Vasyl Hrystak is the last person you would expect to praise President Donald Trump for his administration’s approach to Russia. As the director of the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s spy service, he is intimately familiar with Russian predations in his own country. And yet, Trump often sounds oblivious -- at best -- to the Russian threat.
Last summer, Trump agreed to a joint US-Russian commission to examine cyberthreats, a ridiculous conceit considering that Russia hacked Democrats in 2016 to help him win the White House. The proposal has mercifully died on the vine.
More recently, his administration informed Congress that it would not yet impose new sanctions that Congress approved last year in response to the election meddling. This prompted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to accuse Trump of an “extreme dereliction of duty.”
Hrystak sees things differently. Meeting with reporters Tuesday in Washington, he said, “I am convinced President Trump understands the threat to Ukraine from Russia.” Now it should be said that one would expect him to say this. Ukraine is a weak country that needs all the US help it can get. There is no point in needlessly picking a fight with the president, particularly now.
When I asked Hrystak what he based this assessment on, he replied, “We analyze the actions of the United States government. That includes not only the sanctions, but providing us with lethal weapons and other actions.” He added, “Our contacts with American intelligence are at a height right now.”
That seems unusual, too. Last month, the heads of Russia’s three main intelligence services visited Washington for meetings with their counterparts. Such meetings are not unprecedented, but given Russia’s role in destabilizing Ukraine and the danger it poses to the American political system, now hardly seems like the time for US-Russian intelligence cooperation.
So what’s going on? To understand why Ukraine’s top spy is grateful for US support, some context is needed. When Russian special operators infiltrated Crimea and later parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama was caught flat-footed. Senior officials told their Ukrainian counterparts not to fight back.
Obama rallied European allies to impose tough sanctions on senior Russians and some sectors of the Russian economy, but he refrained from sending defensive weapons to Ukraine’s military and largely kept Ukraine’s intelligence services at arm’s length.
After nearly a year in office, Trump reversed Obama’s policy, approving not only a shipment of sniper rifles but also the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles. That’s part of the reason Hrystak gives Trump high marks.
The other reason is on the intelligence side. US and Ukrainian officials tell me that on a few high-level investigations, the Central Intelligence Agency and Hrystak’s service have been cooperating more closely than in the Obama years, when the White House was reluctant to get directly involved in Russia’s proxy war with the Ukrainians. Still, the CIA has been beefing up its own capabilities against Russia since 2014, and has made the relationship with Ukraine a higher priority.
The intelligence cooperation, according to US and Ukrainian officials, goes both ways. The US has helped Ukraine identify Russian operatives involved in attacks inside Ukraine. The Ukrainians recently provided the CIA with new information on efforts by Iranian diplomats to purchase Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles.
Again, this is unexpected. Remember that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has been indicted in part for allegedly laundering millions of dollars he received in part from the former Ukrainian president and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych. The government that replaced Yanukovych helped expose the cash payments to Manafort.
For Hrystak, however, it makes sense. Even short of battlefield victories, he said, a US presence is rattling Russia. For evidence of this, he said that US news organizations should pay more attention to how Russia’s state media discusses the US-Ukrainian relationship.
“Russia is constantly saying” that the CIA and the Ukrainian spy service “are in league together and appear everywhere together,” he said approvingly. “Every time they see men in camouflage, they say the CIA is in Ukraine. When our snipers were being very effective, the Russian propaganda was vitriolic.” The Russian propaganda pleases Hrystak because, he says, “It shows that they fear you.”
This counts as a rare instance where the politics of fear is a cause for some hope.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.(Bloomberg)