As Democratic lawmakers plan to impeach Donald Trump for abuse of power, the novice Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy must run a gauntlet of US partisan pressure that he has sought desperately to avoid.
Zelenskiy is squeezed between a US president urging him to dig up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden and a Democratic party that sees the White House’s pressure on him as a compelling argument to unseat Trump.
Ukraine, which counts on US political support and military aid to help repel its larger neighbour Russia, could end up being treated like a political football in the upcoming impeachment battle and the 2020 elections, even as it grapples with larger issues of security and reforms.
“I am afraid that Ukraine could become as toxic as Russia was during the Mueller investigation,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center. “We understand that every move that Trump does in Ukraine will be seen through this scandal. Every ‘no’ to Ukraine will be seen as an act of revenge. Every ‘yes’ is a sign that he wants to prove people wrong.”
Trump had ordered White House staff to withhold nearly $400m in aid to Ukraine shortly before a 25 July telephone call with Zelenskiy, according to the Washington Post, in an apparent bid to put pressure on the new Ukrainian leader. Much of that aid would be directed toward military equipment and training.
“I think [Vladimir] Putin is now applauding what is happening,” Getmanchuk added.
Zelenskiy is scheduled to meet Trump on Wednesday in New York after giving a speech at the United Nations general assembly.
The White House on Wednesday released a memorandum of the telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. During the call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to “look into” the closed investigation of Biden’s son, telling him repeatedly he would put him in touch with Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer with ties to Trump and a former mayor of New York City.
Zelenskiy appeared eager to please Trump in the call, calling him a “great teacher” and echoing his criticisms of European leaders and the former US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whom Zelenskiy called a “bad ambassador”. Zelenskiy also assured Trump that the next Ukrainian prosecutor would be “100% my person” and would “look into the situation” surrounding Biden and the company Burisma. It is not clear whether Zelenskiy did speak with Giuliani.
He also pointedly told Trump that he had stayed at Trump Tower in New York City. Foreign delegations are thought to stay at Trump properties to curry favour with him.
On Tuesday evening, Zelenskiy had sought to clear the air with a statement saying he wanted Kyiv’s relations with Washington to be “awesome” and that he planned to invite the US president to visit Ukraine. If Trump accepts, it would be the first visit by an American president since George W Bush in 2008.
“The most important thing is that [people] speak about Ukraine, that nobody forgets about Ukraine,” he said in the public remarks.
Pavlo Klimkin, the previous Ukrainian foreign minister, wrote with an acid sense of pride: “Ukraine will remain in the history of the United States as the country that led to the impeachment of the US president. Not a very fun prospect. But now everyone understands what we are capable of.”
Ukrainian diplomats and Zelenskiy himself have sought to downplay the scandal. In remarks to Russian journalists in New York on Wednesday morning, Zelenskiy denied that Trump pressured him in the 25 July call. “Nobody can put pressure on me because I am the president of an independent country,” he said. The only person who could pressure him, he added, “is my son, who is six”.
That contradicted an account by Chris Murphy, a member of the US Senate foreign relations committee, who described both Zelenskiy and his administration in recent meetings as “confused” about “the nature of these demands they were getting from the Trump administration … and that they worry that the aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence for their unwillingness, at the time, to investigate the Bidens”.
A European diplomat in Kyiv called Zelenskiy’s predicament a “worst-case scenario” where “there is almost no middle ground” between Trump and the Democratic party.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst, said that Zelenskiy’s administration had chosen a strategy of “strict neutrality” in order to avoid angering Trump or a possible Democratic administration, should Biden or another candidate win in 2020.
“The Democrats or Trump could be offended, in particular Trump, by the lack of support, but it’s a necessary position for Ukraine,” he said.
Ironically, Fesenko said, the announcement of a formal impeachment inquiry could take some pressure off of the Zelenskiy this week, as Trump’s actions were closely scrutinised by the press.
“Trump would have to be crazy to come out and put pressure on Zelenskiy now [about Biden],” he said.