Ukrainian president to ‘drop in’ on Trump during Washington visit
Donald Trump is expected to meet the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, at the White House on Tuesday but the encounter is likely to be a brief and leave questions unanswered over the administration’s commitment to Ukraine.
By the time Poroshenko had left Kiev on Monday, the meeting with Trump had still not been confirmed, but was still being negotiated with an apparently reluctant US president.
The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer said only he was meeting Vice President Mike Pence. In the end, a compromise was reached by which the Ukrainian leader would be hosted by Pence and the two of them would “drop-in” to see Trump and his national security advisor, HR McMaster.
The format means that Trump is not obliged to stand alongside Poroshenko as is the norm for most visiting foreign leaders, and make statements about bilateral relations. That would entail a public position on the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, something he has avoided until now, leaving it to secretaries of state and defence to articulate policy.
Poroshenko’s treament is likely to be seen in Ukraine, the rest of Europe and by many in Washington as a partial snub, given the number of world leaders Trump has met since taking office, and the strategic importance of Ukraine as the front line in the West’s battle of wills with Vladimir Putin.
The Ukrainian leader’s reception compares unfavourably the majority of foreign leaders to have visited the White House. On Monday Trump met the Panamanian president, Jan Carlos Varela, at the White House, sitting side by side with him and characteristically playing the showman.
“The Panama Canal is doing quite well. I think we did a good job building it, right?” Trump said. “Very good job.”
“Yeah, 100 years ago,” Varela jokingly pointed out.
Poroshenko’s treatment in Washington will also invite comparison to Trump’s warm and jocular Oval Office meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, on May 10, the day after firing the FBI director, James Comey. Since then the scrutiny of Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin has grown even more intense, with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign’s links to Moscow.
Trump held an unannounced meeting with Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, on the same day of his fateful Lavrov encounter in the Oval Office, and declared afterwards: Let’s make peace!”
“I think Poroshenko has come on the expectation of a brief meeting similar to Klimkin,” Alexander Vershbow, a former Nato deputy secretary general and retired US diplomat.
“There is a lot riding on this for Poroshenko,” Vershbow said. “He has to convince Trump to show backing for Ukraine and show that he sees Ukraine as important for being where Russia has trashed the international order.”
A key question hanging over Poroshenko’s White House visit will be the commitment of the Trump administration to maintain sanctions pressure on Moscow to abide by the terms of the Minsk agreement on resolving the conflict and withdrawing Russian forces from the country.
The Trump White House explored ways to lift sanctions in its first days in office and the effort was reportedly fended off by state department officials and Congress. The Senate last week passed a bill that would intensify sanctions on Russia and take the power to ease them out of the president’s hands.
The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, voiced his objections to the bill arguing the White House should have to flexibility to any diplomatic changes. But he also suggested the administration was softening its commitment to the Minsk framework for a deal.
“I wouldn’t want to have ourselves handcuffed to Minsk if it turns out the parties decide to settle this through a different agreement,” Tillerson said.
Daniel Fried, who was coordinator for sanctions policy in the Obama administration said it was legitimate for the White House to seek to retain that diplomatic flexibility, but not if it was used to pressure Ukraine to make one-sided concessions.
“The Russians have shown no interest in honouring even the first phase of Minsk,” Fried said. “There is no basis to be asking Ukraine to show flexibility.”
Buzzfeed News on Monday reported on a state department policy paper on Russian relations that would combine forceful pushback against Moscow when it acts aggressively against the US, with the pursuit of shared geopolitical goals. The paper as reported is vague and the Buzzfeed report observed is far from clear whether it has support from Trump, who has thus far sought to resist any substantial pressure on Moscow.