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Is the Trump administration poised to take on a new role in the Ukraine conflict?

Reports that Donald Trump will receive Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ahead of his first meeting with Vladimir Putin are causing a sensation in Kyiv. Could the move signal a new policy for the US in Ukraine?

The fine points are clearly being worked out at the last minute. Why else would the office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko suddenly confirm his visit to the United States on Monday, and not give any details? At the time of the announcement, Poroshenko was evidently already en route to Washington. Several Ukrainian sources began reporting last Wednesday that Poroshenko was making a surprise trip to the US to visit President Donald Trump on Monday and Tuesday of this week. But a meeting with Trump still hasn't officially been confirmed.

Ever since Trump's election, Kyiv has been working intently on arranging a meeting with the new man in the White House. The timing is very important. Poroshenko wants to speak with Trump before he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in order to present Kyiv's view of the conflict with Moscow, and hopefully reaffirm Washington as an ally. Trump and Putin are planning to meet for the first time on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg at the start of July.

Kyiv fearful of Moscow-Washington deal

Although top-level Ukrainian politicians won’t say it, Kyiv clearly fears a deal between Moscow and Washington that could hurt Ukrainian interests. Trump has often given them reason for concern, by praising Putin and calling for the loosening of sanctions imposed on Russia by the US in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. He also indicated that he was willing to talk about recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia, or at least that's how many media sources have interpreted his answers to questions raised by reporters on the issue.

Paul Manafort, a Trump campaign manager as well as advisor to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who is now living in Russia in exile, was forced to step down months before the US election because of revelations from Kyiv about dodgy financial dealings with Russian interests. It’s not yet clear if, or to what extent, this will affect Trump's relations with the current Ukrainian government.

Wladimir Putin und Petro Poroschenko (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Ena)

Poroshenko and Putin would rather meet with Trump than one another

But now that the Trump administration is the focus of several investigations into possible collusion with the Kremlin, fewer Moscow-friendly remarks are emanating from Washington. Just days before Poroshenko's visit, the US Senate decided to introduce new sanctions against Moscow, potentially giving Poroshenko more reason to be relaxed going into his first face-to-face with Trump.

The Ukrainian and US leaders are both billionaire businessmen, but they have never met. Since Trump's victory, Ukraine has had only two direct contacts with the new US administration. In mid-February, Poroshenko met Vice President Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference. At the time, Kyiv said they had received confirmation that the US would uphold the Minsk Agreement to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In mid-May, Trump met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on the same day that he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Trump tweeted photos of both meetings, as well as a message saying: "Let’s make peace!"

New role for the US

The meetings with the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers could be an indication of behind-the-scenes talks about the stalled peace process in eastern Ukraine. For months, there has been speculation that the US would take on a more active role in the conflict - something Kyiv would welcome. Previously, Germany and France have taken the lead on talks, together with Russia and Ukraine.

In May, Klimkin said that a meeting between Trump and Poroshenko would happen when consultations about a future role for the US in the Ukraine conflict had wrapped up. Berlin and Paris are also said to be involved in these discussions.

"This could signal the beginning of new talks with the participation of the United States," said Kyiv-based journalist Serhij Rudenko, adding that a solution is being sought that would give control of eastern Ukraine back to Kyiv, while allowing Moscow to save face. Still, a lot depends on what happens when Trump meets with Putin.

"Moscow continues to hold the key to resolving this conflict," said Rudenko.

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