Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is Trump Arming Russia's Opposition in Ukraine?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is Trump Arming Russia's Opposition in Ukraine?

Article excerpt

Why is America's President arming Russia's opposition in Ukraine?

Kiev

There is no lavatory paper to be found in government buildings in Kiev. Plan ahead, locals advise, if you visit a tax office, the council or some other arm of the bureaucracy. This state of affairs is one small sign of the corruption that pervades Ukraine. Even the trifling sums spent on toilet roll are stolen by dishonest officials. Patients bribe doctors to get treatment; students bribe professors to pass exams; citizens bribe tax inspectors... actually, many people don't bother with tax in the first place, working instead in a vast shadow economy.

Two Ukrainian journalists tell me all this as we sip drinks in a surprisingly expensive Kiev café. (The prices are a sign of the underground cash economy where real incomes outstrip the meagre salaries in official figures.) One of the journalists -- I'll call him Mikhailo -- is my guide. He learned English by listening to the Reith lectures on Radio 4 and speaks in the clipped tones of a Pathé newsreader. He recounts the notorious story of a minor official found with a vault under his house, a literal treasure-trove of art, antiques, jewellery and suitcases full of cash. The official is not in jail. 'Regrettably, 80 per cent of our judges are corrupt.'

The other journalist -- I'll call her Svitlana -- works in a news agency that specialises in covering official corruption and its cousin, organised crime: a job that her friends are convinced will get her killed. She tells me, smiling, that they even did a story on their own office building because it was so corruptly run by a state enterprise. Both journalists say that the Ukrainian mafia is allied with the Russian mafia and are used by the Kremlin to exercise influence here. They are convinced that the war with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country rumbles on because the two mafias profit from it.

Into this murky landscape steps the US government's new Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. The Obama administration did not have such a special envoy and the man appointed now, Kurt Volker, is known as a Russia hawk. That fact alone might be seen as surprising given the prevailing narrative on Trump and the Kremlin. We meet at the US ambassador's elegant 19th-century residence in old Kiev and Volker immediately dismisses Russian protestations that they are mere bystanders to events in eastern Ukraine.

'Even Russian officials have to smile when they say that,' he says. 'Russia is in eastern Ukraine; there is no debate over that. It is a conflict that Russia is directly engaged in.' But he goes on: 'Russia is making a miscalculation. The effort to take this territory is not actually working very well. It is turning Ukraine more and more towards the West, the opposite of what Russia wants.' He has just returned from visiting the Ukrainian side of the front line. 'It is not a frozen conflict,' he says. There are 1,000-1,500 ceasefire violations a day, and casualties are up 65 per cent on last year. 'The human toll is dramatic. We've seen more people killed this year than in the preceding two years. This is a hot war.'

Obama wrestled with the problem of ending this war -- and failed. The Russian annexation of Crimea stands, a violation of treaty and of international law. What would Trump do differently? Volker speaks about 'making a push' to solve the conflict and trying to 'get the right strategic dialogue going' with Moscow. …

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