- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin is exploiting political divisions around the impeachment in Washington with the goal of driving a sharp wedge between the U.S. and Ukraine, the energy-rich former Soviet republic that Moscow has long sought to control.

U.S. intelligence officials are particularly wary that the long-standing bipartisan consensus in Washington supporting Ukraine as an ally in containing Russian aggression has collapsed during the acrimonious impeachment process.

The sentiment is echoed on Capitol Hill.

“I have no doubt that Vladimir Putin is smiling at the circus that is unfolding in the House of Representatives right now,” Rep. Ben Cline, a Virginia Republican who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Putin has publicly gloated over the turn of events that puts his neighbor at the center of a massive Washington scandal. He joked at an economic forum last month in Moscow, “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.

“Well,” he added, “let them sort this out among themselves.”

A source with close contacts inside the U.S. intelligence community said the Kremlin is preparing to exploit the partisan divide over Ukraine, Russia and the 2016 election as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up.

“As Russian intelligence prepares to again try and sow political discord around the coming U.S. election, they will definitely be preying on U.S. confusion over Ukraine,” said the source. “They’ll do what they did with the last election. They’ll get people on both sides of the issue to fight with each other about it, using bots to manipulate our social media and distort information that Americans see about Ukraine.”

The impeachment fight, in addition to distracting Mr. Trump on foreign trips such as this week’s gathering of NATO leaders in London, is causing geopolitical fallout for the U.S. image abroad as well.

“Spirited debates about policy questions during and between elections is a hallmark of American democracy, and set an example for less free societies,” said Stephen Slick, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “But the untempered ranting of legislators during the impeachment hearings diminishes our global standing and creates opportunities for influence operations by hostile foreign security services.

“During the Cold War, the KGB forged letters and fabricated rumors aimed at weakening America’s credibility abroad,” Mr. Slick told The Times. “Now the Russian security services have both the opportunity and means to sow discord and exacerbate existing rifts in our society.”

Former CIA Clandestine Service Officer Daniel Hoffman, who once served as the agency’s Moscow station chief, went further.

“Here’s a public service announcement,” he said. “Russia sees an opportunity here, and they’re going to seize on it going into the 2020 election.

“They’ll seize on it for two reasons: One, it’s a divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans, and two, this is an issue Moscow can exploit to drive a wedge between Ukraine and the U.S.,” said Mr. Hoffman, who writes a foreign policy column for The Times.

“The goal will be to eliminate bipartisan consensus on the importance of supporting Ukrainian democracy and economic growth, and on providing military assistance,” he said. “And the way you do that is inject Ukraine as fodder into the U.S. political meat grinder. That’s where we are right now.

“If you’re an American voter, be wary of what you’re reading about Ukraine,” he said. “It may be a Russian bot trying to disparage Ukraine or dial up the intensity of the partisan acrimony within the U.S. over Ukraine.”

Undercutting the president

U.S. divisions — and the possibility that Mr. Trump will be impeached in the coming weeks — undercut the president’s leverage on a host of foreign policy fronts, including China trade negotiations, North Korea nuclear talks, the pursuit of a more aggressive nuclear deal with Iran and a new arms treaty with Russia.

“Foreign adversaries see this and may feel emboldened to ask for more than the president is willing to give up in negotiations,” Mr. Hoffman said, “because they assess that he is weakened by the impeachment inquiry and because they sense the bipartisan consensus on overall foreign policy is so eroded now that he’s just not going to be able to gain the congressional support he would expect under normal circumstances.”

Former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, now president of the Russian International Affairs Council, cited the U.S. impeachment turmoil to argue that Russia is increasingly seen as an island of stability in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world.

“Even Moscow’s most ardent critics cannot deny that Russia has pursued a consistent foreign policy over the past calendar year,” Mr. Ivanov wrote recently in The Moscow Times. “While many on the international stage may not see Russia as a convenient partner, it certainly cannot be accused of being unreliable or inconsistent in this capacity.”

The impeachment fight back home was clearly on Mr. Trump’s mind as he navigated the diplomatic and security crosswinds at the NATO gathering. Between meetings with key foreign leaders, Mr. Trump’s press briefings repeatedly veered into the impeachment developments and the president’s frustration with the Democrats’ handling of the proceedings.

“This should never happen to a president,” Mr. Trump said at one point during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “It’s a disgrace to our country. It’s sad, actually, and it’s done by, frankly, losers.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out House Democrats for scheduling the high-profile impeachment hearings during the NATO summit.

“There is a long tradition that we support presidents when they travel overseas to do their work,” Mr. Pompeo told Fox News on Monday. “For [the Democrats] to hold hearings back here in Washington to distract America’s president from his important mission overseas … it’s very unfortunate.”

Putin’s victory lap?

Republicans have lined up behind Mr. Trump. They accuse Democrats of rushing to impeachment with no firm legal case and of ignoring ethical concerns tied to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s son’s involvement on the board of a major Ukrainian gas company. Republican lawmakers have also raised questions about the extent to which Russian — and Ukrainian — operatives meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.

But senior diplomats and current and former top officials in the White House National Security Council say there is a danger with House Republicans pushing a “false narrative.” They say the U.S. intelligence community has debunked the notion that Ukrainian officials were involved in election meddling.

Although U.S. intelligence agencies have never publicly assessed Ukrainian involvement, officials have said Russian intelligence circulated claims to try to smear Ukraine.

Fiona Hill, until recently Mr. Trump’s top Russia specialist on the NSC, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last month that Ukrainian meddling was a “fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services.”

Republican lawmakers have countered by pointing to Ukrainian officials’ critical statements of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign as well as alleged cooperation by some in Kyiv with the Democratic National Committee in conducting opposition research against him.

Some former U.S. intelligence officials are calling such GOP actions irresponsible.

“They are advancing Russian disinformation games by raising the claims of Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 interference campaign,” Mr. Slick said, referring to Republican lawmakers.

“It is shameful when politicians, in their zeal to protect a corrupt leader, deliberately spread rumors that they have been told were crafted by Russian propagandists,” he said.

“The goal of America’s highly capable and well resourced intelligence community is often described as providing ‘decision advantage’ to U.S. presidents in their dealings with foreign leaders,” Mr. Slick said. “This model breaks down in the absence of a disciplined policymaking process or when a chief executive acts on feral instinct rather than fact and informed advice. With U.S. intelligence temporarily sidelined and occupied defending itself against charges of disloyalty, the advantage lies with more savvy foreign leaders who are anxious to take advantage of this self-destructive chapter in our history.”

While Mr. Putin gloats, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has bemoaned the controversy over Mr. Trump’s phone call, Hunter Biden’s business ties and the spotlight on Ukraine’s domestic woes, which has made his job harder. In a recent interview on “Fox & Friends,” Mr. Trump asked, “Why should we give money to a country that’s known corrupt? It’s a very corrupt country.”

Such comments hurt efforts to reform the economy and improve Ukraine’s international image, Mr. Zelensky told Time magazine this week.

“The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone,” the Ukrainian president said. “When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that is the hardest of signals.”

⦁ S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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