“It’s better to be here than by phone,” quipped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the start of his joint press conference with Donald Trump in New York on 25 September. Suddenly, at his first meeting with his American counterpart, Zelensky found himself in the eye of an impeachment storm. Trump’s alleged decision to pressure him into launching an inquiry into the activities of US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son has dominated American politics for days. But what does it mean for Ukraine?
Zelensky’s main message at the press conference was that he did not want to be involved in a democratic election in the United States. That is understandable enough. To achieve this, he claimed that “we had a good phone call, it was normal … I think you read it that nobody pushed me”. He added that Ukraine is an independent country – a great country – and that the new independent prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, is a highly professional man. It is not up to the president of Ukraine to launch investigations, he continued.
Regardless of what he thought of the phone call, Zelensky had little choice but to say that Trump put no pressure on him. He would not want to be seen as someone who could be pressured. And he would feel obliged to defend Trump because Ukraine needs the US. Trump said: “[former US president Barack] Obama was sending you pillows and sheets, and I gave you anti-tank busters” – which, if not very fair, to a large extent reflects how Ukrainians feel about Western support in the war. They were desperate for lethal weapons, but had to wait a long time for them.
The phone call transcript is certainly not a pleasant read for Ukrainians. For some Ukrainian commentators, it was painful to see Zelensky’s obsequious attitude towards Trump. Agreeing with Trump 1,000 percent and calling him a great teacher can make one cringe. But then, isn’t it the way to talk to the president of the US these days? Talking to Trump is an art, a game – and Zelensky, being an actor, is well placed to play this game.
A bigger problem is the way in which Zelensky agreed with Trump in criticising France, Germany, and the European Union. It was certainly unfair and prompted a reply from the European External Action Service: “the European Union’s support to Ukraine in the past 5 years has been unprecedented and consistent … the EU and the European Financial Institutions have mobilized more than €15 billion in grants and loans”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained typically restrained, even though Germany has been a very close ally of Ukraine and could have taken Zelensky’s comment as a slap in the face. However, in truth, she is unlikely to have been shocked by Zelensky’s statement. It is no secret that Ukraine feels it has not received enough support. Indeed, Zelensky has openly discussed this with European leaders and has added that the phone call took place in a particularly difficult period. Europeans may be angry, but their anger will not last long: ultimately, supporting Ukraine to an unprecedented extent is in Europe’s vital interest.
The imbroglio with the EU demonstrates the pitfalls that can come from the obsessive attention surrounding American political scandals. As impeachment procedures are a never-ending affair, Ukraine is bound to become a theme in American politics for a little while. Zelensky might be dragged into the US election despite what he wants. The impeachment process is unlikely to remove Trump, but the whole scandal will certainly have an impact on the electoral campaign. In the meantime, there will be pressure on Zelensky and the prosecutor general from various sources. A new investigation into the Bidens might prompt unforeseen revelations about corrupt political elites in Ukraine that can have important implications for domestic politics. Ensuring the independence of the new prosecutor general will be a key test for Ukrainian institutions, as they need to make sure that any investigation is as professional and transparent as possible.
While the focus on corruption is not ideal, being in the spotlight might be good for Ukraine. Oscar Wilde’s observation that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” holds true for Ukraine. World leaders are again hearing that the war in Ukraine is not over and that it is an important European country. Zelensky’s message that “Ukraine needs more support fighting its two wars: with corruption and in Donbas” has a new audience. There will now be more scrutiny of American support for Ukraine, which will help protect the country from threats to withhold it – explicit or otherwise. Ukraine is gaining prominence – so much so that Trump has even stopped calling it “the Ukraine”, which is quite something.
Zelensky will surely stick to his strategy of being very nice to Trump, avoiding actions that could have an impact on the American election, and stressing that any investigation is the responsibility of Ryaboshapka – whose strong reputation will certainly help. Zelensky will also try to downplay the whole affair, repeating that Ukraine “has many more issues to tackle”. The scandal is not about Ukraine, but about the American president allegedly soliciting interference from a foreign country. Ukraine does indeed have many more issues to tackle – not least the war in Donbas, which was what Zelensky came to discuss at the UN General Assembly in New York in the first place.
This article first appeared in ECFR. Click here to go to the original.