Worried About Trump’s Support for Ukraine, Eastern Europe Tries Outreach

As many in Europe worry about the possibility of a second presidency for Donald J. Trump that they fear could bring an end to U.S. support for Ukraine, some of Russia’s most fervent foes are taking a different tack: making nice with the Trump camp.

To that end, the governing party of Lithuania, a steadfast supporter of Ukraine, last month organized meetings between Ukrainians, Baltic politicians who want increases in military spending to counter Russia, and a group of former Trump administration officials. Also attending were members of pro-Trump groups like the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative group skeptical about helping Ukraine.

Leading the participants from Ukraine was Oleksandr Merezhko, the chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and an ally of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Reaching out to the Trump camp, he said, was simply a recognition of Ukraine’s perilous vulnerability to the shifting sands of American politics.

“When we are fighting for our survival, we can’t afford to antagonize either Biden or Trump,” Mr. Merezhko said. “If we place the wrong bet, we risk losing our country.”

Mr. Trump has not detailed his plans for Ukraine if he is re-elected, but many of his supporters are strongly opposed to helping the country in its battle against Russia.

The outreach effort, according to Mr. Merezhko and other participants, featured discussions about what a second Trump administration could mean for Ukraine and NATO’s future.

One supporter of Mr. Trump wanted to know why U.S. taxpayers should pay for Ukraine’s war, they said. Those in favor of assistance urged Ukraine and its Baltic backers to frame their pitch for aid against Russia in economic terms that would appeal to Mr. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy.

“Helping Ukraine gives jobs to Americans,” Mr. Merezhko said he told experts at the meeting from the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute, another Trump-aligned think tank in Washington.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has estimated that around 60 percent of $113 billion that Congress has approved to help Ukraine would be spent in the United States on American-made weapons and U.S. military personnel.

Zygimantas Pavilionis, a Lithuanian legislator who organized the meeting, said that instead of confronting Mr. Trump and his base, Ukraine and its supporters should befriend them and explain that “there is a huge American interest in the fight” against Russia.

Since Mr. Trump won the Iowa caucus in January, however, many European leaders and politicians have struggled to come to terms with the prospects of another Trump presidency.

Alicia Kearns, a Conservative member of the British Parliament and chairwoman of its foreign affairs committee, described as “completely mind-blowing” the possibility that U.S. voters might re-elect a man she labeled a sexual abuser and an indicted criminal defendant.

But she, too, has reached out to the Heritage Foundation, joining a group of European legislators for a visit to the organization’s offices in Washington this year. Ms. Kearns did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, met with Mr. Trump himself.

And on Wednesday, President Andrzej Duda of Poland, a robust supporter of Ukraine, met the former president in New York to talk about NATO and Russia’s invasion. Mr. Duda’s chief of staff described their conversation as “excellent.” Mr. Trump, who during his presidency had very good relations with the right-wing Polish president, said he was “behind Poland all the way.”

In contrast, Mr. Trump’s relations with Mr. Zelensky have been shadowed by the former president’s anger over his 2019 impeachment, focused on accusations that he used American military aid to pressure Ukraine into investigating Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter.

Alarm over Mr. Trump’s return has been most acute in Eastern European countries that fear his movement’s drift away from the foreign policies of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan is lauded in the formerly communist east for what many see as his role in bringing down the Soviet Union.

Donald Tusk, Poland’s centrist prime minister, who is a bitter political rival of President Duda, voiced angry dismay in February when pro-Trump Republicans in Congress blocked a $60.1 billion aid package for Ukraine. “Shame on you,” Mr. Tusk said. “Ronald Reagan must be turning in his grave today.”

The only leader in the region openly cheering for a Trump victory and an end to support for Ukraine is Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary.

After meeting the former president in February, Mr. Orban claimed that Mr. Trump told him he “will not give a penny” to Ukraine should he win in November. But it’s unclear whether Mr. Trump really said this or, as many suspect, Mr. Orban was projecting his own views onto the former president. Mr. Trump’s spokespeople are not saying.

Robert Wilkie, a participant at the Vilnius meetings who served as Mr. Trump’s secretary for veterans affairs, played down Mr. Orban’s comments. “Just look at Trump’s track record,” he said. “Ukrainians got weapons when he was president and Putin stayed on his side of the border.”

Instead of panicking, Mr. Wilkie added, Ukraine and its supporters “should make the case that they are on the front line against one of the three powers on the planet that are very open about displacing and, if need be, destroying the United States.” These, he said, are Russia, Iran and China.

Kurt Volker, the United States’ special representative for Ukraine in the Trump presidency, said he, too, doubted Mr. Orban’s account.

“My advice to all my European friends is that when it comes to the possibility of Trump getting re-elected, don’t make any assumptions about what his policy is going to be,” Mr. Volker said in an interview during a recent swing through Eastern Europe.

Avoiding assumptions about Mr. Trump’s plans for Ukraine, he said, is especially important for those in Europe who, unlike Mr. Orban, are appalled by the prospect of the former president’s returning. “If you don’t like Trump because of his personality and complain about him publicly, you are just setting the table for disaster,” Mr. Volker added.

A belief that Mr. Trump and his allies can be swayed over Ukraine underpinned the March gathering in Vilnius.

Mr. Pavilionis, the organizer, said that while “Trump is a bit crazy and you never know how he will react,” his return to the White House could turn out better for Ukraine than many expect.

Mr. Pavilionis said he was astonished during a visit to Washington in January by the isolationist mood in Mr. Trump’s movement. But, he added, as president Mr. Trump “was much better for our region than Obama,” who rejected sending weapons to Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Mr. Trump reversed that policy and sent Javelin antitank missiles. He also increased the U.S. military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.

Instead of fretting over Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to end the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours,” Mr. Pavilionis said, Ukraine and its allies need to understand that Republicans are far more concerned with containing China and Iran than saving Ukraine or fortifying NATO.

That, he said, has made it imperative that Ukraine and its European backers build bridges with the Trump camp and present it with a simple argument: “Stop Russia and you stop China and Iran,” he said.

The same pitch has also been made by NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. In January, he paid a visit to the Heritage Foundation, whose mission, according to its president Kevin. D. Roberts, is “institutionalizing Trumpism.”

“Ukraine must prevail,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, framing the war in the context of China, whose challenge to American power is Mr. Trump’s main foreign policy preoccupation. “China,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, “is watching closely” what happens in Ukraine.

“China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are increasingly aligned,” he said, arguing that “while China is the most serious long-term challenge, Russia is the most immediate one.”

Before Mr. Stoltenberg spoke, however, Mr. Roberts made clear that Ukraine could be a hard sell. “Heritage will not now nor ever support putting a foreign nation’s border ahead of our own,” he said.

But others at Heritage are rooting for Ukraine against Russia, as are some Trump-aligned experts at the America First Policy Institute, like Mr. Wilkie.

“American first does not mean America alone,” Mr. Wilkie said. The Baltic States and other supporters of Ukraine, he added, have nothing to fear from a second Trump presidency.

“The fact is that we had peace in that part of the world for four years but then he left office and everything exploded,” Mr. Wilkie said. “That is not a coincidence.”



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