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The ‘big stuff’ in Ukraine

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President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin field questions from reporters during this July 16, 2018 meeting.

According to testimony in the impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump only cares about “big stuff.” The Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, David Holmes, testified how there is big stuff going on in Ukraine, “like a war with Russia.” In so doing, he highlighted an issue that seems an after-thought in the inquiry: Just how important is it for the U.S. to support Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists in the east?

The answer is — when you consider what Russia’s campaign in Ukraine is achieving and how, if successful, Russia could replicate it in other European countries — very important.

Putin’s goal in Ukraine is far more than just to support pro-Russian separatists. He has reconstructed whole-cloth a societal and security schematic that is swallowing up a large part of Ukraine, disintegrating its Ukrainian identity, indoctrinating children, undermining jobs and economic opportunity, and pulverizing democratic institutions that took root there since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, a common comparison observers and residents now make when describing life in eastern Ukraine is the Soviet Union.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and then fulminated the pro-Russian separatist movement in the eastern part of Ukraine, known as Donbas. Since then, nearly 13 percent of Ukraine’s territory and more than 6 million Ukrainians were brought under Russian control; this includes a population of over 4 million in Donbas and more than 2 million in Crimea.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of Russia’s effort in Donbas is manipulation of Ukrainian children. More than 50 percent of schools in Donbas have been taken over by pro-Russian authorities who changed the names of the schools to Russian names, replaced Ukrainian language lessons with Russian, and exchanged standard Ukrainian textbooks with Russian texts that teach the children that Ukraine and Ukrainians are the enemy.

For example, the town of Krasnodon in Donbas has an activist group affiliated with the local school that instructs children that Ukrainians are Nazis and recruits them to join pro-Russia militias. Their website which is linked on the school’s homepage proclaims “it’s not right these children would be far from Russia … Mother Russia is crying for them.” In another school in Donbas, a video has the principal discussing how her pupils need to be prepared to fight Ukrainians and shows children around 5 years old marching in Soviet military uniforms. If the teachers object, they are not only fired but are subject to arrest.

When pro-Russian forces take control of an area in Donbas, the first thing they do is eliminate Ukrainian TV channels. They also block Ukrainian internet sites and any local sites that provide neutral coverage of news. Russia has easy access to Donbas for its disinformation campaigns. A study in April 2019 showed 21 percent of news about Ukraine is questionable or false. The purpose of these campaigns is to convince people that in “fascist Ukraine” everything is bad and in Russia everything is good.

Russia has sought to cause similar interference with economic opportunity in Donbas. According to a study by the World Bank, the economy of Donbas has shrunk by 8 percent to 10 percent each year since 2014. One of the most important employment sectors is mining, but the number of mines that are still functional in Donbas is down 60 percent, according to the World Bank. Moreover, Ukrainian experts warn that pro-Russian separatists, on advice of Russian authorities, have flooded mines to save money and created a potential humanitarian disaster on par with Chernobyl by poisoning ground water in Donbas.

Pro-Russian separatists seized government offices in the territory they control and eliminated local governance. Instead, Russia exercises political control over the region and administers it through a patchwork of warlords who operate like mini-oligarchs and control whatever industry remains. Employees are forced to join pro-Russian parties or lose their jobs. A KGB-style security service helps enforce the order. There is no functioning legislature. When leaders of Donbas discuss its future, they openly profess disgust for democracy and explain they will never allow it again in Donbas.

Consider Eastern Ukraine to be Putin’s petri dish.

If Putin can transform part or all of an independent, sovereign Ukraine into a pro-Russian satellite state, then he can do so in other nearby countries as well, like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and others. The tools which work in eastern Ukraine can work there also. And if the U.S. and NATO lack the appetite to prevent them, well that’s a key takeaway for Putin too.

It was former National Security Council official Fiona Hill who best summed up the significance of this dynamic in her testimony: “The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country, to diminish America’s global role and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests. President Putin and the Russian security services aim to counter U.S. foreign policy objectives in Europe including in Ukraine where Moscow seeks to reassert political and economic dominance.”

If Trump was paying attention to his advisers, like Fiona Hill, this is the “big stuff” he should have been interested in when it came to Ukraine. Whether he actually was, rather than just preoccupied with his own political interests, is an essential backdrop to these impeachment proceedings.

David Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was also an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, FOX News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.

Tags annexation of Crimea Donald Trump Gordon Sondland Russian aggression Ukraine Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin War in Donbas

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