Ukraine Scandal Is Playing Right Into Russia's Hands, Experts Say: 'The Kremlin...Is Very Happy'

The swirling "Ukrainegate" scandal is casting a dark shadow over U.S.-Ukrainian relations, at a pivotal moment in the European nation's history.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, a political novice and famous comedian, was propelled into office in April with a landslide election victory against incumbent Petro Poroshenko.

In July, Zelensky's Servant of the People party—named for the television show in which he played a history teacher who unexpectedly becomes president—swept parliament, making history as the first party to win a majority since independence.

The party ran on an avowedly anti-corruption, liberal, pro-western platform. Untainted by the endemic corruption that has long hamstrung the country, Zelensky's ambitious administration has prompted much optimism. But the challenges facing the country—not least the looming threat of Russia—remain daunting.

Crimea has been annexed and war in the east of the country still simmers. Some 13,000 people have been killed, 30,000 wounded and 1.5 million people forced from their homes. Western support is vital in helping Kyiv to try and reunite the country and end the fighting, especially American backing.

But the Ukrainegate scandal—Trump's apparent efforts to pressure Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden's son and thus interfere in the 2020 race—threatens that. Zelensky will have to tread carefully and avoid politicization of his country by partisan interests in the U.S. The issue seems set to drag on for some time yet, perhaps until the 2020 election.

The first year of any new administration is pivotal. But with the Ukraine question fast boiling down to the latest Trump scandal, Kyiv may be worried that its own challenges will be forgotten by its American friends.

Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the Chatham House think tank and manager of the organization's Ukraine Forum said that the focus in Ukraine is on possible damage to the country's reputation, and concerns that it may become an instrument in U.S. political machinations.

"Trump's proposition did not come as a big shock because the story was circling in Kyiv since this spring," Lutsevych told Newsweek. "The announcement of Rudy Giuliani's visit (and its later cancelation), the removal of the U.S. Ambassador from her job—these were all pieces of the same puzzle. They testified that the White House is seeking a 'favor' and it will be a transactional relationship."

Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, suggested there is now an "incredible risk" that the country will become politicized in the U.S. "At least in the short term, I think U.S.-Ukraine relations will suffer as a result of this ongoing investigation," he added.

Simakovsky, who also served as Europe/NATO chief of staff in the Pentagon's Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, said that Trump's conduct had undermined the bipartisan U.S. support for Ukraine in its reform and anti-Russian efforts.

"When push comes to shove the President was willing to risk all of that," he told Newsweek. "Ukrainians are in a really tough spot." Being outside the NATO umbrella, Ukraine cannot rely on direct U.S. and Western military support, so diplomatic backing is vital to dissuade the Russians from further interference.

But Trump's behavior shows his "huge skepticism" towards Ukraine, Simakovsky said, and his view of the country is simply a pawn in a much bigger game of power.

Zelensky and his team have to think bigger than Trump. Long-term U.S. support will require bipartisan backing for Ukraine, regardless of who is president. "The Ukrainians are on a razor's edge," Simakovsky warned.

And for many voters, the current scandal will have been the first they have heard of Ukraine for some time. Americans of all political persuasions may begin to wonder why the U.S. is spending so much money and effort supporting a country perceived as so corrupt.

"There's Ukraine fatigue already in the United States among policymakers because of a perception of Ukraine not having its own house in order," Simakovsky explained. "And I think the scandal potentially could exacerbate that."

Zelensky's job now is to try and "stay away from it," Lutsevych suggested, something which Ukraine's European partners may sympathize with. "He would be well advised to ensure that, if there is any investigation, it is done by the newly established High Anti Corruption Court rather than General Prosecutor."

"Ukraine needs to maintain by partisan support for its territorial integrity," she continued. "The impeachment [investigation] will definitely complicate the relationship, as Ukraine may be viewed as too toxic by the Trump administration."

But the impact will go beyond Ukraine. Though the U.S. has maintained and even intensified engagement in eastern Europe, other regional partners may see the scandal as evidence of Trump's reckless and transactional approach to foreign policy.

Such nations "are going to be even more sensitive to how their engagement, and how their personal engagement with president Trump, could come at the risk of U.S. presence in the region," Simakovsky explained.

Any suggestion that loyalty to Trump rather than to the U.S. will be rewarded is "a horrible impression" to leave upon partners, he added.

The situation will also leave an impression on Russian President Vladimir Putin. For The Kremlin, anything that drives a wedge between the U.S., Ukraine and the wider Western alliance will be counted as a win.

"Putin clearly benefits from the whole story as it plays into his narrative that Ukraine is pushed by the U.S. and it not really an independent state, Lutsevych noted. "It also presents the U.S. leader as a person seeking 'dirt' on his political opponents—typically Russian tactic—which supports the Russian narrative about the duplicity of the West and casts a shadow on democracy."

Its impact on U.S. politics will feed into Russia's efforts to sow confusion and chaos. Trump's engagement with both Ukraine and Russia "has put at risk our own political system because of the infighting that will go on as a result of these impeachment proceedings," Simakovsky warned.

"I think The Kremlin, more than anyone, is very happy with this turn of events, which is mostly a self-inflicted wound by the administration," Simakovsky concluded. "This didn't have to happen."

Donald Trump, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine, Russia, Putin
President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are pictured during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images/Getty
Ukraine Scandal Is Playing Right Into Russia's Hands, Experts Say: 'The Kremlin...Is Very Happy' | News