by using it as his political tool.
- Zelensky made a deal with Putin. But the agreement puts Russia on a path to absorb eastern Ukraine by allowing local elections to take place in the occupied parts of the country before Russian-backed forces have withdrawn and Kiev has control of the border.
And that sets up a big problem for the free world. In his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski described newly independent Ukraine as “a geopolitical pivot.” “Without Ukraine,” he wrote, “Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire… However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as its access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.’”
It always comes back to Russia.