News analysis: Trump delays arms shipments to Ukraine and praises Putin Did that start a war?


The last time (and perhaps the first) that most Americans heard from Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president was at the center of a scandal that would lead to the impeachment of then-President Trump.

Trump threatened in 2019 to halt arms shipments to Ukraine – already embroiled in a simmering war with Russian proxies – unless Zelensky helped him dig up political dirt on rival Joe Biden.

Today the shadow of this scandal lingers. How much did Trump’s toying with Ukraine, cuddling with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and ultimately Trump’s acquittal for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress affect Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine?

Putin had already bitten off parts of Ukraine in 2014 with the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, six years earlier part of neighboring Georgia. But nothing compared to the massive attack he launched on February 24 across Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.

Numerous pundits, as well as current and former officials, say Putin has been emboldened by the Trump years. The former KGB officer transformed the president and skillfully manipulated Trump to publicly back his denial of meddling in US elections, to Trump’s benefit. And according to former aides, Putin convinced Trump to accept his claim that Ukraine was part of Russia.

It’s impossible to know all of Putin’s thoughts as he unleashed the ferocious war that has already claimed thousands of Ukrainian and Russian lives and wiped out sections of the fledgling democracy that was striving to strengthen ties with the West.

For years, by most accounts, Putin has been stewing in grievances — NATO expanding further east into his sphere of influence, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a post-Cold War world order that has marginalized Russia — waiting for an opportunity to regain his build vision of a great Russian superpower empire.

He sensed that opportunity by electing the cynical, norm-breaking Trump, who once declared the North Atlantic Treaty Organization obsolete and to this day has repeatedly praised the Russian leader.

“I think Putin saw Trump treating Ukraine… as a pawn,” Marie Yovanovitch, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who testified in Trump’s impeachment trial, said in a recent television appearance. Putin saw “that we had a government that was willing to trade our national security for personal and political gain.”

Fiona Hill, a highly respected Russia expert who served on Trump’s National Security Council and also testified during the impeachment trial, said the former administration has taken action against Moscow on other issues, expelling diplomats and imposing sanctions. But at a “critical time” when Ukraine was fighting Russia and needed guns, Trump had his own political future in mind.

It sent “a message to Putin that Ukraine is a toy for him… and for the United States. And that no one is really serious about protecting Ukraine,” Hill added. “And that was ultimately a sign of weakness.”

It wasn’t Trump alone. During the Obama administration, Putin invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, annexed the Crimea peninsula and installed Russian proxies to fight Ukrainian forces in the Donbass region – with minimal US or world reproach.

Trump supporters and some Republicans say President Biden must be complicit. The ugly withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan last summer, which ended a 20-year war but left that nation victim to chaos, also illustrated a government incapable of leading, they say.

Putin observed how the United States “did almost anything to undermine alliances and partnerships under Donald Trump,” former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said at a recent Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored conference. Then, Daalder added, Biden took over and talked about “America is back” and initially struggled to rebuild those alliances.

Still, Trump’s actions and the lack of significant consequences he faced represented a unique opening, a bright green light for Putin in Ukraine.

Trump’s impeachment — the first of two — began on December 18, 2019 in the Democrat-led House of Representatives and ended on February 5, 2020 with a trial and acquittal in the GOP-controlled Senate. It went back to an infamous appeal in July. On February 25, 2019, then-President Zelenskyy, a fellow politician who was also newly elected, addressed him.

In the call, a transcript of which the White House released after a whistleblower complaint, Zelenskyy called for more military weapons – including the Javelin missile systems – which are now helping to stem Russian advances on Ukrainian cities. Trump agreed, but said he first wanted Zelensky to “do us a favor.”

The favor was to investigate Biden’s son Hunter and his lucrative position at Ukrainian oil company Burisma. Zelenskyy resisted, and his associates insisted on a formal request for an investigation if the US wanted one. His associates also told State Department officials that Zelenskyy was wary of meddling in US politics.

Trump had already frozen aid, a $391 million package of military equipment and other aid approved by Congress with bipartisan support. According to research by the Los Angeles Times at the time, at least 25 Ukrainians died in fighting in the east in the following weeks, although a direct connection cannot be proven.

It was only after members of Congress on both sides of the aisle learned of the cessation of aid that it was finally released on September 11, 2019. It was the first time the US provided lethal military aid to Ukraine, an important if delayed milestone.

“Unfortunately, this chapter that led to the impeachment of the president, the former president, was an encouragement to Putin and even weakened Ukraine in this fight,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who led the first impeachment inquiry directed against Trump.

“What Americans need to understand about this sordid chapter of our history is that even then Ukraine was at war with Russia…Ukrainians were dying every week even then, sometimes every day,” Schiff said.

“What Putin said tragically is that the United States doesn’t care about Ukraine, it doesn’t care about its people, it doesn’t care about its democratic aspirations. It doesn’t matter if Ukrainians are killed by Russians. I think that’s the message of Trump’s behavior that we would be using Ukraine as a political toy.”

Schiff added that Putin expects Trump to either praise him or criticize Biden if he launches a broader invasion of Ukraine.

Trump has done both.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week Putin has been more influenced by Biden.

“I think Putin wanted Ukraine for a long time. He was waiting for an opportunity where he thought America was in retreat and withdrawing from the rest of the world,” McConnell told PBS NewsHour. “It gave a vivid picture of the evacuation of Afghanistan for anyone in the world to see America come home and tuck our horns in and not be inclined to take the forward position that we have had in the past. It was like a green light for Vladimir Putin.”

But Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who has criticized Trump, said it’s absurd to excuse the former president or think his presence in the White House deterred Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Wladimir Putin, [North Korea’s] Kim Jong Un, Xi [Jinping] of China got everything they wanted with Trump,” Kinzinger told CNN on Thursday. News analysis: Trump delays arms shipments to Ukraine and praises Putin Did that start a war?

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