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Ukrainians worry they're the big losers in the U.S. election

KIEV, Ukraine — Vitaly Sych, the editor of the Ukrainian weekly Novoye Vremya, had readied a profile for only one candidate, Hillary Clinton, to run once the results came in on what he called "the most closely watched U.S. election by Ukrainians" of all time.

Then came the bombshell that echoed all the way from the Potomac to the Dnepr.

"AMERICA PLAYS THE FOOL" was the headline looming above a portrait of Donald Trump the next day. (His colleagues talked him down from his first choice: "A boor, an ignoramus, and a racist: Meet the new President of the United States.")

"The major emotion here is anxiety and concern because he really said all those things, so he must believe some of them," Sych mused.

Among those things he said: That he would befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, who "is not going into Ukraine" and that "the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were." As to lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia? "We would be looking at that."

And then there's former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose previous job was as political spin doctor for ousted - and reviled - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, now hiding in Russia.

If Russia was rooting for a Trump victory on election night, it stands to reason who wasn't. "The big loser of the election is Ukraine," tweeted Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

In private, some Ukrainian politicians agreed. One lawmaker said the concern was a "primal fear of losing support in the face of Russian aggression." Pressed about Trump's statement on Crimea, Oksana Syroyid, a deputy chairman of Ukraine's parliament, said: "I resent that. I hope that since the campaign is over he'll reconsider."

But one week after the election, the truth is that nobody here in government wants to discuss the things Trump said about Ukraine. Necessity, in this case, dictates thick skin and a timely bout of amnesia, as Kiev looks to make its case to the president-elect and his Republican Party. Trump and President Petro Poroshenko spoke for the first time on Tuesday, and Ukrainian officials, optimistically, are hoping to arrange a personal meeting between the two in New York in February, when Ukraine chairs the U.N. Security Council.

"I see it as a challenge with a plus," said Victoria Voytsitska, a member of parliament who is concerned about Ukraine sliding deeper into corruption and complained about doublespeak from current U.S. officials. "I really think he'll be straightforward. They will demand real changes. Unless he does that, we're doomed."

Wishful thinking aside, Ukrainian officials are looking to tamp anxiety about a Trump term. Two years after the country's "Revolution of Dignity," which toppled the Yanukovych government (he fled to Russia), the country is looking to the United States as a counterweight to neighboring Russia and as a source of aid and impetus for reform in Ukraine.

There are two premises as to why not all is lost. First, that the president-elect was exaggerating, speaking ad hoc when he made statements during the campaign that don't reflect his real foreign policy.

"I am certain that his ego will drive him to show who is in charge," said Voytsitska. "The rhetoric about Russia? I believe it was just to be different from the usual. In reality, he will start to show the muscles of the great country."

And second, that a deep bench of hawkish Republicans would nudge Trump's foreign policy toward Ukraine and away from Russia. There is intense focus here on who will occupy key positions in the administration and questions about who will replace important players vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia, among them Vice President Joe Biden and the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland. She has been handling talks with Russia over the Minsk agreements, as they are called, that have instituted an often-violated cease-fire in breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine.

"Republicans are more pro-Ukraine than Democrats," said a high-ranking Ukrainian official, who spoke on background to discuss the president-elect candidly. "And of course the Republicans are going to influence their candidate."

Ukrainian officials like the names that have been floated for secretary of state. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) is known here for demanding that the United States provide Ukraine with lethal aid (the Obama administration has delivered tens of millions of dollars in nonlethal aid, but has not provided weapons or munitions). John Bolton, a former diplomat and leading Republican hawk, raises appreciative eyebrows. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is also viewed positively.

But the hometown favorite is Newt Gingrich, who traveled to Kiev in September to meet Poroshenko and spoke at the Yalta European Strategy conference, where he told attendees that Trump's actual policies if elected may differ from his campaign statements, according to a news release from the conference organizers.

"He shocked some people," said Sych. "We thought it was Ukrainian tactics to first try and win the election campaign and then try to build your views and values, because there's a lot of populists here. Nobody thought that could be the case in the U.S."

Ukrainian officials say their priorities now are to see U.S. sanctions against Russia rolled over, confirm the next tranche of U.S. financial aid to Ukraine, secure nonlethal assistance, strengthen the military partnership between the two countries, and also find a way to make a symbolic statement of alliance.

Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev, said that officials were eager to establish good relations with Trump but were still testing channels of communication. She was concerned that "there will be less input from the West in terms of conducting reforms," further reducing pressure on reluctant officials.

Oleksiy Melnyk, the co-director for foreign relations and international security programs at the Kiev-based Razumov Centre, said that Ukrainian officials were caught off-guard by the results of the election. But he played down the potential, now theoretical, benefits of a Clinton victory.

"The attempt to believe that the election of Hillary Clinton would be solution to the Ukraine conflict was very naive," he said. "The good news is that we won't be disappointed. There were too many expectations for her."