There can be no thawing of relations between Washington and Kiev until the small matter of the Kremlin’s possible involvement in the 2016 election has been resolved
The death of an American member of an international monitoring team in eastern Ukraine in a landmine blast, which also injured a Czech colleague, is the latest act of lethal violence putting enormous stress on the country’s fragile ceasefire.
The response of the US State Department has, so far, been restrained, praising the courage of the monitors, expressing “shock and sadness”, and urging Russia to use its influence with the eastern separatists to allow a “full, transparent and timely investigation” to take place.
Every move by the US in Ukraine is being watched anxiously by the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko. It is not just that he is worried that Washington may weaken its backing for his country against Russia; the President is seeking to rehabilitate himself with Mr Trump after his government made little secret of backing Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election.
Mr Poroshenko and his ministers had been alarmed by Mr Trump’s expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin and remarks suggesting that he would accept the Russian annexation of Crimea. Ms Clinton, on the other hand, has long taken a combative stance towards the Kremlin in the Ukraine crisis.
There is evidence that Ukrainian officials helped the Democratic Party attempts to uncover alleged illicit links between Mr Trump and Moscow. This included the activities of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, who had previously filled the same role with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president and an ally of Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian ministers and officials openly attacked Mr Trump during the election campaign. Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov called him a “clown” and described his comments on Crimea as “the diagnosis of a dangerous misfit” on Twitter.
Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN, posted: “It seems that clown Trump has finally gone monkey s*** amidst his circus tour. He is a bigger menace to the US than terrorism.”
And Vadym Denysenko, an MP in the Poroshenko Bloc in Parliament, had no doubt that “Trump has shown himself as a thick idiot who speaks whatever is needed to fit the mood of the crowd”.
After Mr Trump’s victory, Mr Sergeyev claimed his Twitter account had been hacked, while the others hastily deleted their posts. But anger in the Trump team has not been so easy to erase.
Mr Poroshenko is yet to see the US President. Efforts by the Ukrainian ambassador to Washington, Valeryi Chaly, to arrange a meeting have been hampered by the belief of Trump team members that much of the collusion with the Democrats was by people connected to the embassy.
During the election campaign Mr Chaly had declared: “Trump’s future policy is about the aggressor’s appeasement and maintaining of the violation of territorial integrity of the sovereign nation and other breaches of international law.” This changed, after the result, to: “Republican Trump’s electoral victory can have a positive impact for Ukraine… It will happen much faster with Trump coming to power.”
The Poroshenko government recently signed a contract – rumoured to be worth $50,000 a month – with a Washington lobbying firm with Republican connections in an effort to repair the damage. Their task is to set up meetings with Trump administration officials to “strengthen relations between the US and Ukraine”.
But it is Mr Poroshenko’s rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who got to see Mr Trump and was quick subsequently to publicise – to Mr Poroshenko’s chagrin – the meeting and the supposed discussion about Ukraine’s future.
A few days later the Ukrainian president finally managed to speak to the US President on the phone. But the talk, according to both American and Ukrainian officials, was somewhat general, dwelling on the need to end the violence in the east of the country, and lacking the robust backing for Kiev which used to come from the Obama administration