WASHINGTON — Just days after lobbying for Russia’s reinstatement in the G7, U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly ordered delays in Ukraine receiving $250 million in military aid approved by Congress.
The reliable American publication, Politico, quoting a senior White House administration official, said Trump told national security officials to delay allocating funds to Ukraine while they check if the money is being used “in the best interest of the United States.”
Congress voted to provide funding in 2019 under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative which included $50 million for weapons. However, the money cannot be used while the review ordered by Trump is taking place and if it is not disbursed by Sept. 30 it will no longer be available.
The official quoted by Politico, who did not want his name used, said the spending review also affected countries other than Ukraine. According to Politico, the official explained Trump wanted “to ensure U.S. interests are being prioritized when it comes to foreign assistance.”
Politico said two of those involved in the review are Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, who this week visited Ukraine, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The latest revelations come after Trump, at last weekend’s G7 meeting in France, ignored the reasons for Russia’s expulsion from the club of the world’s wealthiest nations – the 2014 invasion of Ukraine – and again lobbied for her reinstatement.
He threw last year’s G7 meeting in Canada into disarray with, among other statements, the same plea on behalf of Moscow.
Trump reportedly vigorously advocated Russia’s return to what had been the G8 at a dinner last Saturday evening, where he was out of sync with his fellow world leaders and was strongly opposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The next day Trump admitted there had been disagreement about his proposals to allow Russia back in without any conditions about her aggression in Ukraine and said: “Other people agree with me and some people don’t necessarily agree.”
At the dinner, Merkel and Johnson repeated the positions they have voiced publicly that Russia cannot be re-admitted until it stops aggression in Ukraine and rescinds its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Trudeau said: “Russia has yet to change the behavior that led to its expulsion in 2014, and therefore should not be allowed back into the G7.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit’s host, has said it is important to keep communications with Russia open and to that end invited Russian dictator Vladimir Putin to Paris on the eve of the meeting.
But he told Putin that “the key” to Russian readmission into the exclusive economic group was its behavior in Ukraine.
Macron tried to downplay the ruckus caused by Trump’s pro-Moscow proposal and on Aug. 26 said there had been no “consensus” on bringing Russia back into the fold. He said that G7 members would have to unanimously agree to return Moscow to the fold.
That is unlikely to prevent Trump again demanding Russia be re-admitted when America hosts the G7 summit next year. He said that “If somebody would make that motion [at the 2020 G7 summit in the U.S.] I would certainly be disposed to think about it very favorably.”
A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, said he agreed with Trump that “it would be nice to get to a new U.S.-Russia relationship……but he [Trump] never seems to suggest that Russia has to make some changes to its policies to get to that point.”
Trump admiration for Putin
Trump has frequently voiced admiration for Putin and ignored the Russian leader’s attempts to undermine the peaceful world order established since World War II, where political or border disputes were not to be resolved by military means.
The American president has, contrary to the conclusions of all U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia massively interfered in the country’s 2016 elections, preferred Putin’s denials.
U.S. investigations show Russian hackers stole Internet communications harmful to Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, and Moscow’s cyber trolls flooded social media platforms with fake news and distortions aimed at boosting Trump and undermining confidence in the American electoral system and western democracy in general.
The American president has never declared full-throated support for Ukraine in the war caused by Russia’s 2014 invasion. He has, more than once, suggested that Crimea might rightfully belong to Moscow and even seemed to parrot baseless Kremlin propaganda excuses for its aggression against Ukraine – that Kyiv was persecuting Russian speakers.
Trump has opposed or delayed the imposition of economic sanctions and visa bans against Moscow. He has sought to somehow justify readmission of Moscow to a reconstituted G8 by blaming his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to vigorously challenge Russia’s aggression in Crimea in 2014.
Trump has several times said Putin had “outsmarted” Obama, who reacted slowly and ineffectually to Russia’s snatching of Crimea. But he has not explained why Obama’s failure then to counteract Moscow should mean Russia shouldn’t face consequences today for its continuing actions that flout international law.
Trump reportedly now blocking the military assistance package for Kyiv is, therefore, consistent with his record of reluctance to support Ukraine against Russia’s aggression.
That has again highlighted the differences in foreign policy approach, especially his friendly posture toward Russia, between the U.S. president and many senior American politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties and government officials. There has mostly been bipartisan support for Ukraine in the American Congress. Democratic senators on Aug. 27 wrote a letter to Trump saying Russia should not be allowed to rejoin the group of seven until Moscow “undertakes demonstrable actions to show its willingness to be a responsible actor on the world stage.”
The revelation that Trump is apparently stalling the aid package for Ukraine brought swift condemnation from Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski, who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He added: “The bigger problem is that Trump is once again showing himself to be an asset to Russia.”
Some Republican politicians such as staunch Trump supporter, Senator Lindsey Graham, and Representative Hal Rogers quickly told Trump not to jeopardize the funding programs.
Criticism of Trump comes against a background of two U.S. senators, Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, being banned this week from visiting Russia as part of a bipartisan congressional trip.
Both are supporters of Ukraine and have vociferously condemned Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and have pushed for measures to stop the Nord Stream II gas pipeline via the Baltic Sea from Russia to Western Europe, bypassing Ukraine. They say the new route will increase dependency on Russian gas and could, at critical times, make Western Europe hostage to the Kremlin’s will.
Moscow calls the two senators “Russophobic.” Murphy said the travel ban further isolates Russia. He said: “With the collapse of recent arms control agreements and significant domestic opposition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, this is potentially a perilous moment for our two nations’ fragile relationship, and it’s a shame that Russia isn’t interested in dialogue.”
A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, [a key part of the funding process], said: “We are aware of a hold on funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. We have serious concerns about a freeze on these important appropriated funds, and we are urgently inquiring with the administration about why they are holding up these resources.”
Robert McConnell, an accomplished lawyer who served in government under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, is a co-founder of the influential U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, which from 1991 has supported the growth of democracy and a free market in Ukraine, said he is troubled by the White House measures to delay aid for Ukraine.
He said that so far, despite Trump’s “often inexplicable comments about Putin and Russia,” the administration had given much support, including lethal weapons, to Ukraine. However, he said: “Combining the hold on the critical assistance designated for Ukraine with so many recent Presidential comments about Russia, including the urging of Putin’s malicious government being brought back to the G-7, one has to cringe at what might be happening.”
He wonders whether Trump is so interested in making a “deal” with Putin to present as a rare foreign policy success during next year’s presidential race, that he is willing to agree on an arrangement detrimental to Ukraine “not realizing any deal with the Kremlin that does not result in Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian lands would be against critical United States interests……… no one – Republican or Democrat – can find (or is finding) any comfort in the signals the President seems to be sending – fear of what might be happening is far more appropriate.”
One of those charged with reviewing Ukraine’s aid package, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, visited Kyiv earlier this week.
His purpose was to persuade Ukraine to quash attempts to sell one of the country’s biggest weapons industry manufacturers, Motor Sich, to China, which America views as a powerful military rival.
Motor Sich produces helicopter and airplane engines and its sale to China, and the consequent acquisition of technological know-how would accelerate Beijing’s capacity to build advanced military aircraft.
During his Kyiv visit, Bolton met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose press service said the two men discussed increasing Ukrainian-American cooperation in the fields of security, defense, and energy security.
They also discussed a meeting that President Emmanuel Macron has called for in September of the Normandy format talks on ending the war in Ukraine. Representatives of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia are supposed to attend.
John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said he was not certain yet if the Politico story is true but he gives credence to it.
He said that Trump’s close ally and lawyer, Giuliani, was trying to compel the Zelensky government to open an investigation against Joe Biden, the former vice president under Barack Obama, and the man who currently leads the race among Democratic Party contenders to be their candidate in 2020’s presidential election. Biden’s son was an executive at Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Giuliani has suggested that, as vice president, Biden abused his position to derail a Ukrainian investigation into Burisma’s finances.
Trump seems to fear Biden more than other possible rivals and hopes such an investigation would ruin Biden’s presidential ambitions. Herbst said: “You can’t dismiss the possibility that the Trump administration is slow-rolling this fiscal package as a form of pressure to open an investigation.” He said: “President Trump has regularly shown a true weakness for and willingness to accommodate the Kremlin.”
However, he believes that many within Trump’s own administration would be concerned by attempts by the president to curtail assistance for Ukraine. Herbst said: “It’s worth remembering that at the beginning of this Trump administration someone floated the idea of removing sanctions as a gift for Mr. Putin, then Congress and especially the Republican leadership in Congress, spoke out against it and that idea died.”
He hopes that if and when the two presidents meet it will allow Trump “to understand the importance of providing assistance to Ukraine as it fights the greatest danger to stability in Europe since Hitler.”
Donald Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington and an expert on domestic, foreign and security policies of Ukraine, Russia and other post-Soviet states, believes a determination to halt the MotorSich/China deal and to harm Biden’s elections chances could both be factors in the aid package delay.
He said: “Trump’s reluctance to fully commit to Ukraine, in distinction to his advisers, pre-existed these controversies. Even before the China and Giuliani issues, Trump has consistently shown a personal chemistry with Putin and that he is willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt on a number of issues. But that does not mean that U.S.support for Ukraine is wavering.”
Jensen said he is concerned not only about Trump’s “blind spot” about Putin but thought he might try to attain a badly-needed foreign policy by arranging a “peace deal” with Russia at Ukraine’s expense. Although he believes Trump doesn’t care much about Ukraine, he said the overwhelming majority of his administration is supportive of Ukraine.
He said the U.S. administration “and all of us who support Ukraine should be very insistent that the Russians have invaded Ukraine and have not obeyed the Minsk peace process. The Russians have no interest in bringing Ukraine to where it should be, which is integrated into the West.”
While Kyiv has tried to portray the Zelensky-Bolton meeting in an upbeat manner, there has been speculation that Bolton linked Ukraine cancelling the MotorSich deal with China to the resumption of the military aid package and to whether Zelensky’s White House visit, posited for September, will go ahead.
Bolton said both presidents should be able to meet next on Sept. 1 in Warsaw at an event marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.
What happens at that coming encounter will be watched keenly for clues as to what kind of relationship Zelensky can build with the president of Ukraine’s most important ally.
Regarding the hold-up in U.S. defense aid, Zenon Zawada, an analyst for Concorde Capital, wrote: We are confident this review is directly related to Bolton’s visit this week to Kyiv to persuade Ukrainian authorities not to sell sensitive military technologies to the Chinese. This week, we speculated on what means the U.S. could use to prevent the sale of a controlling stake in Motor Sich (MSICH UK), a leading aeronautics engine producer, to the Chinese. Now it’s apparent that defense funds could be withheld. When Trump decided in 2017 to authorize lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainians, it confirmed that he had ceded his foreign policy to the anti-Putin hawks of the Republican Party. These hawks, led by Bolton, still control Trump’s foreign policy and will not relax on Russia. At the same time, a shift has occurred in recent years among the same hawks in recognizing China as an equal threat to U.S. interests as Russia, if not greater. Even if Ukrainians agree to block the sale, a pragmatic solution to the future of MotorSich is lacking. The company desperately needs new markets after the loss of Russia as its major client. Without China, all that’s left are the limited markets of the Arab world and Africa. U.S. defense contractors are unlikely to get involved.”
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