Why Does Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Say He Felt No Pressure From Trump?

I was last in Kyiv three weeks ago. I stayed at Hotel Intercontinental, which offered a striking scene in the bar at night. The big Ukrainian businessmen who are usually to be seen there had taken flight. Instead, the bar was full of American journalists, most of whom knew nothing about Ukraine.

One young Ukrainian was there, though: Andriy Telizhenko, who had supplied Rudolph Giuliani with the most fantastic stories that only Rudolph Giuliani could believe. At the tender age of 29, Telizhenko presented himself as an outstanding connector with the most odious Ukrainian oligarchs. His only request was expensive whisky and cigars. He met with Giuliani even last week in New York. Some like good narrators; others prefer truth.

The talented storyteller Telizhenko illustrates the chasm between U.S. media and Ukrainian reality – unlike the American news media that has, understandably, been consumed with the story, the Trump-Giuliani scandal has attracted surprisingly little attention in Ukrainian media. I asked all kinds of Ukrainians why that was the case. They responded that it is an American scandal that has nothing to do with them.

Indeed, this is an American scandal. President Donald Trump seems to have two aims: He wants to invent dirt on Joe Biden and create evidence that his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was not a crook. Giuliani wants to assist the president in these dubious endeavors. In addition, he aspires to make money by defending a variety of suspect criminals against Western law enforcement. Various characters connected with U.S. gas interests want to make money by supplying liquified natural gas (LNG) to Ukraine and perhaps also in other ways, none of which appears charitable. The overall U.S. national security objective to stand up to Russian military aggression and defend Ukraine does not even figure in their calculations.

But why did Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, play along with Trump in their phone call of July 25? Zelenskyy flattered him, agreed with his criticism of European countries and the U.S. ambassador whom Trump had recalled, and agreed to investigate a company where Biden’s son had served on the board (though Zelenskyy also asked for more information on that company from the United States, which might have been a way of hedging and delaying any probe). And in a joint news conference with Trump on Sept. 25 in New York, a reporter asked Zelenskyy, “Have you felt any pressure from President Trump to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden?” Zelenskky replied, “Nobody pushed me.” Trump immediately added, “In other words, no pressure,” and thanked Zelenskyy for his answer. Zelenskyy had also stressed, “I don’t want to be involved” in “democratic, open elections” in the United States.

Zelenskyy stuck to the same response this week, when he appeared near the front line of Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression with Ambassador Bill Taylor, who just returned to his temporary post leading the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv after testifying in Washington to the precise pressure that Zelenskyy is trying to deny. “It’s not the first question about Mr. Trump, and I have no new answers,” Zelenskyy told NBC News at the event.

Trump, Giuliani and Co. are seizing repeatedly on Zelenskyy’s denial of feeling pressure to make the case that there can be no quid pro quo unless Zelenskyy attests to it. Trump tweeted on Sept. 26, for example, “The President of Ukraine said that he was NOT pressured by me to do anything wrong. Can’t have better testimony than that!” After Taylor’s testimony, Senator Lindsey Graham said on Fox News, “Here’s the question: Why does the president of Ukraine deny there’s a quid pro quo?” Giuliani on Oct. 29 tweeted, “the only opinion that legally counts is Pres. Zelensky’s. Who has clearly said NO pressure. End of impeachment.”

But Zelenskyy’s response is utterly logical – and acceptable — at home. Ukrainians are humble people. They know that they are receiving foreign assistance and that they had better be grateful for it. I did not hear any Ukrainian in Kyiv criticizing their president for being subservient to Trump. Why should he do anything else if he wants U.S. support, they would argue? Being in a war with Russia since 2014, Ukraine needs all the support it can get. Therefore, it must not criticize a major donor.

This does not mean that Ukrainians thought Zelenskyy told the truth, but sometimes a president has to do what a president has to do. Needless to say, it means nothing that Zelenskyy claimed publicly that there was no quid pro quo on the part of Trump. It only means that it would be unwise for the Ukrainian president to criticize the U.S. president.

IMAGE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C-L) leaves a search and rescue ship in the port city of Mariupol on June 15, 2019, after a military exercises in the Sea of Azov. It was his first official visit to the frontline port city, where he took part in joint exercises of the Ukrainian national guard, border guard, sappers and divers in the Sea of Azov. The city which is about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the active combat zone, celebrated the 5th anniversary of its liberation from Russia-backed rebels. (Photo by EVGENIYA MAKSYMOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Anders Åslund

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a long-time expert on Russia and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter (@anders_aslund)