Photo: November 20 impeachment hearing, Gordon Sondland stands to take oath in foreground.
By Mike Talavera
The televised impeachment hearings have concluded. A dozen witnesses have gone before the House Intelligence Committee, each weighing in on US President Donald Trump’s allegedly illicit dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The public hearings are the latest chapter of the official impeachment inquiry into the President, launched last September following a whistleblower’s complaint concerning a July phone call Trump had with Zelensky. During that call, Trump asked Zelensky to “look into” Democratic 2020 Presidential frontrunner Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had joined the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma in 2014 shortly after his father, at that time Vice President, had made a diplomatic visit to the country.
For the past two weeks, the assembly chambers have served as a performative battleground between the Democrats and Republicans, where the goal of each side has been to portray itself as less corrupt than the other. The more each side tries to gain the upper hand in this fiasco, the more dishonest the US government appears. It is hard for many in the US (the majority of whom do not vote) to take these accusations of corruption seriously when it is common knowledge that lobbyists spend billions of dollars every year on both the Democrats and Republicans to shape their policies.
At the same time, greater forces than these bourgeois parties have also been battling it out in front of the cameras, if not as dramatically. The testimonies of the diplomats, aids, and other state officials have divulged details of the internal struggle between the White House and the State Department as it relates to US imperialism’s control of Ukraine, the country that has been a literal battleground since 2014.
It is the strategy behind this conflict, a proxy war between the US and Russia, that informs the tactics of the key players in the impeachment inquiry. This struggle over Ukraine will help determine the degree to which US imperialism dominates the country but also, and more importantly, to what degree it dominates Europe.
At the opening of the televised impeachment hearings, Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, a House Democrat, said that what the committee intended to judge was whether the Trump administration’s interactions with the Zelensky administration were “compatible” with the office of the presidency.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself,” Schiff said at the November 13 hearing, “and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.”
The future of the presidency may be the declared subject of the impeachment inquiry, but what is at stake is greater than one person or one office, even one as powerful as US president.
The impeachment proceedings will move ahead in a couple weeks to the House Judiciary Committee, which will deliberate on whether or not to draft Articles of Impeachment. The outcome of this process will not decide the fate of US imperialism, which history has already sentenced to death, but it will alter its future with Ukraine and by extension affect the future of its strategy as the sole hegemonic superpower.
“Get Over It”
Since the whistleblower’s complaint was made public, Trump has denied making a “quid pro quo” (this for that) arrangement with Ukraine. He stands accused of withholding military funding and a White House meeting from Zelensky until the Ukrainian president publicly declared he was conducting an investigation into the Bidens.
Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, however, contradicted this denial at an October press conference leading up to the November hearings. When asked about withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for the Biden investigation, Mulvaney said that quid pro quo happens “all the time” in US foreign policy. He pointed to the time when the Trump administration withheld aid to the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) in order to compel them to change their immigration policies, as another example.
“I’ve got news for everybody: get over it,” Mulvaney said. “Obama did it in one way; we’re doing it a different way.”
Despite later apologizing for this statement, Mulvaney had inadvertently admitted that US foreign policy is predicated on its superior position to other countries, giving it the freedom to make the sort of demands that Trump had with Ukraine. The Trump administration, while in some ways more reckless than its predecessors, is still conducting itself on the basis of US imperialism’s status as the sole hegemonic superpower.
It is monopoly capitalism, the defining feature of imperialism, which compels the US to routinely threaten, extort, and punish other countries as a means of pursuing its own interests. Over a century ago, monopolist associations of capitalists emerged to thwart the obstacle of “free” competition, but in so doing effectively intensified the rivalry for the world’s resources. As monopolies demand more, resources become scarce, and what remains is violently contested.
This imperialist logic is the foundation of Trump’s approach to Ukraine, the underlying subject of the impeachment inquiry. The act of quid pro quo shows his personal motivation to be re-elected as well as the executive branch’s consolidation of power, but these are both secondary to the mandate of US imperialism.
The November hearings which followed Mulvaney’s slip further illuminated this fact. While the mainstream press obsessed over whether Trump was “guilty” or not, the testimony of the state bureaucrats made it clear that they were concerned about how his actions hampered US imperialism in Ukraine more than how much he strayed from his oath of office.
During the televised hearings, the Democrats of the House Intelligence Committee, led by chair Adam Schiff, attempted to prove Trump had crossed a line by soliciting help for his re-election from Ukraine, while Republicans defended Trump’s demand for the Biden investigation as another example of his 2016 campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”
The quotes that made headlines centered on Trump’s own corruption, from diplomat Bill Taylor saying Trump’s actions were “crazy,” to ambassador Gordon Sondland’s confirmation that Trump did in fact engage in quid pro quo.
These highlights give a misleading impression of the collective testimony. When viewed in their entirety, the hearings go beyond the Trump administration’s conduct and delve into the intrigue of the inter-imperialist struggle between the US and Russia.
In the first televised hearing on November 13, Taylor described Ukraine as being on the “front line of a newly aggressive Russia” and how “it was and is a critical time in US-Ukraine relations.”
“The largest country in Europe by land mass, Ukraine is a young democracy, struggling to join Europe and ally itself with the United States. It has been violently attacked by Russia, which continues its armed aggression against Ukraine to this day,” Taylor said during his opening statement. “Russian aggression cannot stand.”
This is the fairy tale of an imperialist. After the fall of the revisionist Soviet Union in 1991, the immediate goal of US imperialism was to consolidate the former Soviet bloc countries into its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance that was originally created after World War II to plot against Comrade Stalin’s Soviet Union and which today serves to check Russian imperialism.
US imperialism asserted itself in the region with the NATO bombings of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and of Yugoslavia in 1999, the latter operation being conducted without authorization by the UN Security Council.
In 2004, the Baltic countries and others officially joined NATO, but Ukraine, one of the most resource-rich countries bordering Russia and the main conduit for Russian oil into Europe, remained outside the umbrella. That same year, however, the so-called “Orange” revolution swept Ukraine, where pro-NATO and pro-Russian politicians fought for seats in the government amidst a mass movement against election fraud.
Viktor Yushchenko, who came out on top as president after a recount of the 2004 Ukrainian election, proceeded to propose a four-point plan that sought to integrate the country’s economy with the World Trade Organization and the European Union. Internal complications distracted from this initiative. In 2005, Yushchenko fired his government, led by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, due to rampant corruption and would go on to try to dissolve the parliament in 2007 and 2008.
Finally, Ukraine would submit its application to begin the process of joining NATO in 2008, despite strong opposition in parliament which was blocked from intervening. In his opening statement, Taylor testified that, “Since I left Ukraine in 2009, the country had continued to turn toward the West.”
That movement would be reversed in 2010 after Yushchenko’s successor, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected (who had previously lost in 2004 and had been accused of voter intimidation). In addition to dropping the NATO bid, Yanukovych proceeded to prosecute his 2010 election opponent Tymoshenko, a supporter of joining NATO and the EU, with corruption charges related to her involvement in the 2009 Ukraine-Russia gas dispute.
At this time Yanukovych also enacted a 25-year extension of Russia’s lease to use Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol for its naval fleet.
The Rule of Law
Former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was fired by Trump in May, illustrated plainly in her opening statement at the November 15 hearing to the Intelligence Committee how corruption in Ukraine was evaluated relative to US interests.
“Corrupt leaders are inherently less trustworthy, while an honest and accountable Ukrainian leadership makes a US-Ukrainian partnership more reliable and more valuable to the United States,” Yovanovitch said at the hearing. “A level playing field in this strategically-located country bordering four NATO allies, creates an environment in which US business can more easily trade, invest, and profit.”
Corrupt as many Ukranian politicians may be, it is the attacks on US imperialist lackeys like Tymoshenko that US and European leaders have condemned as subverting “the rule of law.”
“Signing and ratifying the Association Agreement and the DCFTA will not be possible unless Ukraine urgently addresses this stark deterioration of democracy and the rule of law,” European Commission (EC) leaders said in a 2012 statement, referencing two trade agreements. “Solutions need to be found, enabling Ms. [former Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko, Mr. [former Interior Minister Yuriy] Lutsenko and others to regain their freedom and fully participate in political life.”
Despite this obstinacy, by 2013 the Ukrainian parliament was taking measures to meet the EC criteria. Yanukovych even began to support these efforts, although he was simultaneously courting the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. This playing of both sides irked the EC President José Manuel Barroso.
“One country cannot at the same time be a member of a customs union and be in a deep common free-trade area with the European Union,” said Barroso in 2013. “This is not possible.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed. When Yanukovych seemed to be turning closer to the EU in 2013, Russia impeded Ukrainian imports for weeks starting in August, putting many on a list of “high-risk” goods. By November 2013, the Ukrainian government had halted the momentum towards signing economic agreements with Europe, citing the harsh conditions of the included International Monetary Fund loan as being a key dealbreaker.
This same month, Ukrainian police attacked a protest camp that had emerged in response to the government’s failure to implement the EC’s recommended reforms, sparking a larger uprising, now known as Euromaiden, which saw the rise of various far-right factions who joined together in a coalition known as the “Right Sector,” including fascists who openly praised rightwing nationalists and Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera. The uprising would culminate in Yanukovych and some of his ministers fleeing to Russia in February 2014. Shortly after, Russia would launch a surprise annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing armed conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine would begin.
“Beginning in 2014, [the US] and NATO began to provide military assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces in the form of training, advice, military equipment, and weapons,” Taylor said in his opening statement. “It is this security assistance that is at the heart of the controversy that we are discussing today.”
Trump’s maneuver to withhold the latest iteration of this military aid to Ukraine (a $400 million package) in exchange for Zelensky’s cooperation in announcing an investigation into the Bidens concerns the bureaucrats who testified at the televised hearings, not primarily because it was an impeachable offense, but due to the way it risked US imperialism’s advantage in the region after decades of imbalance.
Because Russia flexed its military might in Crimea, on the surface it appears to be the conqueror of Ukraine, but that analysis does not hold up when considering the significant gains made by US imperialism following the events of 2014.
Months after the start of Euromaiden, newly-elected president Petro Poroshenko signed the long sought-after Association Agreement with the EU (which went into effect in September 2017), and Ukraine integrated into the DCFTA in 2016. In February 2019, Poroshenko announced amendments to the Ukrainian constitution that further cemented its path towards integrating fully with NATO and the EU.
Euromaiden also laid the groundwork for the anti-communist process adopted by the Ukrainian government known as “decommunization.”
“Our policies, particularly in promoting the rule of law, are designed to help countries,” state official George Kent said at the November 13 hearing. “In Eastern Europe, in Central Europe, that [means] overcoming the legacy of communism.”
At the outset of the 2014 Euromaiden protests, several statues of the Great Lenin were vandalized or outright destroyed. The official decommunization effort launched in 2015 saw the removal of many more Communist symbols from public places and elsewhere.
This reactionary atmosphere allowed fascist elements to grow in Ukraine. In Odessa in 2014, fascist group Right Sector led a massacre at the Trade Union House, burning people alive and beating and shooting those who tried to escape the flames. The Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian militia trained by the US military, has attracted fascist recruits from across Europe and other parts of the globe, including the Rise Above Movement in the US.
With trade deals secured with US allies and fascists on the ground to target dissent, risking this dominant position for the sake of re-election does seem odd. The Democrats have used speculation of Trump’s reasoning in this matter as a canvas to draw the caricature of a lunatic willing to jeopardize US interests for his own benefit.
Even with all the attention of the impeachment inquiry, Trump’s exact rationale for the quid pro quo with Zelensky remains obscure, but the actions of his administration have been heavily scrutinized and are more revealing than his inner thoughts would be anyway.
In his opening statement on November 20, ambassador Sondland recounts how he and other US delegates attended Zelensky’s inauguration in May and were impressed by the new president’s “desire to promote a stronger relationship with the United States.”
Zelensky, a comedian who starred in a television show about Ukrainian politics before winning the 2019 election, shares many of the same politics as his predecessor Poroshenko, especially as it relates to siding with US imperialism over Russia. Unlike Poroshenko, Zelensky had not actively supported Trump’s 2016 election rival Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s trip to Ukraine in 2014 facilitated deeper connections between the US Democrats and Poroshenko’s government. This relationship gave the Ukrainian government the incentive to allegedly disseminate damning information about Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort in the lead up to the 2016 election.
Manafort, who was later implicated in the Mueller investigation and convicted of bank and tax fraud in 2018, had served as a campaign adviser for Yanukovych from 2004 to 2010. He had returned to Ukraine in 2014 to help rebrand Yanukovych’s Party of Regions into its current “Opposition Bloc” incarnation. A web of shady payments follows his travels there, and it was these financial records that were leaked.
Sondland, who obtained his current post as ambassador to the EU in part by donating at least $1 million to Trump’s presidential campaign, said that after his team had made the White House aware of Zelensky’s eagerness to appease the US, Trump proceeded to assign his personal attorney (and former New York City mayor) Rudy Giuliani to take his demands to the Ukrainians.
Even before this assignment, Giuliani had been taking preliminary measures to pursue Trump’s agenda of investigating the Bidens. Newly released State Department documents show that his two Ukrainian associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had met with former and current Ukrainian Prosecutor Generals (including Lutsenko) as early as January 2019.
Parnas and Fruman were arrested last month for a “complex web of financial and political interactions linking diplomacy to alleged violations of campaign finance law.” It appears that they had recruited Texas representative Pete Sessions, through bribery in the form of campaign donations, to join in their efforts to discredit former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Evidence presented by Sondland indicates that Giuliani’s actions were well known by the key players in the Trump administration, including Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On November 21, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill described the US state’s regular interagency process for interacting with the Ukrainian government, which she said had been bypassed by the Trump administration.
“[Sondland’s] feeling was that the National Security Council was always trying to block him,” Hill said at the hearing. “What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics.”
At the very least, the Trump administration appears to have independently coordinated the quid pro quo deal with Ukraine, according to the findings of the impeachment inquiry. Contrary to Hill’s claim, however, Trump’s actions serve US imperialism to a far greater degree than they do him personally.
US Imperialism First
At the United Nations in September, Trump told reporters that the reason he had put a hold on the military aid to Ukraine was because he wanted European nations to contribute more to the country’s defense against Russia.
“They’re not doing it. Just the United States. We’re putting up the bulk of the money. And I’m asking why is that?” Trump said.
This stance on Ukraine aligns with Trump’s “America First” policy which he first embraced on the campaign trail and is now the official foreign policy doctrine of the White House. The slogan has roots in the America First Committee, a pro-fascist non-interventionist group organized in the lead up to US involvement in World War II.
After Trump’s election, president of the European Council Donald Tusk, sent an open letter to various European leaders in 2017, sounding the alarm about the new US administration.
“For the first time in our history, in an increasingly multipolar external world, so many are becoming openly anti-European, or Eurosceptic at best,” Tusk writes. “Particularly the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.”
Before Sondland was appointed as ambassador to the EU, Trump had strongly considered capitalist Ted Malloch instead. His inflammatory remarks against the EU would lead to European leaders rejecting his nomination. “I had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped bring down the Soviet Union,” Malloch told reporters in 2017. “So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.”
“President Trump believes that dealing bilaterally with different European countries is in US interests,” Malloch said, “that we could have a stronger relationship with the countries individually.”
Ukraine siding with US imperialism has, up until recently, largely taken the form of uniting with the European Union. For the US, this is preferable to the country falling into the fold of Russian imperialism. But there is a tradeoff. Leveraging the European Union to keep Ukraine away from Russia necessarily strengthens the European bloc and by extension the various European imperialist powers. Alliances like NATO are temporary. The subordinate allies of US imperialism today are its potential enemies of the future.
NATO has recently shown signs of weakness. French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview this month that Europe is witnessing “the brain death of NATO.”
These variables explain Trump’s decision to bypass interagency networks in his dealings with Zelensky better than his preoccupation with the Bidens. The Trump administration wants to establish its own bilateral ties with Ukraine to keep it loyal to US imperialism first, and the European Union second.
Members of the Intelligence Committee will be working over the Thanksgiving break to complete their report on the impeachment hearings to hand over to the Judicial Committee so that the official impeachment Senate trial can begin as soon as possible.
Only two sitting US presidents have been successfully impeached prior to Trump (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), and neither were removed from office. It is still possible Trump will be convicted and removed, but if that were to occur someone would take his place to serve US imperialism, even if it were under a different strategy.
Bourgeois democracy provides the perfect shell for the immense wealth produced under imperialism, the final stage of capitalism where monopoly capital reigns. In this political system, those who hold office are expendable, laws amendable, and parties replaceable. All can be found guilty of “corruption,” impeached, or switched out without undermining the rule of the imperialists, the class that oppresses and exploits the world’s people.