Backgrounder: Ukraine

By Julie Schneiberg

Even if you only loosely follow politics, it is likely that you have heard a lot about Ukraine in the past few weeks. Ukraine, a former member of the Soviet Union, is located between Europe and Russia and has a complicated relationship with both of their borders. “It’s a cliché to say a country is torn between East and West,” said Seva Gunitsky, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, “but Ukraine is the closest thing we have to that.” Ukraine has a long, complicated history with Russia but, despite their strong ties, has still tried to remain relevant to the Western world.

This is not the first time we’re hearing about Ukraine getting tangled up in U.S. affairs. In fact, it is the second time in the last three years.

So, what’s the deal with Ukraine? 

The first incident occurred in 2016 when Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, was linked to “undisclosed business” with the former Ukranian president of the pro-Russia party. Authorities uncovered $12.7 million in cash payments to Mr. Manafort from former Ukranian President Viktor F. Yanukovych. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III then investigated the case, and Manafort was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison in 2018 on accounts of financial fraud. 

The current controversy all revolves around phone calls that started in January of this year. Trump allegedly made calls to current Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate some of Trump’s political rivals, one of them being Joe Biden, former vice president and current presidential candidate. The President expressed concern that his political rival had used his power as Vice President to push for the removal of a Ukranian prosecutor, which in turn would help a Ukranian energy company paying his son, Hunter Biden. The July 25 phone call carries the most weight, as certain readings of its transcript imply that President Trump used American aid as leverage to get Ukraine to jumpstart the investigation into Biden.

Following the phone calls, an intelligence officer filed an official “whistle-blower” complaint against President Trump, claiming that: “in the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” These phone calls are putting President Trump in murky waters. Last month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) opened a formal impeachment inquiry in response to the complaints made, putting the relationship between President Trump and Ukraine under extreme scrutiny.

As expected, President Trump isn’t taking the news well. On October 9, he tweeted “Only 25 percent want the President Impeached, which is pretty low considering the volume of Fake News coverage, but pretty high considering the fact that I did NOTHING wrong. It is all just a continuation of the greatest Scam and Witch Hunt in the history of our Country!”

While an impeachment inquiry at this stage in his term is unlikely, especially with a Republican majority in the Senate, it certainly sends a message. In any case, President Trump should be concerned, as these implications could have consequences for him in the upcoming election. In 2020, it can be anticipated that American voters will likely keep this issue in mind and take it with them to the ballot box. 

The investigation has been less damaging to Ukraine than expected. Zelensky said he did not want to get wrapped up in American elections and made it clear he still wanted support from the United States and Europe. Regardless, a deep dive into both Donald Trump and Zelensky could become dangerous for both parties — who knows what skeletons might be found in their closets.

Photo courtesy of The White House.

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