‘A Little Scary’: Ukraine Tries to Stay Neutral in U.S. Political Dogfight

Ukraine, which depends on American military aid for its survival, has long tried to maintain bipartisan support in the United States. That has never been easy, but it is getting harder, especially with the increased possibility that Donald J. Trump, no great friend of Ukraine, will return to the White House.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is asked in nearly every interview what a second Trump administration would mean for Ukraine. While Mr. Zelensky chooses his words carefully, sometimes the emotional weight of the assumption behind the question — that Mr. Trump could end American military assistance, allowing Russia to succeed in destroying the Ukrainian state — spills into view.

Mr. Trump’s claim last week during his debate with Mr. Biden that he alone knew the path to peace is “a little scary,” the Ukrainian president said in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News.

“I’ve seen a lot, a lot of victims,” Mr. Zelensky said. “But that’s really making me a bit stressed.”

“If there are risks to Ukrainian independence, if we lose statehood — we want to be ready for this, we want to know,” Mr. Zelensky said in a subsequent interview last week with Bloomberg. “We want to understand whether in November we will have the powerful support of the U.S. or will be all alone.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia seemed to relish the prospect of Mr. Trump’s return to the White House during remarks at a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“The fact that Mr. Trump, as a presidential candidate, says he is ready and wants to stop the war in Ukraine is something we take very seriously,” Mr. Putin said on Thursday. “I haven’t seen his ideas on how exactly he’s going to do that, and that is the key question. But I have no doubt that he says that sincerely, and we support that.”

Mr. Putin frequently feigns interest in negotiations to end the war he started. But he underscored his intention to force Ukrainian capitulation, saying on Thursday that Ukraine must agree to “demilitarization” measures that could not be reversed as a precondition to a cease-fire.

Ukrainian officials, both publicly and privately, said the hyperpartisan environment in the United States, Russia’s ongoing efforts to stoke those divisions, the turmoil of the presidential campaign and a distracted White House combined to make for an exquisitely difficult diplomatic challenge.

“Quite frankly, we are in a rather vulnerable situation right now,” Oleksandr Merezhko, chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said in an interview.

“If Trump becomes president, it should not be a shock for us,” he said, motioning to a stack of books about Mr. Trump’s presidency that he has been reading for insights. But reaching out to people close to Trump, he said, “needs to be done in a delicate way, not to antagonize Democrats.”

“We are very careful not to get involved in internal political struggle in the United States,” he said. “We don’t want to spoil the relations with anyone.”

Ukrainian disappointments are bipartisan. It is as common to hear frustration with the slow pace of American aid and bitterness over restrictions on the use of Western weapons demanded by the Biden administration as it is to hear concerns about Mr. Trump.

The Biden administration’s policies, Ukrainian officials say privately, have left Ukraine in a cruel limbo, with neither the weapons necessary to win nor full American backing for a Ukrainian effort to begin settlement talks on terms favorable to Kyiv. Mr. Biden did not attend a Ukrainian-organized peace summit in Switzerland last month, despite Mr. Zelensky’s appeals for him to do so. Vice President Kamala Harris attended instead.

Ukrainian officials took some solace from Mr. Trump’s brief statement in the debate that he would not accept Russia’s terms for ending the war, and many have noted that Ukraine has a deep well of support in the Republican Party that they hope will influence Mr. Trump.

More important, they said, Mr. Trump is unpredictable, and if he fails to secure a deal with Mr. Putin and feels diminished in the process, he could step up assistance and would most likely be far less concerned by fears of escalation.

“It’s a paradox,” Mr. Merezhko said. “He is predictable in his unpredictability.”

The most immediate concern for Ukrainians is that the swirl of debate about Mr. Biden’s political future will be a distraction during a NATO gathering in Washington this week, just as the organization is moving toward a larger role coordinating weapons and ammunition supplies for Ukraine.

The Biden administration is trying to avoid giving Mr. Trump an opening to accuse them of committing large sums to Ukraine over the long term, and new governments in France and Britain are both facing significant economic challenges.

Ukraine’s Western allies have taken halting steps to try to ensure continued military assistance regardless of what happens in the American election, but domestic politics are complicating collective actions.

For instance, NATO ambassadors agreed last week to create an office in Kyiv staffed by a senior civilian, NATO officials said. But efforts to commit member states to multiyear funding for Ukraine have failed so far.

The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, initially promoted the idea of a five-year, $100 billion fund for Ukraine, in part to get some member countries to contribute more. But Washington and other major allies raised doubts about the proposal, arguing that it duplicated bilateral efforts and could run into a veto from nations skeptical of aiding Ukraine, such as Hungary and Slovakia.

Instead, NATO allies have agreed only to contribute some $40 billion next year to Ukraine, roughly in line with past contributions, with no explicit commitment of future aid.

Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that the military support already committed should allow Ukraine to defend itself through the end of the year and build for the future.

“The question is, for what?” he asked.

For many Ukrainian civilians and soldiers touched by loss — and under no illusions about the fight ahead as they brace for another winter without heat and power as Russia continues to pummel critical infrastructure — the spectacle of the American election adds to the uncertainty that is a part of daily life.

“The planet is convulsing in the last sobs of gerontocracy — the power of the elders,” wrote Ostap Drozdov, a Ukrainian journalist. He ran through a list of world leaders over 70 — a group that includes not only President Biden and Mr. Trump, but also Mr. Putin — and lamented that a “bunch of skeletons in their closets rule the world.”

“Trump or Biden is an equally sad and dubious spectacle,” he wrote. “It depends on people who already have one foot in the coffin for Ukraine not to die.”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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