What Putin Got From the Trump-Zelensky Phone Call

Molly K. McKew is a writer and lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare. She advised the Georgian president and national security council from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014 and 2015.

A year ago, I was in Kiev when a young Ukrainian soldier was killed. Olesya Baklanova, 19, enlisted in the Ukrainian Armed Forces as soon as she was eligible and fought to be assigned a combat post. Deployed to the front lines of her country’s war against Russia, she was killed during the night while manning an observation post, shot by a sniper stationed among the Russian and proxy forces dug in a few hundred meters way. She was one of four Ukrainian soldiers killed at their post that night — one of the estimated 13,000 soldiers, fighters and civilians killed in eastern Ukraine in the past five years.

Her story was a concise reminder of the realities of Ukraine’s forgotten war. Russian forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in early 2014; weeks later, Russia formally annexed the territory. This was an important strategic goal for President Vladimir Putin. To ensure that no one had time to do anything about it — and to further destabilize Ukraine — Russia then launched a war in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region, using nominal separatists with Russian backing.

Five years on, it’s still a hot war, with Russia constantly pushing forward the line of occupation. Some 1.5 million people have been displaced. The shifting mass of regular and irregular Russian troops in eastern Ukraine — soldiers and mercenaries; “separatist” proxies and militias; a lot of guys with pseudonyms using advanced Russian weaponry that Russia claims must have been bought at the local corner shop (note: it is supplied from Russia) — constantly test and adapt new capabilities, especially electronic warfare capabilities, on the battlefield.

Ukrainian forces, with Western support, have steadily developed new measures to counter whatever is thrown at them. The Ukrainian war effort is defined both by this ingenuity and by sacrifice. The army, left gutted by former President Viktor Yanukovych, was rebuilt entirely in wartime. New units are rotated through areas of heavy fighting to increase their combat experience — a wartime readiness strategy that contributes to spikes in casualties, but which has been enormously successful. The average age of Ukrainian recruits is officially around 36, though anecdotally it’s over 40 at the front, as the generation that remembers life before independence now leads the fight to keep it.

The dirty, confusing, irregular conflict in Ukraine is part of a broader political war waged by the Kremlin. In countless ways, this is the inevitable evolution of Russia’s aggression against its neighbors after Putin paid so little price for invading Georgia in 2008. I worked as an adviser to the Georgian government in the years after that war, and we watched as almost everyone normalized Putin’s behavior, emboldening him to press forward. Now, Russia’s army sniper school has been transferred to the Ukrainian front, training the next generation of elite Russian marksmen by having them pick off Ukrainian soldiers. Soldiers like Baklanova.

This is the necessary context in which Americans should understand the gravity of President Donald Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into becoming a subsidiary of his reelection campaign. In one gesture, Trump reduced the survival of Ukraine to a bargaining chip in an utterly petty pursuit; embroiled Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, in scandal and undercut his ability to defend the interests of his nation; and weakened the clout of U.S. leadership on Ukraine, the region and beyond.

The biggest beneficiary of this latest Trump-derived scandal is the Kremlin. This isn’t some theoretical future calculus. It has an immediate impact on U.S. security and our strategic outlook. And it enhances the ability of the Kremlin to keep stirring chaos inside the United States.

Trump is bargaining away U.S. security for conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the Bidens that he hopes will not only strengthen his position for his reelection, but will also erase the evidence that Kremlin intervention helped to elect him president. It’s actually hard to know which part of all this makes the Kremlin most happy.

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Since the annexation of Crimea, there has been a lot of speculation about Putin’s long-term goals for Ukraine and the region, be it rebuilding a kind of Russian empire or disrupting what he views as another empire moving toward his borders. But in the near term, Putin knows that pushing for a pro-Kremlin alignment in Ukrainian politics — especially with the war still on — is a waste of effort. Far better to hope for what has succeeded elsewhere along the Russian rim, and in Europe, and in the United States: the sense that it would be nice to get along better with Russia, because it’s exhausting to live under a constant existential threat.

The caveat to this is that Russia doesn’t actually want to get along. Putin needed Crimea, as he detailed in a March 2014 speech marking its annexation, because it was where Prince Vladimir, ruler of the medieval federation known as the Kievan Rus, was baptized into Orthodox Christianity more than a thousand years ago — the starting point of the arc of Russian history that has culminated in Vladimir Putin. Annexing Crimea into Russia did away with the inconvenient fact that the Russian empire was born in Ukraine. Putin spent years telling people that Crimea was Russia. And then, suddenly, it was.

A lot of what Putin has done since 2014 is about keeping Crimea. An important component of achieving that is ensuring that Ukraine remains a nation governed by a fractious elite awash in Russian money and highly subject to Kremlin manipulations. This helps keep Ukraine in limbo between Russia and the West.

Because if Russia can’t have Ukraine, neither can anyone else. Right now, the Kremlin’s de facto veto on Ukraine’s westward integration is the war. In the simplest terms, a country not in control of its own territory isn’t an ideal alliance partner — it’s the same card the Kremlin played to keep Georgia out of NATO. The ongoing conflict can also be used to disrupt the politics, society and economy of Ukraine. In exchange for agreeing to end the war, the Kremlin wants a new form of the veto — a permanent “special status” guarantee for Ukraine’s eastern provinces, which will allow the Kremlin to maintain political control over territories within Ukraine through local Russian proxies. It would be the end of Ukraine’s post-independence geopolitical aspirations, preventing it from ever integrating fully into NATO or the European Union.

The Kremlin wants you to believe Ukraine has only two choices: Ukrainians can keep fighting and dying to defend their sovereignty, or they can accept a proxy occupation designed to disrupt their governance and national unity. The only chance for a third option is unwavering Western support — which requires unwavering American support — for the Ukrainian people’s desire to live in a reformed, secure, democratic nation at peace within its recognized borders and working toward integration into Western institutions. The Kremlin’s propaganda works to make Americans believe that this third option is just some unicorn dream — that a corrupt, divided, Nazi-infested Ukraine is utterly unsupported by the distracted, feckless, immoral West (that’s Kremlin terminology, not my own).

Since 2014, the propaganda on this has become pretty stale and formulaic. The Trump-Zelensky spectacle — a play about American fecklessness and Ukrainian corruption in one “perfect” act — was a gift to the Kremlin to refresh the tired themes.

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This whole tent revival is a spinoff of a longer play, the script of which is ribboned with conspiracy narrative actively hawked and amped by the Kremlin’s disinformation machinery. In this drama, of course, poor Russia — despite documentation of their operations by U.S. and Dutch intelligence; financial records, personnel and travel records; lists of accounts and content archived from social media; high-level sources inside the Kremlin; and more — is a blameless bystander in the 2016 attacks on American election systems and the aggressive information operations that targeted and polarized American society. And the actual villain, totally conveniently, happens to be Ukraine, the nation the Kremlin has been working to smear and dismantle since 2013.

It is a tedious and clunky story that weaves in and out of other bonkers, far-right disinformation conspiracies — Seth Rich, QAnon, everything a secret plot and ANY DAY NOW the real truth is gonna come out — that has been amply documented as false by very smart and patient researchers and journalists. But the once-respected Rudy Giuliani has become a well-oiled cog in the machine nonetheless. You can spend time trying to unravel his 52-dimensional chess explanations of how he has uncovered a Clinton/Soros/Ukraine plot, but honestly, don’t. It’s unclear whether he actually understands that virtually all of it is made up by malign actors who are just here to watch it all burn. But listening to his self-narrative about being the hero of the story is a sign that he’s an easy mark for anyone who understands how to work this psychology.

The waters were so heavily chummed for sharks like Giuliani — how could he not take the bait and run after the irresistible story that solves all problems?

Maybe Giuliani explained the story to Trump in a way that made sense: It could exonerate Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, muddle the narrative, Febreze away the stink of the Mueller report from Trump himself forever. Or maybe the sales pitch was all about the Biden thing. Regardless, Trump unleashed Giuliani, apparently with the support of U.S. diplomats, to undercut U.S. interests and policy — because, again, Trump just doesn’t care if Ukraine, a nation of 44 million people is sentenced to purgatory because of his actions. It is a crippling indictment of his judgment, his leadership, his fitness for office and his grasp on reality.

False equivalencies are the lifeblood of Russian propaganda, an easy tool to exploit bias and distort perception. They are also a tactic that Trump deploys nearly instinctually. “Fake Ukraine collusion 2020” as the new “fake Russia collusion 2016” is an extraordinarily powerful false equivalency — to minimize the significance of the support the Kremlin levied to help get Trump elected, to erase the importance of the Mueller investigation, and to create problems for the new Ukrainian president and his country.

By embroiling Ukraine in scandal, by politicizing support of Ukraine among the American audience, by linking Ukraine to the conspiracy nexus that underlies all thinking in Trump world — and by minimizing the existential threat that Ukraine and Ukrainians face every day from the Russian assault on their nation — Trump is advancing core Kremlin objectives. He has made the president of Ukraine an accomplice in that effort, or maybe just a companion in the same trap.

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And this isn’t just about Ukraine. There is a systematic Russian effort to gain similar concessions on Moldova and Georgia — to force acceptance of a Russian veto of those countries’ determination to be nations aligned with Western values. The United States should be leading a political and diplomatic effort to expose what Russia is doing and explain what those Russian efforts mean. We should be leading to counter the advance of illiberal ideals in the world.

Instead we look inward at the circus. Faith in who we are and what defines us is eroding, while the geostrategic landscape of the world is remade around us — and not by anyone who believes that the will of the people is going to be a thing that matters in the future.

Trump has sent clear signals that Ukraine might not have his support — go ahead, make your own deal with Putin #shrug. Diplomatic resources that should have been focused on crafting a policy to counter Russian aggression were diverted to chase down rumors and personal vendettas instead.

It’s easy to ignore the details of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It’s easy to get lost in the smoke-and-mirrors fiction that what the Kremlin is doing isn’t actually what it is doing — a dance at which the West has become quite adept since Russia’s cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 and invasion of Georgia in 2008.

We watch what the Kremlin does to its neighbors, to us, to Europe, to the Middle East, to Afghanistan — and we blink. Hackers, cyberattacks, disinformation, invasion, annexation, devastation, mercenaries, terrorists, giant arms expos — and we blink.

Ukraine is now the front line, the place where we have the best chance to act, and to stop ignoring the reality of what we face.

There’s a reason Congress has consistently, and in a bipartisan fashion, approved military assistance for Ukraine so it can defend itself against Russian invasion and aggression. With limited but targeted resources and support, America and other NATO allies have quietly done a lot to bolster Ukraine. It’s a vast, sweeping success story. A story that almost no one talks about for fear that the president will interfere.

We don’t offer this support on some fantastical whim anchored in Cold War nostalgia, but because it is in our vital contemporary interest, in countless respects, to limit the further expansion of Russia’s hold on the Black Sea region, which the Kremlin uses to stage its war in Syria and to project power into the Middle East and Africa, across the Mediterranean on up to the western Arctic, and beyond. It is a pattern of activity that has degraded the security environment in which we and our alliances operate, and it has contributed to the sense of political instability and unrest, of churn and upheaval, that has plagued Europe since the financial crisis, the migration crisis, and Brexit, and that has defined the Middle East since the Islamic State and Bashar Assad became twin pillars of decay.

Using the Black Sea as an operational base, the Kremlin works against the United States and our interests, consistently choosing confrontation over cooperation. Russian forces attack U.S. ships, troops and planes with electronic warfare, mercenaries and air assets, toeing the line about what is defined as activity “below the line of conflict.” They have not pivoted from a zero-sum view of relations with the United States. And not seeing how far the line has moved since 2008 — we now accept borders being changed by force, and the deployment of Russian forces to new ports and bases, and the fact that Russia arms the Taliban as they target American soldiers in Afghanistan, and ongoing, overt political interference in our domestic politics — is still a crazy, blind weakness of the West.

This is why remembering Olysea Baklanova is so important. America might be looking inward, waving our arms about whatever horrific violation Trump has tweeted that day — but we can’t define what Trump did to Ukraine from the perspective of our sad, fleabag circus.

Every time Trump guts an institution, diverts money to his personality projects, labels an internal enemy, violates a norm, secures a job for a corrupt and unqualified appointee, ignores the law, asks a foreign leader to “do him a favor” — every time he breaks a rule and pays no price, he provides illustration for Putin’s expanding primer on “the hoax” of democracy and “the people.”

Putin believes that all democracy is farce, and he has worked tirelessly to make sure that Western democracies believe this too. His propaganda machinery has supported Trump and the Brexiteers, faux-democrats like Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, because their self-dealing motivations amplify the firehose of cynicism that now spreads anti-democratic derision across the West.

Ukrainians have bled during a five-plus year war that they haven’t lost to Russia. They fight this war at the border of Europe to defend their democracy and the right to pursue a future of their choosing. They fight this war because they know that someone has to, and because they know what it will cost them if they don’t.

It will cost us, too. Trump recently called Ukraine “a big, wide, beautiful wall” between Russia and Europe. In reality, it is the thinnest of shields. For Ukrainians, that shield holds the line between the future they want and the past they won’t go back to. For Americans, in more than a symbolic way, the thin shield of Ukraine stands between the America we think we are, and the America we might actually be, in a world where the terms are dictated by autocrats and our power is greatly diminished.

Ukrainians deserve American support — far less cynical American support — not because we decide this-or-that president or prime minister is a guy we like, but because the people of Ukraine have died to have what we have, and to become equal members of alliances that are the architecture of American prosperity, security and power in the world. Trump talks constantly about how none of our allies are paying enough for security. Well, the Ukrainians have paid. They’ve paid a lot. Their commitment, and vibrancy, and innovative spirit will help reinforce and reinvigorate our alliances. It is of material benefit to the United States of America to have a thriving, secure, democratic Ukraine — and Georgia, and Moldova — integrated into that architecture.

And maybe if we can help them get there, it will begin to counter the corrosion of that architecture that has occurred under President Trump.

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