KIEV—The 45 million people of Ukraine have been waiting for months to see President Petro Poroshenko visit the White House, hoping he’d get there before the the Kremlin’s boss, Vladimir Putin, manages to make it to Washington.
Many thought Ukraine’s fate would depend on that meeting—and it did happen, at last, earlier this week. Whether it really signals a final, fateful turning away from Moscow by President Donald Trump is an open question. He is still reluctant to concede what the American intelligence agencies unanimously conclude was Moscow’s massive attempt to affect the outcome of the U.S. elections. But we’re no longer seeing the kind of equivocation and apologies for Kremlin policies in Ukraine and Syria that Trump indulged in as a candidate.
Not only did Trump smile his biggest smile with Poroshenko, and shake hands (without using that strange macho handshake)—on that very same day, Tuesday, Washington imposed added sanctions on dozens of Russian individuals and companies. Trump said it was “a great honor” to meet Ukraine’s leader—and by implication the sanctions were quite a gift to give him! (Indeed, that’s exactly the way the Kremlin interpreted them.)
On Wednesday here in Kiev, members of parliament, diplomats, independent analysts, and even psychologists discussed the details of the meeting.
They looked, for instance, at President Poroshenko’s body language, noting the way he rested his left hand on his knee during the photo op and slapped it nervously over and over again to emphasize every phrase as he talked about the Ukraine “success story.”
In fact, the country’s economy is beginning to recover slowly. People are now able to travel throughout the European Union without visas, and in spite of the ongoing violence in Donbas, Eastern Ukraine, many feel more creative, inspired, and entrepreneurial than ever.
The bottom line is that the Trump meeting helped Ukraine to overcome several deep worries, especially about a “quick fix deal” that Trump seemed to be working on with Moscow behind Kiev’s back.
Ukraine’s blood-drenched conflict with Russia has now gone on for three years. Ukraine has lost territory to Moscow-backed separatists—the Crimean Peninsula has been annexed by Russia outright—and more than 10,000 people have lost their lives. As a result of the war, hundreds of thousands have been left homeless in the eastern regions, some fleeing to Ukraine-controlled territory, some to Russia. The conflict has broken friendships and families.
The cease-fire that France, Russia, Ukraine and Germany signed in February of 2015 has not made much progress, so now many in Ukraine hoped that Trump can break the deadlock to forge a peace deal Kiev can live with.
Originally Poroshenko’s meeting with Trump was planned for February, but something went wrong.
“See, during the elections our leadership supported Hillary Clinton, and our corruption investigation caused a scandal around Trump’s campaign chief Paul Manafort, which left a negative psychological mark on the future relations,” Anatoly Gritsenko, a former defense minister and leader of Civic Position, told The Daily Beast. “We can be sure now, that the White House forgave us the part about Manafort, and although I do not think that President Trump has a clear strategy for solving our conflict with Russia, yet, it is very important that Pentagon and other officials begin to work on solutions.”
The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Valery Chaly, confirmed to The Daily Beast that Poroshenko’s meeting with Trump lasted for 30 minutes. The political director of the Ukrainian foreign ministry, Oleksii Makeiev, told The Daily Beast that on Tuesday Poroshenko had an “in-depth discussion on how to top Russian aggression” with the U.S. President, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and that Trump “re-confirmed that the U.S. is steadfast in its comprehensive support of Ukraine.”
A few months before meeting with President Poroshenko, Trump also had a brief meeting with former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, once again one of the most popular politicians in today’s Ukraine.
According to Tymoshenko’s team, at the meeting Trump promised “not to abandon” Ukraine. And so far, POTUS appears to be keeping his word.
“Here it is important to highlight very strong language from Washington on Russia, as well as recent decisions on sanctions, which will be applied until Russia gets out of Crimea and Donbas,” said Makeiev.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called the new sanctions Washington’s “political present” for Ukraine, and claimed they would inspire Kiev’s “party of the war.” Moscow, already deeply, publicly disappointed by Trump’s performance in office, cancelled a planned U.S.-Russia bilateral consultation with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon.
“In its long-running, frozen conflict Ukraine has felt very alone,” Michael Bociurkiw, a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine told The Daily Beast. “There was a great fear ... that Trump would pull back on sanctions in return for a deal with Russia that gives it a sphere of influence in Syria and/or Ukraine in return for putting down ISIS in Middle East; and that other European countries would quickly follow—most notably France, Italy and Greece.”
“Instead,” notes Bociurkiw, “an expansion of sanctions is hitting Russian banks and businesses, as well as some managed by the rebels.”