A former top Ukrainian official said he is concerned that President Donald Trump’s efforts to force out administration officials deemed to be disloyal from their posts would in the short term leave a hollowed out U.S. office in Kyiv and space for Russia to ratchet up its aggressive political influence operations.
Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former chairman of Ukraine’s national-security and defense council, said that as the White House turns its attention to its post-impeachment victory lap, there are growing fears that Russia will step up attempts to distort the relationship between Washington and Kyiv. Danylyuk, who served as a former official in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration, said that Rudy Giuliani’s partnership with Kyiv politicos closely linked to Russia was only making matters worse by worrying officials that Trump’s inner circle is forming long-lasting partnerships with rogue, corrupt individuals.
“Russia is getting more ambitious. They are already taking an aggressive position. Putin knows what he wants and he does not need to seek approval for his actions inside Russia let alone outside of Russia,” Danylyuk said. “There are not enough people in the administration—in the U.S. administration—to focus on Ukraine and Russia issues. A lot of people left. It will not be easy to find several counterparts. I would expect sometime after the presidential elections the U.S. will have to compensate for that. They will have to find a very strong team to deal with this.”
Danylyuk’s comments provide one of the earliest indications to date as to how Trump’s attempt to install political allies in key national-security posts is stirring fears not only among domestic officials but in foreign capitals around the world. Since the impeachment investigation began last fall, at least five high-level officials focusing on Ukraine policy have left their posts, including former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Acting Ambassador Bill Taylor, Tim Morrison, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Fiona Hill—all of whom testified in the House hearings this fall.
It’s been two weeks and Trump shows no sign of slowing—or that he’s “learned his lesson” as some GOP lawmakers have claimed. That has Danylyuk concerned. Already, he had expressed fears that the push by the White House to convince Ukraine to investigate the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter left Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team “rattled.”
Danylyuk said he tried to wade through the mess of those summer months by speaking directly to his counterpart in the administration, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who he said he trusted more than anyone inside Trump’s orbit. Bolton has since left and with the dust still unsettled from the impeachment proceedings, the future of U.S.-Ukraine relations has grown even less clear.
“There is no alternative to the U.S.—it’s a reality,” Danylyuk said.
Throughout the past several months, Danylyuk said that the Trump administration has tried to re-establish a working relationship with Kyiv—an effort to make amends, of sorts. Trump’s pressure on Zelensky to open investigations into Democratic rivals—which involved the withholding of military aid—followed by a long impeachment trial, cost Ukraine not only time and effort but reputation points as well. Danylyuk described a recent meeting with representatives of foreign corporations:
“One of them didn’t know I represent Ukraine,” Danylyuk recounted. “And one person said that there is such as situation now that ‘I am ready to consider investing even in Ukraine.’ And I said look, ‘Why even in Ukraine?’ It was because of that perception—that Ukraine is corrupt. That’s what this whole thing did to us. It made it seem like we’re all corrupt. But things are changing in the country and there is a commitment by Zelensky to fight this. And it deserves recognition. Now is the time for Zelensky to make corrections and drive reforms.”
Ukraine is trying to rebuild its image after the impeachment investigation in an effort to attract foreign investors, particularly to its energy sector. For months the Zelensky administration, which at one point included Danylyuk, pushed for a deal whereby the U.S. would export American liquified natural gas through Poland to Ukraine. Danylyuk said he worked closely with Bolton in developing the deal. Since then, shipments of the gas have made their way to Poland, but experts say the plan is far from being commercialized on a large scale.
More than anything, Danylyuk said the Ukraine saga—from the phone call between Trump and Zelensky in July, to the whistleblower complaint about that call, and the following impeaching investigation and vote—disrupted the alliance that he and others on the Zelensky team had worked for months to establish with Washington, one that they hoped would result in an in-person presidential meeting.
“I hope there will be a new opportunity with the U.S. The narrative needs to be different,” Danylyuk said, adding that he hoped the image of Ukraine as a victim would change. “The world is getting tired of this image,” he said. “After five years we are stronger. We need to be positioning ourselves as a player. Otherwise I don’t think we will go far.”
Trump allies, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), have traveled to Kyiv recently to meet with top officials to reinforce the U.S. commitment to maintaining an alliance with the country.
“We clearly have bilateral support in Congress,” Danylyuk said, adding that he hoped that if the administration appointed new individuals to posts in Kyiv they would have the backing of the White House. “Sometimes you can have people who might have the knowledge on something but they don’t for some reason have the trust of the president. This is not a good situation. At the end of the day we’re hoping that the new team… that they would have the trust of the president.”
Complicating matters in Kyiv is Giuliani. The former New York City mayor has had ongoing interactions with members of the Ukraine political scene who are known to associate themselves with Russia. As one of President Trump’s closest advisers, Giuliani’s presence in Ukraine and his on-air appearances with parliamentarians like Alexander Dubinksy and Andrii Derkach are concerning officials in the highest ranks in the Zelensky administration.
The fear is that Russia has established a clear outlet to propagate conspiracy theories—and propaganda—not only in Ukraine media but in U.S. media as well. The problem, Danylyuk said, is that powerful oligarchs, such as Ihor Kolomoisky, who is under investigation in the U.S. for financial crimes, and Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russia former politician, own large corporations and use their platforms to push out false information.
“That is a problem that makes democracy much weaker in Ukraine. Whoever controls the media, I can say controls the results of the elections, broadly speaking with some exceptions,” Danylyuk said. “Zelensky… got support from 1+1—the Kolomoisky channel. So that was sufficient for him to be a strong candidate for elections.”
In December, Giuliani met with Dubinksy, who used to work for 1+1, and Derkach in an effort to aid his investigation of the Bidens. At the same time, Giuliani worked with One America News and the Ukrainian officials to create a documentary series that focused on countering the congressional impeachment probe. Giuliani has recently aired his sit-down interview with Derkach on his personal video channel.
“We have these corrupt individuals…. Ukrainians hate them. They don’t want these people in the government,” Danylyuk said, specifically calling out Yuriy Lutsenko, the former Ukrainian general prosecutor who worked with Giuliani to dig up dirt on the Bidens. “These corrupt people are going to try ways to get connections in the U.S. administration. But they don’t represent Ukraine.”