Barring any sudden shift in public opinion, the impeachment hearings in Washington will not lead to impeachment. The outcome will be determined by partisan votes and have little to do with facts or the voluminous testimony from officials. The majority Democrats in the House will vote for impeachment while the majority Republicans in the Senate will block any conviction. Thus far there has been no appreciable change in public opinion and the ultimate verdict on Donald Trump will more likely be delivered by the electorate next November. But the repercussions from the events triggering this issue extend well beyond America and directly impact American global interests.
The crux of the impeachment deliberations is whether the president’s actions to curtail military aid unless Ukraine’s president agreed to open investigations into 2016 election conspiracy theories and, more significantly, into actions by former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine constituted “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Democrats are adamant that they do. Republicans defend the president suggesting that, while his telephone exchange with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may not have been appropriate, the aid was eventually delivered and no investigations were initiated.
The tawdry, back channel actions by Rudy Giuliani and others, including two of his cohorts now under arrest in New York for campaign finance violations, are dubious on many grounds. They cajoled Ukrainian authorities to launch investigations and stimulated the abrupt dismissal of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. When Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was asked whether Giuliani had been behind Yovanovitch’s ousting, he boldly admitted that Giuliani was “seeking to smear Yovanovitch and have her removed.” Sullivan’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, skirted any direct comment about individual State department officials but coyly praised the “outstanding work” of his department.
The tawdry, back channel actions by Rudy Giuliani and others, including two of his cohorts now under arrest in New York for campaign finance violations, are dubious on many grounds
The antics of Giuliani and his allies not only besmirched the character of career officers and frustrated their efforts to implement conventional U.S policy in Ukraine but they also distracted the policy focus in Ukraine undermining what are explicit U.S. national security interests.
Another back channel of sorts, the acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who serves concurrently as director of the Office of Management and Budget, ordered a halt to the aid almost certainly with the knowledge if not at the direction of the president. He also reportedly ordered the aid to flow once the rumours triggered a Congressional investigation.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU is a political appointee who contributed $1.33 million to the president’s inauguration. He was also involved in Ukraine and in fact baldly asserted to the House Intelligence Committee that “We all followed the president’s order… Everyone was in the loop.” The only mystery is why was America’s EU ambassador part of that loop?
Career State Department officers were at pains to explain at the impeachment hearings that the U.S.’ use of back channels to circumvent embassies and the State Department is not unusual when it is intended to advance U.S. interests or policies. They contended that it is entirely different when backchannels are used to subvert American foreign policy to domestic political objectives. These officials were trying to do their job by implementing conventional U.S. policy in Ukraine — notably by encouraging the youthful new president’s government to quash chronic corruption and helping him thwart Russian attempts to disrupt events in Ukraine.
The impeachment process now moves to the House Judiciary Committee where formal articles of impeachment will be recommended for a full vote by the House. It will then move to a trial in the Senate with the chief justice presiding. The majority Republicans reportedly favour a quick trial primarily to reduce the damage.
Being sandwiched between Germany and the former Soviet Union, Ukrainians have suffered a litany of abuse. In the last century they were victims of invasion, subjugation, starvation and mass executions by their neighbours. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine traded away its nuclear arsenal, joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty and concluded an agreement with Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. that was meant to provide security guarantees and safeguard their internal borders. It has done neither. Russia violated that agreement in 2014 by annexing Crimea and continues to abuse the terms of the agreement with its ongoing assault into eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. is Ukraine’s only strategic ally. The Europeans have little stomach for a direct conflict with Russia and President Vladimir Putin knows that. Even though Trump has delivered more lethal aid to Ukraine than his predecessor, the new Ukrainian government had good reason to be wary of Trump’s reliability. In the 2016 election campaign Trump stated that Crimea was “probably Russian anyway, so why the fuss?” His oddly acquiescent approach to Putin remains an enigma for most of America’s allies.
While Ukraine is in the crosshairs of the impeachment dispute the real damage from the ongoing narrative is the harm being done to American prestige and credibility in world affairs
Without credible and consistent support from America, Ukraine has even less leverage trying to “get together with President Putin to resolve its problem,” as Trump glibly suggested when he met the Ukrainian leader in New York in September. The fact that Zelensky stood firm in the face of heavy intimidation and straddled the dispute erupting in Washington speaks volumes for his personal integrity and strength of character.
While Ukraine is in the crosshairs of the impeachment dispute the real damage from the ongoing narrative is the harm being done to American prestige and credibility in world affairs. Neither China nor Russia speaks or acts as incoherently on global affairs as Trump’s America. The U.S. is no longer the ally it once was. Many putative allies of the U.S. cringe at what they observe in Washington and try to stay below the radar in the wistful hope that “This too will pass.”
As David Ignatius wrote recently in the Washington Post: “What’s outrageous about the Ukraine story isn’t that it is a unique example of Trump’s fecklessness in foreign policy but that it’s so typical. In dealing with Ukraine Trump has behaved the same erratic, unreliable way he has with Syrian Kurds, the South Koreans and America’s NATO partners in Europe.” Ignatius added that, as Ukrainians struggled daily under shellfire “Trump appeared to treat military aid appropriated by Congress as a personal political tool.”
That is why the saddest by product of the impeachment hearings is a lonely and more vulnerable Ukraine up against an emboldened Russia. The only one smiling at the disarray in Washington is Putin who sees the erratic policy emanations as opportunities to exploit.