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Why Ukraine Is Strategically Important To America's Foreign Policy


Ukraine is at the center of a fierce political battle here in the United States. In July, President Trump had a phone call with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The call and a complaint by a whistleblower about the call have led to an impeachment inquiry against the president. The charge is that Trump pressured Zelenskiy for dirt about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter while Trump withheld security aid to Ukraine. But the president's supporters claim that Biden himself put political pressure on Ukraine in an effort to cover up his son's business dealings there. So what are the facts here?

John Herbst was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush. He also traveled to Ukraine earlier this year with General David Petraeus, and he's with us in studio now. Good morning, sir.

JOHN HERBST: Thank you.

KING: All right. So you spent three years in Kyiv as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Why is Ukraine of such strategic importance to the United States?

HERBST: Well, right now, you have a very aggressive leader in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, who's essentially waging a cold war against American interests. He wants to upend the security of Europe, which has been essential for our own security and, for that matter, our own prosperity. He's doing that by waging a war in Ukraine. We have a vital interest in stopping Putin, and the place to do it is Ukraine, where the Ukrainians are fighting. All we need to do is maintain and strengthen sanctions on the Kremlin and provide military assistance and economic assistance to Ukraine. This is very much in our interest.

KING: And is it fair to say that Ukrainian presidents have pretty much been pulled between Putin and the United States over the past several years?

HERBST: Well, what's happened is Ukraine traditionally maintained kind of an equidistance. But once they threw out - once the Ukrainian people threw out the corrupt Yanukovych, the Kremlin seized Crimea, and then they began the war in Donbas. So Ukraine took a step towards the West, and Putin said no, and he declared war. And we need to stop him.

KING: OK. This all happened in 2014. And now we move to the present day and the whistleblower's complaint and the rough transcript of the call between Ukraine's president and President Trump. So according to this transcript, at one point, President Zelenskiy thanked Trump for U.S. military support, said he'd like to buy more. Trump asked the Zelenskiy, quote, "to do us a favor, though." Does this strike you as normal?

HERBST: This is highly abnormal. The United - the U.S. Congress had voted $250 million of military assistance to Ukraine. And this thing seemed to be on track. And suddenly, it was held up in the middle of July. And that was the backdrop to that phone call.

KING: OK. I want to ask you about the narrative coming out of the White House and whether or not we can trust it. The White House says this was a standard national security call between two presidents, a standard diplomatic call. And in public, the White House has tried to drive attention to CrowdStrike, which is an American security firm hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the hack on the committee. CrowdStrike determined the hack was perpetrated by Russia. But then there emerged this conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved. And this is what the White House has been saying, Ukraine is somehow involved here. Was Ukraine involved?

HERBST: Well, Ukraine as a country was not involved. It may be that some of the people in that firm come from Ukraine. But this all could have been avoided if, basically, the U.S. government authorities had been given the opportunity to go over the server.

KING: OK. So you're saying that some mistakes were actually made here.

HERBST: Well, I think it would have been smart had that happened. We could have avoided some of this nonsense.

KING: OK, this nonsense. According to The New York Times, President Trump's staff repeatedly warned him that this Ukraine conspiracy theory was completely debunked. On ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" yesterday, Trump's former Homeland Security adviser, Tom Bossert, said this.


TOM BOSSERT: I believe he and his legal team had been looking into this probably even prior to Joe Biden announcing that he would run for president. And they're continuing to focus on everything they can and their belief understandably in this case that the president was wrongly accused of colluding with Russia the first time around. But, George, if he continues to focus on that white whale, it's going to bring him down.

KING: Are we in danger of being distracted by this CrowdStrike conspiracy and the repetition of it?

HERBST: Well, I think some people who aren't paying close attention may be confused; otherwise, no.

KING: OK. OK, an optimistic take. President Trump also urged Zelenskiy to work with Attorney General Barr and the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who was on the board of an energy company called Burisma. They say Joe Biden got a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, fired because Shokin was investigating Hunter Biden. Who is Viktor Shokin and what is the truth here?

HERBST: Viktor Shokin was a corrupt prosecutor in Ukraine whom the United States, the EU, the IMF, the EBRD, all wanted out of that position because he was a corrupt man. Even now, they're trying to say Shokin proves that Vice President Biden was involved in nasty business. They referred to an affidavit that Shokin recently signed. The problem with this argument, demonstrating they don't know what's going on in Ukraine, Shokin wrote that affidavit in support of the most odious oligarch in Ukraine, Dmytro Firtash, who's under U.S. indictment. And the folks who are pushing this conspiracy theory are citing this as proof, and, in fact, it undermines their position.

KING: In short, we cannot trust Viktor Shokin it sounds like you're saying.

HERBST: Correct.

KING: OK. At a meeting with President Trump last week in New York, President Zelenskiy said he didn't feel pushed or threatened. What do you make of that?

HERBST: Well, I think that President Zelenskiy wants to have good relations with President Trump, and that determines things he says publicly.

KING: It's as simple as that.

HERBST: I think so.

KING: OK. On Friday, Kurt Volker resigned as special envoy to Ukraine. What did Volker bring to that role? And what happens now that he's gone?

HERBST: His resignation is very unfortunate. He understood the problem. He's very smart. He maintained the proper pressure on this issue. My hope - we'll see someone come in in his place, someone equally talented. But I don't think his departure means a change in our policy.


HERBST: But if I could say one more thing...

KING: Sure.

HERBST: I misspoke before. Putin never declared war in Ukraine. He's conducting an undeclared war.

KING: An undeclared war in Ukraine. OK. John Herbst is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He's the director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador, thanks so much for all of your clarifications today. We appreciate you.

HERBST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.