Ukraine’s President Has a Remarkably Low Key Meeting With Trump

Foreign Policy 

By Emily Tamkin and Reid Standish 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with Vice President Mike Pence and then, briefly, enjoyed a “drop-in” visit with President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

The brief visit appeared to be a departure for the Trump White House, which has been featuring one-on-one meetings with presidents big and small, sometimes followed by a joint press conference — and certainly not relegating foreign heads of state to drop-ins. Poroshenko, though, slipped into Washington, keeping a low profile while he met with the Ukrainian diaspora.

“It was being kept very, very quiet,” Askold Krushelnysky, a journalist closely following the visit, told Foreign Policy. Even Ukrainian media was keeping it quiet. They weren’t “absolutely sure” that Poroshenko was going to get what he wanted — namely, a visit with Trump. The visit, he said, was intentionally “kept very low key to avoid the embarrassment” of not getting any face time, which was only announced by the White House on Monday, shortly after 10 pm Eastern Time.

Ukraine’s embassy did not immediately provide comment.

The optics of the meeting are sure to to be the focus of the visit. Poroshenko was hosted by Pence; the two then had a “drop-in” visit in the Oval Office to see Trump and H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor. The Ukrainian leader’s treatment is likely to be viewed back in Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe, as a weather vane of sorts for the White House’s stance towards Kiev and Russia’s military intervention there, which remains deadlocked since war began in 2014.

That issue remains a critical one to Ukrainians: According to a poll by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research, 80 percent of Ukrainians nationwide and 73 percent of those in the “war-torn Donbas region” should indeed remain as Ukraine. And Trump’s campaign stance on it made Ukrainians nervous: His campaign manager used to work for Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But during the Obama administration, former Vice President Joe Biden was tasked with spearheading engagement with Kiev and wielded great influence over the Ukrainian government as he pressed them for greater efforts in battling corruption and reforming their economy. In that sense, it’s only natural that Pence would be the point person for Poroshenko and the administration’s stance on Ukraine, says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

“This isn’t a downgrade compared to before,” Rojansky told FP. “I understand the perception and that the Ukrainians are looking for reassurances. But the reassurance isn’t about the meeting, it’s about the policy.”

That policy, so far, seems to be in line with the Obama-era stance on Ukraine and in dealing with Moscow since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Senate recently passed new economic sanctions against Russia, although it’s still to be seen if they’ll make it past the House. But even if they don’t, on Tuesday, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions of its own.

“I think it is obvious. To date, the U.S. adopts additional sanctions almost every day. I consider the position of the United States as a solid, reliable and strategic partner of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.

Still, Poroshenko’s visit will remain under the microscope. Scrutiny over Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin remains intense and Poroshenko’s treatment during his visit will invite comparison to Trump’s backslapping meeting in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, on May 10.

A White House readout of the visit said simply, “President Donald J. Trump met today with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine to discuss support for the peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and President Poroshenko’s reform agenda and anticorruption [sic] efforts.” Poroshenko has run into no small amount of criticism for what failing to make good on the latter.

But, then, there is at least one feather in Poroshenko’s cap — he saw Trump before Putin will. The Ukrainian leader’s visit came ahead of Trump’s first scheduled meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7 and 8.

“Ukrainians,” Krushelnysky said, “will see this as a great victory.”

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