Why you should care
Because allegiances matter.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Today, ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before Congress about President Donald Trump’s shadow foreign policy in the Eastern European country — where he’s believed to have pressured officials to probe his political rivals in exchange for nearly $400 million in military aid. That money, it turns out, is crucial: As political infighting has gripped Washington, actual fighting has continued in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have struggled to fend off well-supplied Russian-backed separatists. Both sides are disengaging to pave the way for new peace talks, but there’s no guarantee that fresh clashes won’t erupt again.
Why does it matter? Ukraine is actually at war on two fronts: against Moscow’s proxies, but also against the deep-seated corruption that’s eaten away at the country for decades. Support from Washington has long been crucial to Kyiv’s often painful efforts to plow ahead with government reforms. Not only has the Trump administration exploited that weakness, critics say, but it’s also left both soldiers and local activists feeling abandoned as they continue fighting to clean up and defend their former Soviet country. That’s why the stakes appear higher than ever.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Breaking the stalemate … When he was elected last April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — a well-known comedian but political newcomer — pledged to finally end the five-year-long war that’s claimed more than 13,000 lives. The 2015 Minsk Agreement, which attempted to enforce a cease-fire, has barely worked. But together with the leaders of France, Germany and Russia, Zelensky’s hoping to restart four-way talks that could finally lead to lasting peace. A high-profile prisoner exchange with Russia in September was seen as an indicator of his ability to make good on his promise.
… and stepping back. As both sides gradually pull back their forces from key flashpoints, the situation remains as fragile as ever. Keeping the front lines quiet, and Russian President Vladimir Putin committed to drawing down, requires clear American leadership. Whether through defense funding or political will — though ideally both — Kyiv relies deeply on American support. But with U.S. diplomats tied up in Capitol Hill hearings over Trump’s alleged shakedown of Ukraine, that leadership’s absent in Kyiv. It’s especially urgent as the Kremlin continually eyes ways to keep its toehold in Ukraine through its military and political proxies. As the former head of Ukraine’s national security council recently told the New York Times, it’s “a question of life and death for us.”
In the field … Then there are the troops themselves: Nestled in trenches along the bleak, post-industrial landscape of eastern Ukraine, they’re meagerly supplied — surviving on stove-cooked potatoes, veggies and canned preserves — and count on a variety of American-made goods, from medkits to night-vision goggles, to maintain an edge over the Russian-supplied enemy. But equally important is the psychological boost, or in this case, the hit, they feel from knowing where Washington stands.
… and on the streets. And that’s to say nothing of Ukraine’s other army: the dedicated anti-corruption activists who have fought tooth and nail to eradicate graft by cleaning up the bureaucracy and attempting to reform the courts. Consider this: As OZY reported, Ukraine could gain a whopping $27 billion in budget savings simply by improving governance. But if it stands alone in that fight, and if backdoor politics continue to be encouraged, that much-needed cash might be as good as gone.
WHAT TO READ
Ukraine’s Young Corruption Fighters Struggle Against Elites — and Donald Trump, by Tracy Wilkinson and Sabra Ayres in the Los Angeles Times
“These young reformers speak English, aspire to Western values, reject their country’s Soviet past, have turned away from Moscow — and now fear that the U.S. has turned away from them.”
Can Volodymyr Zelensky Live Up to the Expectations He Has Created? by The Economist
“How firmly the West stands by Ukraine, however, depends largely on Mr Zelensky’s ability to defeat corruption.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Why Is the U.S. Relationship With Ukraine Important?
“It is corrosive to national security and U.S. officials to have individuals like Rudy Giuliani walking around doing things for financial or personal political benefit rather than in the public interest.”
Watch on CBS Evening News on YouTube:
Ukraine Troops, Separatists Withdraw Amid Hopes for Peace
“The Ukrainian president has faced protests at home and accusations that he’s handing over the east to Russia.”
Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Big money. The $391 million in military aid the Trump administration withheld from Ukraine is only a fraction of the cash Washington has provided to the war-torn country: Since the war erupted in April 2014, the U.S. has sent at least $1.5 billion in defense cash to Kyiv.