Opinion | Ukraine’s President Stands Alone Against Russia

Opinion | Ukraine’s President Stands Alone Against Russia

Throughout the impeachment hearings, American military aid for Ukraine was portrayed as a way for a friendly giant to help a David fend off a staggering Goliath who, if not stopped, would continue his rampage. That’s the big picture.

The complex details of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and of the ways the Trump administration has failed Ukraine, were made clear when President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine held his first meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday.

The meeting, in Paris, hosted by President Emmanuel Macron of France and attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, was an attempt to revive a moribund peace process that began under French and German mediation in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, in 2015. Negotiations led to a plan for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the restoration of Ukrainian control of the border with Russia and increased autonomy for the areas under the control of separatists.

The process ground to a halt under Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor, but resolving the conflict was a major campaign pledge of the new president. This was the major reason he so urgently sought a meeting at the White House and saw little choice, as the world has learned, but to demean himself to get it when Mr. Trump demanded political favors.

In Paris, as a political novice facing a powerful master of geopolitical intrigue, Mr. Zelensky had few cards to play without Americans in his corner. With the United States, he would have a patron who could keep Ukraine in the fight and who controlled the one weapon the Kremlin feared — sanctions imposed on Russia for its attacks on Ukraine and seizure of Crimea.

The United States has never been a formal participant in the Minsk process. But many officials advised its government and kept the American government informed about the complex state of play. Many of them were the cast of characters in the impeachment hearings — Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to the peace process; Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Kyiv; and Fiona Hill, the former adviser on Europe and Russia at the White House. They have all left their posts. Only William Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Kyiv, is still active, but after being dismissed as a “Never Trumper” by the president, his words carry little weight.

Testimony shows they all had been sidetracked by a president who favored Mr. Putin over the Ukrainians, saw support for Ukraine as merely the price for political favors and limited his efforts to free Ukraine from Russian aggression to telling Mr. Zelensky, during a meeting at the United Nations in September, “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.”

But the problem is something Mr. Putin has no interest in solving except on his terms, which include keeping Ukraine clear of the European Union and NATO so that it remains under Russian influence. Even Ukraine itself is deeply divided over how to resolve the crisis. Nationalists see any negotiations with Russia as capitulation, while Mr. Zelensky was elected with the support of those who hoped he could find a way to end a conflict that has already taken 13,000 lives.

Mr. Trump’s disdain for Ukraine was further on display Tuesday when he invited Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to the White House for what the president tweeted was a “very good meeting” — a Russian cabinet official getting a meeting that Mr. Trump had denied to the president of Ukraine. They met on the day House Democrats announced articles of impeachment based on his manipulation of Ukraine — not one of the six topics of discussion he listed in his tweet.

Mr. Zelensky’s meeting with Mr. Putin ended with some conciliatory words and gestures, including another cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners, but no real progress toward ending the conflict. Mr. Zelensky, a neophyte in politics, cannot achieve progress alone. A real resolution requires a détente in the renewed struggle between East and West, in which Ukraine is a key pawn.

As the American experts on Ukraine all testified in the impeachment hearings, Mr. Zelensky needed a meeting with Mr. Trump both to strengthen his position against Russia and to demonstrate to his people that they are not alone. Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel gamely tried to step in, and Mr. Zelensky showed courage in agreeing to meet with Mr. Putin with no tangible support from Washington, but the absence of the Americans was obvious and troubling.

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