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The Mess Trump Has Made in Ukraine

The United States has an interest in keeping the Eastern European state stable and its government looking legitimate. The president's phone call worked against that.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of his now-infamous July phone call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, it’s not surprising that President Donald Trump has received the lion’s share of American analysis, especially after his actions have now triggered an impeachment process. But there hasn’t been very much analysis of Zelenskiy, nor of what sort of burden an increasingly erratic brand of American politics tends to put on countries depending on the United States for financial and strategic support.

Just as Ukraine seems to have become Americans’ go-to for questionable political activities, flattery has become an essential element for Ukrainians—or anyone else—dealing with an American president. According to the memo of the July 25 call, Zelenskiy called Trump “a great teacher,” and told him that he was “very grateful to you…because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine.” Zelenskiy even invited Trump to visit his country. “We can either take my plane and go to Ukraine or we can take your plane, which is probably much better than mine,” Zelenskiy reportedly told Trump.

Every aspect of the unfolding story, as well as the broader narrative of the Trump administration’s involvement with Ukraine, can be tied to what is ultimately the exceptional vulnerability of this Eastern European state. We can only imagine how many advisors had prepped Zelenskiy for his call, let alone how many of them might have been huddled around him as he spoke to Trump. Imagine Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president speaking to Trump over the phone, sometimes through an interpreter, sometimes in English, surrounded by a crew of helpers all trying to understand the U.S. rambler-in-chief. It’s an image that could well have been taken from Zelenskiy’s former TV show. Regardless, it’s unlikely that flattering Trump was a casual consideration on Zelenskiy’s part. It was, rather, a careful calculation by a new president leading a country at war with no other options on his plate.

The record the White House released Wednesday of the call shows Trump asking Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden, going so far as to offer the Ukrainian president the help of Attorney General William Barr, for a controversy involving the former VP’s son that’s been debunked over and over and over again. Prior to the phone call and the request, Trump temporarily held up some $400 million in military aid to Zelenskiy’s government.

Trump apparently responded positively to the less-than-subtle flattery from Zelenskiy, the consummate showman whose resounding election win The New Republic covered earlier this year. The level of comical sycophancy that an ally—the only country in Europe with a still-smoldering war on its territory—has had to resort to in order to be heard out by the leader of the world’s most powerful country is a testament to the double-edged sword of American support. Zelenskiy probably never imagined that what he said during this call would ever be made public; in comments on Wednesday, the Ukrainian president even said he was under the impression that only Trump’s end of the conversation would be publicly released. The most potentially damaging part of Zelenskiy’s end of the conversation wasn’t his flattery, but rather the off-hand way he suggested he could control the selection of Ukraine’s next prosecutor general in order to help with Trump’s inquiry into Joe Biden, and the way he disparaged the former American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. As with almost anyone who’s dealt with Trump, Zelenskiy has been burned, his indiscreet private statements being released to serve the White House’s purposes. The call record may well hurt him politically.

Over the past few days, numerous Ukrainian commentators have urged their president to stay as far away from Trump and American infighting as possible. “There are times when the best tactic is silence,” Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Sidorenko wrote earlier this week. “We should distance ourselves as much as possible. Don’t make any statements. Don’t interfere in domestic American debates, even if there’s a mention of Ukraine, Zelenskiy, or past representatives.”

“Because the presidential campaign is approaching, the danger has again arisen that they’ll try to drag Ukraine into domestic American politics,” wrote Ukrainian political scientist Sergiy Taran, who suggested “maximum distance” as the best strategy.

At Wednesday’s press conference alongside Trump in New York, Zelenskiy was indeed keeping his distance. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved [in] democratic open elections, elections of the USA,” Zelenskiy said in English when asked about the memo and the July 25 phone call.

Staying out of Trump’s Biden non-story is key to maintaining what Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on Ukrainian affairs, stresses is the bipartisan support that Ukraine currently enjoys in D.C. “The Ukrainian government has done a good job of not upsetting anyone,” Jankowicz told me.

It’s a precarious, high-stakes balancing act for the country, given the role the U.S. plays in fending off Russian ambitions. “Ukraine is now facing the prospect of becoming a double victim,” Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of Kyiv-based think tank New Europe Center, wrote in The New York Times earlier this week. “On the one hand, [Ukraine is] a victim of Mr. Putin’s aggression; on the other, [Ukraine is] a victim of Mr. Trump’s desire to be re-elected at any price.”

The simple fact is that Ukraine, like many countries, needs the United States. While the European Union, which Trump (and Zelenskiy) derided in the memo of their chat, provides ample support to Ukraine—more than 3 billion euros since 2014—the common feeling in Ukraine is that the EU is willing to bend too far to the Kremlin’s terms to stop the war in Donbas, whereas the United States is willing to more aggressively back Ukraine.

“I think the Ukrainians are very concerned that Europe is not willing to up the pressure on Russia the way the United States has been, at least rhetorically,” Olya Oliker, Europe & Central Asia Director for Crisis Group, told me. The U.S., she added, has been willing to pressure if not “scare” Russia in a way the EU has not. “For all of the ‘let’s be friends with Russia’ talk from the White House, the U.S. has been really consistent on this,” Oliker said.

But it’s not necessarily easy for a foreign country to understand what exactly the United States stands for these days, or who’s speaking for it. After all, it was Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who helped install corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, deposed in 2014 in a revolution which led directly to Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict that roils Ukraine to this day. Jankowicz, for one, worries about the “mixed signals” that the U.S. is sending its allies by having official, diplomatic channels and foreign policy from the State Department along with unofficial and considerably less diplomatic channels, like using Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani as a conduit. “It impacts our credibility abroad,” said Jankowicz.

The recent call memo, not to mention the entire Biden affair instigated by a commander-in-chief looking ahead to 2020, is an unintentional testament to the Trump era. A country that regards itself as the foremost exporter of liberal democracy around the world is also now a country whose leader goes around making illiberal, undemocratic requests of its apparent allies—and has a pliant crew of partisans back home to defend every move.

“We are friends,” Zelenskiy reportedly told Trump in their July 25 phone calls. “We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country.”

But does Trump feel the same? Even aside from his associations with Manafort and persistent cozying up to Russia, there would be reasons to doubt that friendship. After all, it’s Ukraine—the only country in Europe with an active conflict on its soil and one that’s seldom in western news for any positive reasons—that has to have discussion right now about how to best avoid America’s anger. And it’s something that may not bode well for other countries around the world who, like Ukraine, feel they need the unflinching support of the United States just to survive. There’s a lot at stake in Ukraine, a country that Jankowicz describes as the “lynchpin to the region,” key to the security of eastern Europe. It’s in no one’s interest—save perhaps the Kremlin—to have the country fall further into war or chaos. And actions like Trump’s, if they become a precedent or a pattern, are hardly the recipe for greater governmental legitimacy or stability in Ukraine.

Trump, sitting beside Zelenskiy on Wednesday, didn’t sound too interested in providing his counterpart with much support. “I really hope that you and President Putin can get together and solve your problem,” he told Zelenskiy. From the Ukrainian perspective, to hear the president of the United States describe your almost six-year-long war that’s taken an estimated 13,000 lives as merely a “problem” probably isn’t something that fills you with confidence.