President Zelenskiy May Come to Regret His Discussion With Trump  

Whether Zelenskiy likes it or not, Ukraine is in the middle of a U.S. political scandal.

6 min read
President Donald Trump met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently.

The scandal that erupted in response to the July phone conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has had obvious consequences for Trump.

But there also are consequences for the newly elected Zelenskiy and his team, as well as for Ukraine more generally.

In the phone call, Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden – a leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in 2020 – and his son for corruption related to the son’s business dealings in Ukraine. Much of the conversation seemed focused on Ukraine’s history of corruption and attempts to root it out.

During his press conference with Donald Trump in New York on 25 September, during the UN summit, Zelenskiy attempted to remind the world that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with its own national interests, which he, as president, is charged to defend.

He also said that he cannot be forced or pressured to do anything and refused to be drawn in the middle of US politics.

“Sure, we had – I think good phone call. It was normal,” said Zelenskiy. “We spoke about many things, and I – so I think and you read it that nobody pushed me.”

Whether Zelenskiy likes it or not, Ukraine is in the middle of a US political scandal.

Regardless of the results of the political process in the US, Ukraine’s reluctant role in the scandal reinforced the notion of deeply entrenched corruption in Ukraine. At the time when the new Ukrainian administration is trying to fight corruption and attract foreign investment, this incident might prove damaging.

And as has been the case throughout history, Ukraine appears to be the victim of international politics rather than an equal player.

In 2014, Russian troops like those shown here in trucks annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula
In 2014, Russian troops like those shown here in trucks annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula
(Photo: The Conversation

Managing European Allies

To understand how damaging the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call could be to Ukraine, some history is necessary for context.

Following mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 in Ukraine, known as the Revolution of Dignity, president Viktor Yanukovych was deposed and fled to Russia. Russia then seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

Later that year a war between Russian-backed militants and Ukrainian forces erupted in the eastern regions of Ukraine, collectively known as Donbas.

A map of Ukraine – shaded areas are territory Russia has claimed.
A map of Ukraine – shaded areas are territory Russia has claimed.
(Photo: The Conversation

Ukraine has been forced into a costly war to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity against what it sees as Russian aggression. Diplomatic, economic and military support from the US and Europe have been crucial in this effort.

On the economic and geopolitical side, Ukraine’s previous leaders steered a pro-European course of development with an eye to future integration with the European Union. Zelenskiy pledged to support this course.

So when Zelenskiy made critical comments towards the European Union and European partners in the phone call with Trump, he was placing those crucial alliances at risk.

In his response to Trump’s comments that Europe “should be helping you more than they are. Germany does almost nothing for you,” Zelenskiy said that he agrees with Trump “not only 100%, but actually 1000%” and that “the European Union should be our biggest partner but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union.”

European financial institutions contributed $16 billion in economic aid to Ukraine since 2014. These funds were aimed at reforming Ukraine’s economy, which has been damaged further by the conflict with Russia.

The EU has also contributed military equipment. In addition, from 2011 to 2019, NATO contributed $43.8 million to Ukraine’s defense.

It will require diplomacy to control the possible consequences for Ukrainian security.

Zelenskiy may have damaged relations with European allies by his phone call with Trump. Here, Zelenskiy, right, is seen with French President Emmanuel Macron, in Paris
Zelenskiy may have damaged relations with European allies by his phone call with Trump. Here, Zelenskiy, right, is seen with French President Emmanuel Macron, in Paris
(Photo: The Conversation

Commitments In Doubt

Zelenskiy attempted to retract his critical comments last week.

But behind his revealing comments about the EU in the phone call with Trump are newly growing doubts among the Ukrainian public about the commitments of European allies to Ukraine.

That’s particularly the case when it comes to sanctions on Russia, which Ukraine sees as crucial in restoring Ukraine’s occupied territories and applying pressure on pro-Russian militants.

Feeding those doubts is the continued joint Russian-German construction of a controversial natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that would bypass Ukraine. That project is predicted to damage Ukraine both politically and economically because Ukraine has been the major transit country for Russian gas, which brings its government billions in fees and economic activity.

In June, Russia was allowed to return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, after being suspended in 2014 as response to its Crimean annexation. France supported this return, despite Ukraine’s objections.

Reactions in Ukraine

Inside Ukraine, the Trump conflict has produced a mixed response.

Zelenskiy ran on the platform of fighting corruption, which has long plagued Ukraine’s government. He will likely have to answer for his statement to Trump that the new prosecutor general, who was investigating corruption, is “100% his man,” rather than an independent investigator.

In the press conference with Trump, Zelenskiy said that he merely meant that he trusts the professionalism and independence of the new prosecutor.

“He is my friend (comrade), it is true,” Zelenskiy said. “All my team are my people. They are not my property. I can not tell them what to do.”

However, his guarantee of independence for the prosecutor may not have been enough to satisfy domestic critics. The day after the press conference, a member of the opposition party in the Ukrainian parliament requested a full transcript of the phone conversation in Ukrainian.

The conversation has given his political adversaries powerful ammunition. Luckily for Zelenskiy, his party has a super-majority in the parliament, which will offer him a degree of political protection.

Zelensky’s critics are likely to point out his lack of political and diplomatic experience at a time when he needs both. His response to that criticism? He says that he will “learn on the job.


And Then There is Russia

Ukraine remains in a vulnerable position when it comes to Russia.

Since the start of the conflict in 2014 the Global Conflict Tracker with the Council on Foreign Relations estimates its consequences as more than 10,000 dead civilians and 1.5 million displaced persons.

President Zelenskiy ran on the platform of ending the war in Donbas and initiated a well-publicized prisoner exchange with the Russian Federation in early September in hopes of softening tensions with Moscow.

Prior to his visit to New York, Zelenskiy’s administration was working on various formulas in preparation for possible peace talks with Russia that would include France, Germany and perhaps the US and the UK.

But Ukraine might lose support from its strategic partners in this and other efforts. Without the support of the Western allies, Russia will gain the upper hand to pressure Ukraine to accept the peace on Russia’s terms. That could include giving up Crimea and/or giving greater political autonomy to the breakaway region by amending the Ukrainian Constitution.

Moreover, Russian propaganda has long suggested that Ukraine is a pawn in the hands of the West. The Ukrainian political elite, according to the Moscow propagandists, is controlled by the Western interests.

This scandal fits right into that narrative.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)

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