Kyiv’s New Cold War: Welcome to Trumpians, Oligarchs, Hawks and Anomalous Left Wing Soldier

Recently, in the process of reading about the Trump-Russia affair, the U.S. public also learned a bit about the inner politics of Ukraine’s power elite.  As part of the larger investigation into foreign money streaming to Trump and his associates in advance of the 2016 election, special counsel Robert Mueller is examining a payment made to the president’s foundation by steel magnate Viktor Pinchuk.  Specifically, investigators are interested in Pinchuk’s $150,000 donation to Trump in 2015 in exchange for a mere 20-minute appearance by the presidential candidate via video link at the Yalta European Strategy (or YES) conference in Kyiv, an annual confab of foreign policy experts and others.  None other than Michael Cohen, Trump’s infamous personal attorney, solicited the donation.

The New York Times quotes a former head of the Internal Revenue Service overseeing tax-exempt organizations as saying that Pinchuk’s payment “is curious because it comes during a campaign and is from a foreigner and looks like an effort to buy influence.”  The official added that the donation was “an unusual amount of money for such a short speech.”  The destination of Pinchuk’s donation has raised additional concerns, since the money was donated to the Trump Foundation rather than the president’s personal finances.  According to the Times, Trump has used his foundation to pay legal settlements rather than live up to pledges that he would donate proceeds to charity.

Pinchuk, a wealthy oligarch and patron of the arts, has defended the donation by pointing out that there were multiple candidates for the Republican nomination for president in 2015, and it was by no means clear that Trump would be the candidate.  The magnate’s foundation has furthermore claimed that it contacted Trump and other world leaders in order to merely “promote strengthened and enduring ties between Ukraine and the West” and to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the context of Russian interference.  “Mr Pinchuk had met Mr. Trump some years ago in New York,” a spokeswoman for the Pinchuk foundation declared, and “this is how the invitation for Mr. Trump to speak at the YES meeting came about.”

Viktor Pinchuk speaking at last year’s YES conference in Kyiv.

Trump and Pinchuk’s Motivations

Ironically enough, Trump used his video-linked speech at YES to lambaste President Obama over the latter’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, which had begun a year earlier amidst Russian incursions.  “Our president is not strong and he is not doing what he should be doing for the Ukraine,” Trump thundered.  “Putin does not respect our president whatsoever,” he added.  Trump’s comments would seem to contradict the Republican’s subsequent efforts to reconcile with Russia, not to mention allegations that his campaign sought ties to the Kremlin.

Even more bizarrely, it’s hard to reconcile Trump’s tough talk on Ukraine with the subsequent Paul Manafort affair.  Indeed, Mueller is probing former Trump campaign chairman Manafort’s consulting work in Kyiv on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former pro-Kremlin president who was deposed in the EuroMaidan revolution.  In the summer of 2016, Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign after it was shown that he had received millions in undisclosed cash from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party.

Such inconsistencies and apparent incongruities in Trump’s stance on Ukraine beg further scrutiny.  Did the presidential candidate simply perceive the YES conference as an opportunistic means to make some money, or does this incident conceal more than meets the eye?  And what of Pinchuk’s motivations: was the oligarch too simply acting opportunistically and hoping to gain influence over whoever eventually won the Republican nomination?  How does one square Pinchuk’s pro-western lobbying with his support for Trump, a politician who has spoken admiringly of Putin and whose campaign chairman lobbied on behalf of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine?

On the face of it, Pinchuk’s motivations might seem contradictory but over the past few years the steel magnate’s agenda has come into clearer focus.  In a nutshell, the magnate seems keen to use the YES conference as a means of hedging his bets when it comes to the “new Cold War.”  To an extent, Pinchuk’s courting of different groups within the foreign policy and defense community is unsurprising given the oligarch’s sprawling business empire which spans Ukraine, Russia and beyond.  Pinchuk therefore has been careful to cultivate the support of classic liberal hawks but also neo-conservatives whose views may or may not overlap with the Trumpians depending on the particular day of the week and political vicissitudes of the moment.

Liberal Hawks

Late last year, I had the opportunity as a member of the media to attend the YES conference in Kyiv.  In an invitational e-mail, YES touted itself as “the main non-governmental platform for promoting Ukraine’s European future, supporting the country’s change-makers and promoting Ukraine internationally.”  In line with such thinking, YES commissioned polling data which would shed light on Ukraine’s relationship to NATO.  According to surveys, 58% of Europeans support the idea of Ukraine joining the defense bloc, with the strongest support being reported in Lithuania and Poland.  On the reverse side, a majority of the Ukrainian public supports joining NATO.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks at last year’s YES conference in Kyiv.

During the conference, YES featured foreign policy hawks such as former NATO Secretary General and adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.  Over the years, Rasmussen has been a robust advocate for western military assistance to Kyiv to counter Russian aggression.  Former Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in the mould of a more classic liberal hawk, promised Ukraine that the United States would confront Russian aggression.  Like Rasmussen, Kerry has pushed for arming Ukraine with lethal aid, despite reticence on the part of his former boss Obama.

John Kerry speaks at the YES conference.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk backed up the hawks, arguing that if Kyiv wound up joining NATO, this would lead to greater stability for the entire defense bloc.  Appealing to his western audience, Yatsenyuk declared, “Ukraine has improved its armed forces and is the only country in the world to contain the the advancement of Russian troops.  We are fighting for our independence and your security.”  It would be erroneous, Yatsenyuk added, to assume that Brussels would somehow inherit Ukraine’s problems with Russia by simply admitting Kyiv as a NATO member.  “My friends,” he exclaimed, “you already have problems with Russia!  They interfere in your elections, they bribe journalists and politicians, shoot down MH17, and carry out cyber attacks.  It is in your interests to accept Ukraine into NATO – the more of us are, the stronger we are!”

Ineffectual  State Department

            Pity the peripatetic Pinchuk, who must try to make sense of the current day Republican Party and its incoherent foreign policy views.  Traditionally, the GOP has regarded Russia as the great bogeyman, but the Trump era has scrambled conventional notions.  Bereft and disoriented by the nativist right, some old-guard neo-conservatives have denounced the president for hijacking the country and corrupting democratic institutions.  Other neo-conservatives seem intent on hedging their bets with Trump, or alternatively modifying some of their views no doubt in the hope of gaining influence over the White House.  Apparently, YES organizers decided to split the difference by inviting Trump’s own diplomats as well as older neo-conservatives such as John Bolton, Robert Gates and Newt Gingrich.

Does the U.S. actually have a consistent set of diplomatic principles toward Ukraine?  With disarray over at Foggy Bottom and the recent hollowing out of the diplomatic corps under Rex Tillerson, it’s difficult to see how the State Department can play much of a constructive role.  In a speech delivered at YES, State Department envoy Kurt Volker remarked that Russia’s proposal to introduce United Nations peacekeepers in Donbas was worth considering.  Shortly afterwards, however, Volker came out for sending arms to Ukraine, suggesting that he is no more stable than Trump when it comes to formulating foreign policy views.

Shameless Neo-Conservatives

At the YES conference, visitors were met with the bizarre spectacle of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates defending Trump’s foreign policy.  Strangely enough, even though Gates was a Cold War hawk during his stint as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gates criticized the U.S. Congress for imposing sanctions on Russia.  Gates then defended Trump for wanting to improve the relationship with Russia, a slightly incongruous thing to say in light of ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusions with Russia.

Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, struck a note of fire and brimstone, warning that Russia will have to leave Donbas and Crimea.  Just where Gingrich stands on foreign policy, however, is difficult to fathom since he has gone from being a neo-conservative to flirting with libertarian ideas throughout the years.  Most recently, like Gates, he simply seems intent on appeasing Trump in the hope of gaining a degree of influence.  Indeed, Gingrich has reportedly been one of the president’s most long-held outside advisers.

As if Gingrich wasn’t questionable enough, YES participant John Bolton is even more brazen.  A prominent neo-conservative and former Bush ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton fiercely criticized Obama for not standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine.  Simultaneously, the neo-conservative argued that lethal military assistance should be provided to Ukraine while supporting Kyiv’s bid to join NATO.  Needless to say, however, none of this prior history stopped Bolton from recently accepting a post as national security adviser to the president, who at times seems more partial to the Kremlin than Ukraine.

Stoking the “New Cold War”

Just where does the Trump White House stand in relation to the power elite at Kyiv’s YES conference?  In light of recent developments, it’s possible that hawks have gained the upper hand.  “The president,” notes Buzzfeed, “was never going to be an easy sell” on the issue of shipping arms to Ukraine.  The web site points out that during the Republican Convention, Trump’s campaign associates actually eliminated language supporting arms shipments in the party platform.  However, it seems that Trump may have been at odds with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the matter, and Buzzfeed hints that Trump felt “boxed” in, because if he opposed the decision Democratic liberal hawks would howl that the move smacked of Trump coziness with Russia.  Ultimately, it seems, Trump bent to pressure and shortly after the conclusion of the YES conference in Kyiv, the U.S. approved the sale of $47 million worth of anti-tank guided missiles to Ukraine.  Some observers, however, have suggested Trump wanted to avoid a major break in policy, and as a result the arms sale decision was rolled out in a decidedly low profile manner.

Whatever the case, the sale has threatened to further inflame the “new Cold War,” with Russia hinting that Washington had “crossed a line.”  Even the National Interest, whose role models include historical figures ranging from Bismarck to Kissinger, criticized the move as “ill advised” and “pouring gasoline on an already simmering fire.”  The publication adds, “Washington’s authorization of weapons sales to Kiev risks destabilizing a very delicate situation.  It will encourage hardliners in the Ukrainian government to press for a military victory in the belief that additional, even more lethal, U.S. backing may be forthcoming.  But the military option for Ukraine is a dangerous illusion. Given Russia’s crucial security stakes in not having another U.S. military client on its border, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will tolerate the complete destruction of insurgent forces in Ukraine’s east.”

Deplorable “Authoritarian Left”

As if this situation could get no more disconcerting, prominent leftist commentators have also leapt into the Ukraine arms shipment fracas.  Typically, the hard left looks at the world in a simplistic light in which the military-industrial complex is regarded as the greatest threat, while other authoritarian governments are ignored.  Such agendas were placed on vivid display during Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution: to the hard left, it was the U.S. which was most responsible for steering or driving events in Kyiv in an effort to thwart Putin and pro-Russian interests in Kyiv, as opposed to the Ukrainian people, including some progressive elements, seeking to rid themselves of a corrupt, brutal and oligarchic regime.  Later, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many within this constituency saw Hillary Clinton as the main enemy and representative of the national security state and hawkish foreign policy views while discounting the possibility that Trump might be worse in many respects.

More recently, some leftist commentators have bizarrely overlapped with Trump over the need to counteract the so-called “Deep State.”  Take, for example, Stephen Cohen of the Nation magazine and professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University.  In an interview, Cohen almost seemed to take pity on Trump by remarking that the president’s “nervous system is clearly cracking” and therefore the White House felt it needed to get rid of “this monkey” Mueller.  “Look at what Trump is accused of every day, in all the newspapers, of being an agent of the Kremlin,” Cohen said.  “In my circles you’re not supposed to applaud Trump for anything,” the professor declared, “but you have to be fair…He has tried to work out a cooperative agreement with Putin.”  Cohen went on to speculate that Trump moved ahead with arms shipments to Ukraine in order to avoid the impression that he was somehow indebted to Moscow.  Needless to say, however, Cohen voiced no criticism of Putin or Russian interference in Ukraine.

Another opinion maker in leftist circles, Glenn Greenwald, has referred to the EuroMaidan revolution as a “coup” which served to empower the far right and neo-Nazis.  Not surprisingly, such blanket generalizations lead Greenwald to criticize the notion of U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine.  The unabashed Greenwald is fond of quoting Putin and the Russian TV outlet RT, which have both reinforced such arguments about Kyiv’s links to far right groups. When discussing Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists, Greenwald squarely points the finger at Ukrainian nationalists rather than the Kremlin.

“One would have thought,” notes Kyiv Post, “in the early weeks of 2014, that the Ukrainian people’s achievement of throwing out the corrupt, Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, would have been greeted with general acclaim from leftist politicians and journalists.  One would have been wrong though: In the days after Yanukovych abandoned office, and Ukraine, in line with its constitution, restored its government and elected an acting president, many on the left in the West started to parrot Kremlin propaganda that there had been a ‘fascist coup.’  One of them was Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former lawyer who has been a prominent voice in left-leaning journalism.”  In recognition of his Kremlin apologetics, Kyiv Post has awarded Greenwald a tongue-in-cheek “Order of Lenin.”

Somewhat Anomalous Leftist Soldier

If Greenwald were to travel to Kyiv and conduct interviews, he might find that the political reality on the ground is more nuanced and complex than he has claimed.  To be sure, the conflict in Donbas has proven to be much more of a nationalist and even rightist crusade, and in the initial stages of the war few leftists rushed to enlist in volunteer battalions.  On the other hand, one occasionally comes across exceptions such as left-wing Evgeney Leshan, a journalist who worked at Obozrevatel, an online media company, prior to the eruption of war in Donbas.              Speaking with Leshan outside the YES conference, the journalist explained how he had grown up in Crimea while the peninsula still belonged to Ukraine.  In March, 2014 Leshan personally witnessed Russian annexation of his homeland when the Kremlin took over Crimea while forcibly holding a referendum.  Later, when he saw what was happening in Donbas, Leshan enlisted in the army because, as he put it, “I realized the war in the east would be worse than what we saw in Crimea.”

For Leshan, the decision to enlist was eminently personal.  In his own reportage, the journalist had stressed the need to defend Ukraine against external aggression. “How could I write and tell people in my articles, ‘go and fight’ and not go to fight myself?” he remarked.  Moreover, Leshan viewed the Kremlin, which espouses an authoritarian, chauvinistic and right wing agenda, as a much more serious threat to the political left than the Ukrainian government.  By defending Ukraine from Russia, Leshan added, “we give the left an opportunity to be the left.”  In the fight against Russian-backed separatists, however, Leshan makes a careful distinction between “Ukraine” and the “Ukrainian government.”  The average Ukrainian soldier, Leshan said, bears no great love for the government in Kyiv.  Indeed, “why should one love a government that steals, that lies, deceives, that talks about reforms but doesn’t carry them out?”

Insider Perspective on the War

Moreover, while Leshan voluntarily enlisted, he concedes that the government has run into public resentment over the military draft.  While patriotism surged in the initial phases of the war, and recruitment centers were flooded with volunteers, Kyiv later found it difficult to find replacements for demobilized soldiers amidst combat fatigue.  In 2015, the government reinstituted the draft though a huge number of Ukrainians have avoided service either because they’re scared, oppose the war on principle or simply don’t want to fight their own fellow Ukrainians enlisted on the rebel side.

Faced with disaffection, the authorities have lashed out by detaining draft dodgers and regulating travel for those who are eligible for conscription.  “People knew what was needed,” Leshan remarked, “but some folks were not really pleased to be forcefully sent off to war.”  My contact also readily conceded that the Ukrainian right ironically bears some similarities to the Russian political right.  Indeed, Ukrainian nationalists also espouse chauvinism, support the church and hold democracy in contempt.  “They only disagree with the Kremlin on one issue,” Leshan declared, “namely, who will control Ukraine, them or Putin.”

In contrast to rightists, my contact stressed an alternative vision for Ukraine, one based on equal rights with no place for conservative or nationalist dictatorship.  However, Leshan candidly admitted that there are very few left-wing soldiers in the armed forces.  While acknowledging political differences with his own home grown nationalists, Leshan tends to ignore such disagreements in the army since his first priority is the fight against Russia.  “While serving in the military,” he explained, “I don’t really talk about my political beliefs, nor do I ask soldiers who fight by my side if they are right-wing.  We will have these political discussions after hostilities have ceased.”

The “New Cold War” and Ukraine

Listening to Leshan, I wondered what the public reaction might have been if the journalist had been invited to speak before participants at the YES conference.  Assuming the Trumpians and neo-conservatives stick to their original convictions on Russia — which is a very big if as it’s difficult to know where either stands on foreign policy from one week to the next — perhaps they would both be surprised by my journalist contact.  On the one hand, Trumpians might have been taken aback at the true depth of anti-Kremlin sentiment in Ukraine.  Neo-conservatives, meanwhile, might have been pleased to hear of Leshan’s personal story, though they definitely would not agree with Leshan’s wider political beliefs.

Liberal hawks might be more inclined to rally behind Leshan, though they would part ways over the notion of fighting purely for “Ukraine” as opposed to shoring up political elites in Kyiv.  Lastly, the authoritarian left would likely not even be capable of admitting to the existence of a leftist volunteer in the army, since the idea completely goes against the underlying notion of Ukraine being taken over by some kind of “U.S.-supported right wing junta.”

Shielded and protected by think tanks, government offices and wealthy elite circles, YES participants inhabit a bubble all their own, one which does not allow for subtle human nuance let alone more original or idealistic thinking which breaks free and goes beyond anachronistic and conventional notions which characterized the original Cold War, now morphing ever more so into the emerging “new Cold War.”

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