News Brief

As the impeachment inquiry gathers pace in the US, experts say Russia seeks advantage

Over a week after the speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the start of the impeachment inquiry related to President Donald Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate a leading political rival, the fast escalating investigation has given Russian broadcasters a fresh line of attack.

With the war in Donbas in its fifth year, news about plans to subpoena the White House for documents related to a July phone call between President Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky broke just as news emerged of a push for peace between Ukraine and Russia. Both events have gifted Russian state broadcasters an opportunity to remind their audiences of what is really at stake.

The details of the call between Trump and Zelensky are another sign that Ukrainians are being forced to live in an “American protectorate,” warned one TV broadcaster during a discussion on Rossiya-24. A standard state TV line argues that Russia is doing no more than defending Russian speakers living on its border in Ukraine’s eastern region. On the same show, another guest, Nikita Isaev, the leader of the far-right New Russia movement, said the call provided evidence of an intent “to pressure Russia and pull it into the western project.”

Russian channels have also quoted at length diverging opinions published in U.S. newspaper columns.

On Channel 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova compared the controversy to  “coming out,” where the American liberal order finally showed its true colors.

“Russia is trying to create a rift between Ukraine and Western alliances,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a Russia and Eurasia specialist at Chatham House. “If you follow the main programmes on Rossiya-24, you see that what they say is that Ukraine is like a puppet state which can be shuffled around. It is being told what to do. They are saying that Ukraine has limited sovereignty, which is also what they want. Russia wants to diminish Ukraine as a subject of international affairs which feeds into their narrative.”

According to one U.S. academic, it is a little early to tell how the impeachment inquiry could be used for foreign policy gains by Russia. “I think it’s a bit too early to see evidence of the impeachment inquiry discussion on Russian foreign policy,” wrote Professor Yoshiko M. Herrera, a former director of the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia, in an email.

Herrera added that Zelensky’s agreement to the Steinmeier formula which sets out one path towards ending the conflict — would be seen as a victory for Moscow. “Zelensky’s agreement to the Steinmeier formula is seen by many as “capitulation” or at least giving some advantage to Russia.  Maybe he would have done that without the impeachment inquiry, but the chaos and controversy in the U.S. certainly do not strengthen Ukraine vis-a-vis Russia.”

Herrera wrote that Russia would continue to use the inquiry to point out flaws in U.S-style democracy. “I would say impeachment or any political scandals or serious investigations or revelations of serious wrongdoing by U.S. government officials, including the President and his people such as Rudy Giuliani, could be used by Russia to highlight a sense of hypocrisy of democratic values and/or corruption in the U.S.”