While Washington fiddles
Ukraine’s Donbass region faces life-and-death fallout over impeachment
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A column of Russian trucks rolled to the border with Ukraine on Feb. 5 as U.S. senators in Washington prepared to vote on whether to remove from office President Donald Trump. The Russian convoy carried ammunition, weapons, and military equipment—all to reinforce Russian-backed rebels and Russian units that in 2014 took control of eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry officials report the trucks crossed into the Eastern European nation, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, near the village of Diakove in Luhansk. Much of Luhansk and Donetsk, a region known as Donbass, essentially has become Russian territory, with Ukraine’s military forced to hold a 280-mile front line for six years.
Moscow has tested some of its latest weaponry in Donbass, while Ukraine’s army relies on Soviet-era aircraft and outdated weapons. A January video clip showed one Ukrainian unit using the M1910 Maxim machine gun, a once-revolutionary weapon used in Imperial Russia before World War I.
That disparity is the forgotten centerpiece of Trump’s controversial decision last year to withhold $400 million in military aid from Ukraine. Trump’s willingness to condition that aid to Ukraine investigating his domestic political opponents threatened Ukraine’s security. Democrats, by leaping to open an unbounded campaign to remove Trump, also showed their willingness to risk Ukraine’s future.
No one looking seriously at the Russian threat can cheer the Democrats’ hapless conduct of impeachment proceedings. Nor can anyone applaud Trump’s victory lap once the Senate acquitted him on Feb. 5—within hours of fresh Russian armaments rolling into Ukraine.
Ukraine lost much during the five-month Washington debacle. The Russian convoy signals that momentum toward a bilateral pullout from Donbass—spearheaded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—has ended. Republicans and Democrats’ bipartisan effort to maintain sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Russia may also be finished. Zelensky emerges from the impeachment melodrama a weaker leader, even though he was elected in a landslide last year. Trump and his lawyers have seen to that, touting Ukraine as a bad actor who let the United States down.
This emboldens Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose expansionist aims extend into other former Soviet states. Putin is likely to redouble efforts to control Ukraine and extend the Kremlin’s reach into Europe.
Ukrainians already have paid a high price for Russian occupation in Donbass. More than 14,000 have died in the conflict. The region’s economy has never recovered. To cash a monthly check, elderly pensioners take buses to cities outside the zone, as no banks have reopened since 2014. Authorities have outlawed non-Orthodox religious groups, forcibly closing churches, seizing property, and making many religious activities illegal. “You cannot serve a soup kitchen. You cannot spread or receive humanitarian aid. There is no place to complain. There is no one to stand for them,” said Mission Eurasia President Sergey Rakhuba.
Ukraine as political theater isn’t going away. Despite the vote against Trump’s removal, at least 17 Republican senators say the president committed “an improper-but-not-impeachable offense,” according to a morning-after survey by The Dispatch. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who made a decided move against impeachment, was clear in his statement to call Trump’s actions “inappropriate.” Those views are important because they stand at odds with what Trump and his legal defense team claim. A conclusive impeachment vote hasn’t resolved those differences.
Further revelations are likely, including from former national security adviser John Bolton, whose book covering Trump foreign policy is due out mid-March. Bolton, while controversial, has a reputation as a straight shooter. Critics won’t easily be able to dismiss his account. Alexander and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who voted for one count of impeachment, are former governors with long records in public life. Voters weary of Democrats’ grandstanding also tire of Trump treating serious critics with public contempt. Demeaning the office one holds becomes self-defeating.
Playing with foreign policy, too, can cost lives. Ask the Ukrainians in Donbass.