As Donald Trump’s administration reels from a succession of self-manufactured crises, the fate of Ukraine, locked in a deadly struggle with Russia, has become ever more intimately intertwined with that of the American president.
I am in East Ukraine where Ukrainian soldiers are holding the line against Russian forces – regulars and “separatists” created and controlled by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
The bad-joke Minsk II “ceasefire,” negotiated between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in the summer of 2015, diminished fighting but never stopped it. Death has visited the conflict zones in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk provinces almost daily since it was signed. Recently, nine Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a single day, three near the front line positions where I was.
As much of Europe commemorates the World War One Battle of Passchendaele, which took such a tragic toll in 1917, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are living, fighting and dying in trenches reminiscent of the great war.
Every night I was near or at the front mortars fired from enemy lines usually kicked off an exchange of heavy machine gun fire with the Ukrainians also firing back some mortars. One night silent spectacular sheet lightning with an occasional lightning bolt lit up the horizon as large calibre mortar shells were fired toward the Ukrainian. Slowly the lightning approached our little battle until thunder and shellfire blended and then, as if to crush the arrogance of men, the thunder obliterated the sound of explosions.
Many Ukrainians believe that Putin may ratchet up the war ahead of his presidential election campaign next year. Russian opinion polls show that each time his forces slaughter Ukrainians (or Syrians, Georgians or Chechens) his popularity increases.
Therefore, stepping up the violence might seem an obvious election ploy to Putin.
Most soldiers I spoke to believe they could contain a Russian onslaught if only America provides weapons.
Many in Trump’s administration and the US government want to supply powerful weapons, probably including Javelin anti-tank missiles, which would greatly even up the odds in favour of Ukraine.
A majority of the Republican and Democrat members of the Senate and House of Representatives have for years wanted to help help Ukraine’s military. That desire has been sharpened by outrage at Moscow’s attempts to interfere in the US presidential elections and recently Congress imposed, contrary to trump’s desire, more sanctions against Russia.
Trump’s new special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, who visited the battlefields recently, and defence secretary Jim Mattis both apparently want to deliver anti-tank weapons.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
But without a complicated Congressional process, it is President Trump who must sanction the supply of such equipment. And all the indications are that he would hate to do that.
Trump’s adulation of Putin – during his presidential campaign and after his victory – made Ukrainians apprehensive that the new American leader would ditch US support for their country in exchange for better relations with Moscow.
This publication was one of the first to indicate that Trump’s seeming love-affair with Moscow was rooted in the fact his wealth had, crucially, for years depended on Russian cash. Scores of Russian companies and individuals – many linked to Putin – had been transferring huge amounts of their murky sources of wealth into the western fiscal system by buying Trump properties in the US.
These business dealings, which resemble money-laundering, figure in some of the investigations into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election and possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign being conducted by the FBI, Congress and a special investigator.
Suspicion has been fuelled by revelations of multiple connections between key Trump associates and figures close to Putin’s regime. Those revelations have followed a disturbing pattern where attempts have been made to conceal even the existence of such meetings. Once they have been brought to light the full story only comes out grudgingly and piecemeal.
Last month it was leaked to news media that Trump’s son, Donald Jr, met a top Kremlin lawyer in 2016. He first claimed they only discussed Russian kids’ adoption by Americans and the brief meeting was a waste of his time.
Later he was forced to admit the Kremlin lawyer, who wanted US sanctions against prominent Russians lifted, had offered dirt on Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. Also Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort and other important Trump team figures attended.
Then President Trump admitted he helped compose his son’s first dissembling account of that meeting. A confession that the president deliberately tried to mislead the public.
Trump is extremely sensitive about allegations of collusion with Russia during the election campaign. All US intelligence agencies agree the Kremlin did massively interfere to skew support in Trump’s favour. Collusion is another matter. Although Donald Jr’s behaviour smacks of it, and is thus particularly harmful.
In an attempt to deflect attention the Trump camp accused the Democratic Party of colluding with Ukraine to influence the elections. That “collusion” took the form of an American of Ukrainian origin, Alexandra Chalupa, who had contacts with Ukraine’s embassy in DC, in 2016 publicising some of shameful things about Manafort, at that time heading Trump’s campaign. Manafort had worked to elect Ukrainian pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych was ousted in 2013 after his corruption and brutality triggered a pro-democracy revolution. He fled to Russia, prompting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and a conflict now in its third year with more that 13,000 dead.
Manafort’s connections with Yanukovych had been in the public domain years before Chalupa’s revelations. But renewed Press interest forced Trump to fire Manafort.
The attempt to forge equivalency between Chalupa’s tip and the prolific Kremlin attempts to influence US elections was mostly ridiculed and failed to gain traction.
But Trump, notoriously vindictive, almost certainly bears a grudge against Ukraine.
Moscow was overjoyed when Trump won the presidency, but its expectation that he would overlook Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, (which have been branded by many as war crimes) and single-handedly reforge US policy towards Russia has been severely battered.
Some speculate Trump will agree to arm Ukraine in order to demonstrate that there is no collusion between him and Russia.
However, evidence has mounted that Trump has unclear financial and perhaps other connections with Russia. If that is the case, then Trump will resist approving game-changing arms for Ukraine for fear of what Moscow might reveal about him.
At a timber and earth dugout in the trenches near the shell-pocked village of Krymske in Luhansk province, the Ukrainian commander, (who wishes to remain anonymous), said: “We can’t understand why America hasn’t helped us. We don’t want American troops but we need American weapons to defeat Putin.”
This commander is certain that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will use military aggression to rebuild a new Russian empire and risk plunging all Europe into war. He said: “We believe America will do the right thing. It must.”