Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine didn’t come from nowhere: Russia had invaded and annexed part of Ukraine in 2014 and there has been an ongoing war ever since, with thousands of people killed on both sides. Donald Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine came in the midst of that war, and have to be understood in that context. Trump had very real leverage over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because Zelenskyy was desperate for U.S. support during a war and Trump used that leverage to apply pressure over a period of months.
Trump’s pressure campaign wasn’t just that of a larger country against a smaller one. It was against a smaller country at war with a larger one, where the aggressor in that war—Russia—was watching and reading the tea leaves about the United States’ level of support for Ukraine. Again and again, Trump left Ukraine hanging and let Vladimir Putin know that U.S. support for Ukraine was conditional at best.
The House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry report from 2019 lays it out in detail, as Asha Rangappa noted. From the moment Zelenskyy won his election in April 2019, Trump was dangling the possibility of public shows of support and then yanking them back. In their initial phone call after Zelenskyy’s win, Trump invited him to the White House—an invitation Ukrainian officials then sought to pin down and make real, without success. Trump initially said he would send Mike Pence to Zelenskyy’s inauguration with the U.S. vice president’s presence standing as visible evidence of support, only to keep Pence home and send Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead. This was as Rudy Giuliani was ramping up his efforts to get Zelenskyy to announce investigations into supposed corruption involving the Biden family and supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Trump explicitly connected his reluctance for a White House visit for the Ukrainian president to Ukraine having supposedly “tried to take me down” in 2016. This was false. As Russia expert Dr. Fiona Hill said in her impeachment inquiry testimony about claims that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. elections, “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”
Next, Trump personally froze nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine—aid appropriated by Congress and supported by officials throughout the federal agencies responsible for sending it, except those who were first and foremost Trump loyalists. And a quid pro quo was repeatedly communicated to Ukraine: Make a public announcement of investigations into the Biden family and interference in the elections if you want the White House visit and the military aid. No actual investigations are needed. Just the public announcement of them.
“On July 2, in Toronto, Canada, Ambassador Volker conveyed the message directly to President Zelensky, specifically referencing the ‘Giuliani factor’ in President Zelensky’s engagement with the United States,” according to the impeachment inquiry report. “For his part, Mr. Giuliani made clear to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker, who were directly communicating with the Ukrainians, that a White House meeting would not occur until Ukraine announced its pursuit of the two political investigations. After observing Mr. Giuliani’s role in the ouster of a U.S. Ambassador and learning of his influence with the President, Ukrainian officials soon understood that ‘the key for many things is Rudi [sic].’”
This pressure ratcheted up with Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskyy, the one in which he responded to Zelenskyy’s request to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” And it became still stronger as the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid continued to be frozen.
On Aug. 28, 2019, Politico reported on the hold-up of the aid. The following day, Ambassador William Taylor sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a first-person cable in which “He explained the ‘folly’ of withholding security assistance to Ukraine as it fought a hot war against Russia on its borders. He wrote that he ‘could not and would not defend such a policy.’” But on the same day, with the aid freeze now public, Trump cancelled a trip to Warsaw for a World War II commemoration event, a trip on which he was scheduled to meet with Zelenskyy. Instead, he sent Pence.
At the meeting, President Zelensky expressed concern that even an appearance of wavering support from the United States for Ukraine could embolden Russia. Vice President Pence reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine, but could not promise that the hold would be lifted. Vice President Pence said he would relay his support for lifting the hold to President Trump so a decision could be made on security assistance as soon as possible. Vice President Pence spoke with President Trump that evening, but the hold was not lifted.
Zelenskyy—the guy who has stayed in Kyiv at the risk of his own life during Russia’s invasion—buckled under the pressure. He booked an interview on CNN to announce the investigations Trump was demanding. Instead, as more of the story of the extortion campaign trickled out and the House announced investigations, Trump unfroze the aid.
Trump’s pressure on Ukraine—on Zelenskyy—wasn’t just about one phone call. And the pressure wasn't just about the specific military equipment Ukraine wanted. It was about sending a message to Putin that U.S. support for Ukraine was wobbly.