Last summer, just days before former special prosecutor Robert Mueller publicly warned that the Kremlin would continue its interference in U.S. elections, Russian state television aired a 30-minute special report titled “Ukrainian Interference.”
“It’s time to start a new investigation into meddling by Ukraine, which from the start supported President Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton,” said reporter Anna Afanasyeva. “So-called Russia-gate is turning into Ukraine-gate.”
Weaving insinuation and unsubstantiated claims by Ukrainian lawmakers, the report pushed a narrative Trump had already embraced: that the Ukrainian government had intervened against him in 2016, and that Joe Biden, during his time as vice president, had been involved in a crooked scheme in Ukraine with his son Hunter.
Those accusations are the same ones being made by Trump’s Republican allies. Democrats counter that Trump abused his presidential powers when he demanded Ukraine’s new president investigate election interference and the Bidens in return for military assistance and a White House visit.
In her Nov. 21 testimony during the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment hearing, Fiona Hill, Trump’s former adviser on Eastern Europe on the National Security Council, admonished Republicans not to fall for the “fictional narrative” of Ukrainian interference spread by Russian intelligence agencies.
“Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them,” Hill said. “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
The Kremlin has largely refrained from commenting on the hearings. But the focus on Ukraine is a relief after the revelations and indictments of the Mueller investigation.
“Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in U.S. elections,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a Nov. 20 investment conference. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine. Well, let them sort this out among themselves.”
Putin welcomes the impeachment process, like any political turmoil in Western democracies, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow.
“Whenever there is a division, the Kremlin tries to drive a wedge. Whenever there is a weakness, the Kremlin tries to take advantage of it,” she says. “The impeachment proceedings certainly do not make America stronger.”
Sowing domestic strife in competing nations is a hallmark of Russia’s intelligence services, according to the annual report published this week by BIS, the Czech Republic’s domestic intelligence agency.
“The key Russian goal is to manipulate decision-making processes and the individuals responsible for the decision-making in order to force the counterparty to conduct activities to weaken itself,” the BIS report says.
Even if Russian intelligence agencies keep their tradecraft secret, the narratives that Hill warned about are constantly repeated by Russian government media.
Last Sunday, on state television’s flagship “News of the Week” program, host Dmitry Kiselyov called the impeachment hearings “a big political show” and asserted that Trump’s enemies were too busy taking him down to ask what exactly the Bidens had been up to in Ukraine.
Putin is hardly indifferent to what happens in U.S.-Ukrainian relations.
For centuries Ukraine was the jewel in the crown of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union. The mere prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO was enough to make Putin seize the strategic Crimean Peninsula and foment an armed insurgency in the east of the country in 2014.
By accident rather than design, Ukraine is playing a supporting role in Washington’s impeachment drama. But for Russia, which way Ukraine goes is of central importance. Every misstep by Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders is covered obsessively by Russian state TV, as if to demonstrate the perils of an alliance with powerful but fickle friends.
In early November, Putin said Ukraine shouldn’t seek its fortune “overseas” — and instead should learn to live with its neighbors. He was referring to his first meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, planned for next month in Paris.
Before his fateful July 25 phone call with the U.S. president, Zelenskiy suggested including Trump in talks with Putin as a way of increasing pressure on the Kremlin to end the five-year conflict in eastern Ukraine. Now, with Washington consumed by the impeachment process, Zelenskiy is more isolated than before.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who will host the Putin-Zelenskiy summit, has been advocating for a rapprochement with Russia in recent months. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will also attend the meeting, is concerned with domestic political issues as she finishes her last term in office.
Washington’s distraction by the Ukraine scandal, combined with a growing rift between the U.S. and its European allies, may embolden Putin.
The Kremlin has always denied that it interfered in the last U.S. presidential election or plans to do so in the future. During a panel discussion in Moscow in October, the moderator asked Putin whether Russia is attempting to influence the 2020 U.S. elections.
Putin put his hand next to his mouth and said in a conspiratorial voice: “I’ll tell you a secret. We’ll definitely do it, just to keep you amused. But you won’t tell anyone, OK?”
The hall erupted in applause.