An anxious Ukraine faces new era with Trump's 'America first' policy

U.S. president-elect’s praise of Putin and campaign rhetoric suggest he won’t support Ukraine in conflict with Russia.


The victory of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. presidential elections on Nov. 8 was not well received in Ukraine. Trump’s apparent admiration for Putin and his comments during the election suggest he is unlikely to support Ukraine in its hybrid war with Russia.

From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, the ideal scenario would be the abandonment of American support for the Ukrainian government ending the possibility of that country’s NATO membership and the lifting of sanctions. Putin’s goal, simply put, is to discredit the democratic system and the world leadership role of the United States that has dominated the post-Soviet order.

Should Ukraine and those of Ukrainian ancestry in Canada be concerned?

Two events during the election campaign disturbed Ukraine the most. Asked on July 31 by ABC News about Russian aggression, Trump commented “Putin’s not gonna go into Ukraine.”

When his host commented that Russia had already annexed Crimea, he responded that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Seemingly he would recognize the incorporation of Crimea into Russia.

He also appointed, briefly, as leader of his campaign Paul Manafort, who had crafted the presidential campaign of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, ousted in February 2014 as a result of the uprising known as Euromaidan. Yanukovych fled to Russia where he still resides.

In summer 2015, General Michael Flynn, the new National Security Advisor, was seated next to Putin, in Moscow, after giving a paid speech at a dinner celebrating RT, Russia’s notorious TV network, which has portrayed the Ukrainian government as comprising extremists and neo-Nazis. Flynn compared RT to CNN and stated “We beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians,” with reference to the war against radical Islam.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States played a tentative but supportive role in Ukraine, especially through Vice-President Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Obama balked at sending lethal weapons to fight separatists but approved an aid package of $300 million to Ukraine last year.

Trump has vowed to improve U.S.-Russia relations and Putin was among the first to congratulate him on his victory. Russia has also suggested a joint policy in Syria to eliminate ISIS. In Russia, Putin embodies a model of rationality and stability, and some Russians perceive Trump as a successful businessman with similar principles.

But there are reasons to question a complete about-turn in U.S. foreign policy.

For one thing, the Republican-led Congress has long pushed for lethal military aid to Ukraine. Also, though some Republicans admire Putin, Trump’s team contains hawkish elements that perceive Russia as the arch-enemy.

Second, Trump has already wavered on some of his pre-election promises: the wall with Mexico might become a fence; some elements of “Obamacare” would be retained; and he had a friendly meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York on Nov. 17, despite railing against military commitments to Japan throughout his campaign.

Third, a close alliance with Russia would imply abandonment of U.S. support for democracy and human rights. It would undermine the European Union and lead to a potential crisis, reducing the international standing of the United States.

Further, Putin’s Russia cannot compete with the United States on the world stage. Its GDP is 60 per cent of California’s, and its economy dependent on high prices for world oil and gas. Thus the logic of standing by more prosperous NATO allies in Central Europe and the Far East seems obvious.

Ukraine, however, remains outside the NATO alliance, mired in corruption and internal infighting. The leadership of President Petro Poroshenko to date has failed to alleviate such problems and his government’s popularity has plummeted.

Ukraine’s key task is to persuade the new team in Washington, D.C., that it is worth defending and distinct from the “Russian world.” It should not take such support for granted in a new era defined by the slogan “America First.”

David Marples is a professor of Russian and East European history at the University of Alberta.