The transcript of President Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukraine’s recently elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has ignited the usual anti-Trump bashing in American political-media circles, even more calls for impeachment, with little, if any, regard for the national security issues involved. Leave aside that Trump should not have been compelled to make the transcript public and ask: Which, if any, foreign leaders will now feel free to conduct personal telephone diplomacy with an American president directly or indirectly, of the kind that helped end the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, knowing that his or her comments might become known to domestic political opponents? Consider instead only the following undiscussed issues:
§ Even if former vice president Joseph Biden, who figured prominently in the Trump-Zelensky conversation, is not the Democratic nominee, Ukraine is now likely to be a contested, and poisonous, issue in the 2020 US presidential election. How did the United States become so involved in Ukraine’s torturous and famously corrupt politics? The short answer is NATO expansion, as some of us who opposed that folly back in the 1990s warned would be the case, and not only in Ukraine. The Washington-led attempt to fast-track Ukraine into NATO in 2013–14 resulted in the Maidan crisis, the overthrow of the country’s constitutionally elected president Viktor Yanukovych, and to the still ongoing proxy civil war in Donbass. All those fateful events infused the Trump-Zelensky talk, if only between the lines.
§ Russia shares centuries of substantial civilizational values, language, culture, geography, and intimate family relations with Ukraine. America does not. Why, then, is it routinely asserted in the US political-media establishment that Ukraine is a “vital US national interest” and not a vital zone of Russian national security, as by all geopolitical reckoning it would seem to be? The standard American establishment answer is: because of “Russian aggression against Ukraine.” But the “aggression” cited is Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for anti-Kiev fighters in the Donbass civil war, both of which came after, not before, the Maidan crisis, and indeed were a direct result of it. That is, in Moscow’s eyes, it was reacting, not unreasonably, to US-led “aggression.” In any event, as opponents of eastward expansion also warned in the 1990s, NATO has increased no one’s security, only diminished security throughout the region bordering Russia.
§ Which brings us back to the Trump-Zelensky telephone conversation. President Zelensky ran and won overwhelmingly as a peace-with-Moscow candidate, which is why the roughly $400 million in US military aid to Ukraine, authorized by Congress, figured anomalously in the conversation. Trump is being sharply criticized for withholding that aid or threatening to do so, including by Obama partisans. Forgotten, it seems, is that President Obama, despite considerable bipartisan pressure, steadfastly refused to authorize such military assistance to Kiev, presumably because it might escalate the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (and Russia, with its long border with Ukraine, had every escalatory advantage). Instead of baiting Trump on this issue, we should hope he encourages the new peace talks that Zelensky has undertaken in recent days with Moscow, which could end the killing in Donbass. (For this, Zelensky is being threatened by well-armed extreme Ukrainian nationalists, even quasi-fascists. Strong American support for his negotiations with Moscow may not deter them, but it might.)
§ Finally, but not surprisingly, the shadow of Russiagate is now morphing into Ukrainegate. Trump is also being sharply criticized for asking Zelensky to cooperate with Attorney General William Barr’s investigation into the origins of Russiagate, even though the role of Ukrainian-Americans and Ukraine itself in Russiagate allegations against Trump on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016 is now well-documented.
We need to know fully the origins of Russiagate, arguably the worst presidential scandal in American history, and if Ukrainian authorities can contribute to that understanding, they should be encouraged to do so. As I’ve argued repeatedly, fervent anti-Trumpers must decide whether they loathe him more than they care about American and international security. Imaging, for example, a Cuban missile–like crisis somewhere in the world today where Washington and Moscow are militarily eyeball-to-eyeball, directly or through proxies, from the Baltic and the Black Seas to Syria and Ukraine. Will Trump’s presidential legitimacy be sufficient for him to resolve such an existential crisis peacefully, as President John F. Kennedy did in 1962?
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. A Nation contributing editor, his most recent book War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate is available in paperback and in an ebook edition. His weekly conversations with the host of The John Batchelor Show, now in their sixth year, are available at www.thenation.com.