Amid the turmoil of the investigation into collusion with Russia, Donald Trump met with Ukraine's president. But while Petro Poroshenko may look strong to the US, Trump's eastern Ukraine agenda remains unclear.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko managed to wedge himself into the White House schedule on Tuesday. The meeting came ahead of a rumored face-to-face between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg next month.
Poroshenko's visit was not an official, bilateral meeting, but rather a simple "drop-in" and Oval Office photo opportunity, after some lingering uncertainty that Trump would even meet him in the first place.
"We've had some very, very good discussions," Trump said after the meeting, sitting next to Poroshenko in the Oval Office. "I think a lot of progress has been made."
Ukraine is "a place that we've all been very much involved in and we've been seeing it and everybody has been reading about it," Trump noted.
In brief comments, Poroshenko described the US as a "reliable supporter and partner."
The White House issued a statement after the meeting saying discussions focused on "support for the peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and President Poroshenko's reform agenda and anticorruption efforts."
Questions over peace framework
There was no mention of the Minsk agreement, the 2015 accord which calls for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line and constitutional reforms to give more autonomy to Ukraine's restive eastern region. It is all but stalled by most experts' estimates, and Kyiv is under huge pressure to comply with its end of the obligations.
"[US Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson has talked about doubting the Minsk process, and suggested that the US may be losing patience," said Donald Jensen, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a former US diplomat.
It doesn't help matters, however, that there doesn't seem to be any direction in Washington from the top.
"We don't know where Trump is on Ukraine," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. "He has said almost nothing since becoming president."
Something to gain
Ahead of both the Tuesday White House meeting and the G-20 summit, Russian news outlet Kommersant reported that Kyiv is drafting a new proposal for the "peaceful reintegration" of the eastern Donbass region. According to Balazs Jarabik, nonresident scholar of Eastern and Central Europe at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the new proposal is a bid to push for concessions from Trump.
What the Ukrainians could ask for ranges from the US pledging to continue foreign aid to the country, to technical assistance, to more military support. Mark Simakovsky, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Ukrainians would want to showcase the progress their administration has made, while pushing for Trump to not let up on sanctions.
"Without the sanctions regime, Russia is less likely to come to the table," he said.
Ahead of the leaders' meeting, the US Treasury added 38 people and companies to a list of those targeted by sanction.
"US sanctions related to Crimea will not be lifted until Russia ends its occupation of the peninsula," the Treasury said in a statement.
Russia was quick to condemn the added sanctions with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling them "Russophobia."
But Trump also had something else to gain from the meeting with Poroshenko: the appearance of being fair.
"They wanted to send a signal that they continue to support Ukraine," said Simakovsky. "But this is mostly window dressing, to banish accusations that they're going soft on Russia."
"Trump has been skeptical of deepening relations with Ukraine," he added. "[The Trump administration is] being cautious in engaging, and not looking to tie themselves into any commitments for fear it could upset improving relations with Moscow."
The Clinton conundrum
There was one more reason for Kyiv to push for Tuesday's White House sit-down. It's no secret that the Ukrainian government was heavily supportive of Hillary Clinton, Trump's opponent during the 2016 US presidential election, and panicked when she lost, according to Jarabik.
"The Ukrainians are very nervous. They really put all their eggs in the Hillary Clinton basket," he said.
"Trump [during the campaign] talked about recognizing Crimea and throwing Ukraine under the bus," said Georgetown University's Kupchan. "That rattled politicians in Kyiv and made it all the more important that Trump see Poroshenko before he sees Putin."
Poroshenko's main goal, Kupchan concluded, is to garner a show of support for Ukraine, while facing down an unruly parliament at home and a US administration that has aspirations to be close with Russia.
"The Trump administration will continue supporting Ukraine if Kyiv will move on its obligations in regards to the Minsk agreement," said Jarabik. "One can say that this is what Moscow wants, but this is also reality catching up with Kyiv."