September 27, 2019

Zelenskyy and Trump


For days now, Ukraine has been on the front pages of our newspapers and in the lead stories on our news networks. Normally, that would be good news, but not so much in this case. Unfortunately, Ukraine has become a political football in the U.S. as the 2020 presidential election draws nearer.

At the center of the news is a July 25 telephone conversation between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which the U.S. president – directly after hearing from Mr. Zelenskyy that Kyiv is ready to buy more Javelins – appears to be pressuring the Ukrainian president into doing him a “favor.” Mr. Trump says he would like Mr. Zelenskyy to find out what happened with CrowdStrike (an Internet security company that looked into the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s servers back in 2016 and determined that two groups connected to the Russian government were responsible), adding that it’s believed Ukraine has one of the servers. According to the just-released memorandum about the phone call, Mr. Trump also asks Mr. Zelenskyy to look into “talk about Biden’s son, that [Joe] Biden stopped the prosecution.” The reference is to the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, whose board included Hunter Biden, and to the sacking of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, whose firing was demanded not only by then-Vice-President Biden but also by other Western leaders because of his failure to fight corruption. It should be noted that Burisma was not being investigated at the time of Mr. Shokin’s removal. Nonetheless the Biden case has, at the very least, the appearance of impropriety.

Also key to the controversy over the two presidents’ phone conversation is the fact that, prior to the call, Mr. Trump held up $391 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine. The accusation is that the president did so to have leverage in getting Mr. Zelenskyy to do his bidding. Observers are calling this a shakedown and saying Mr. Trump was using U.S. foreign policy for his own political purposes – to affect the presidential campaign by damaging a political rival. Mr. Trump calls all this a “witch hunt” and blames it on the “fake news media.”

Thus, it must have been a stressful week for Ukraine’s inexperienced president, who arrived in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly and for a meeting with the U.S. leader on the sidelines of U.N. events. It is clear to all that Ukraine is deeply dependent on U.S. aid of various forms and that Mr. Zelenskyy could find himself in a no-win situation. His words could determine whether Kyiv loses the support of Democrats in Congress or that of the Trump administration. At a press briefing with Mr. Trump, Ukraine’s president treaded carefully; he called their phone conversation “good” and “normal,” said “nobody pushed me,” and underscored – most appropriately – “I don’t want to be involved in democratic elections of U.S.A.”

The other bad news this week was that, once again, Ukraine was being depicted in the news media as hopelessly corrupt. (For example, the Associated Press wrote: “…Ukraine has long been considered one of Eastern Europe’s most corrupt countries…”) Once again, the image being presented was that of a failed state. This belies the real progress Ukraine has made in recent years in combatting corruption, including the fact that Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court is now a reality – a functioning entity as of September 5.

The stories about the U.S.-Ukraine phone call and corruption in Ukraine dominated the news and overshadowed anything the neophyte president would say to the world. In the opening of his speech on September 25, Mr. Zelenskyy asked his fellow leaders to recall their first speeches from the U.N. rostrum: “Remember how important it was to tell the problems and troubles of your country and your people to the world back then. How important it was to be heard. I have the same feelings today.” He went on to speak about the costs of Russia’s war and how the numbers of those killed, wounded and displaced grow every year, how Ukraine needs the world’s support. “…in today’s world, where we live, there is no longer someone else’s war. None of you can feel safe when there is a war in Ukraine, when there is a war in Europe.” In his meeting with Mr. Trump later that day, Mr. Zelenskyy stated: “We have two wars. The first is against corruption, but I am sure that we will certainly win in this war. However, my priority is to stop the war in Donbas and regain our territories – Crimea, Donbas.”

That, dear readers, is what must be the focus for Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine needs U.S. support, but it cannot and should not become involved in the presidential campaign in the U.S. And the U.S. must treat Ukraine as the strategic ally that it is, and not as a tool to be used by politicians for personal gain.