The drama is hobbling Ukraine’s inexperienced President Volodymyr Zelenskiy just as he’s trying to show he’s taking on the problems that matter most to Ukrainians _ endemic corruption, and an armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east that has killed 13,000 people and divided the nation.
Zelenskiy announced a long-awaited agreement Tuesday with the separatists that paves the way for peace talks to end five years of fighting, but several Ukrainian lawmakers have denounced it as capitulation to Russia. Ukrainian nationalists staged protests on the iconic Maidan square, scene of two popular uprisings in Kyiv, and Zelenskiy met with legislators Wednesday to try to calm their concerns and keep the fledgling accord alive.
An impeachment inquiry by the U.S. Congress against Trump was triggered by a national security whistleblower’s disclosure of a July 25 phone call between the U.S. president and Zelenskiy. The call unfolded against the backdrop of a $250 million foreign aid package for Ukraine that was being readied by Congress but stalled by Trump. Democrats say it appears that Trump was using the money as leverage as he pressed for Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son.
The Ukrainian leader is then heard on the call flattering Trump, criticizing the U.S. ambassador and European leaders, and saying Ukraine’s chief prosecutor is “my guy.” The U.S. scandal “is weakening Zelenskiy’s standing inside the country,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik political analysis firm.
Zelenskiy “gave a reason to doubt his ability to be an honest president,” Stanovaya said. “It’s the first big blow for him” since he overwhelmingly won Ukraine’s April election. Zelenskiy’s comments on the call also fuel the Kremlin’s view that Ukrainian leaders are beholden to U.S. interests. Russian commentators point to transactions like the pending $39 million sale of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to help battle the separatists. The proposed aid, announced Tuesday, is in addition to some $400 million in U.S. military aid that has been released.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first public comments on the phone call, came to Trump’s defense Wednesday. He said Trump’s critics are trying to find “any pretext” to topple him. To Putin, it’s normal for Trump to ask Zelenskiy to investigate “possible corrupt deals” linked to Biden.
“I don’t see anything incriminating there. ... Any head of state should have done the same thing,” Putin said. U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller concluded the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion.” Putin has denied that conclusion and Trump has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on the findings.
The U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its support for the separatists. Those penalties have hurt trade between Russia and the EU, and both sides are increasingly eager to end the conflict in Ukraine.
As Ukraine heads into possible peace talks with its nuclear-armed neighbor, “Russia is in a strong position,” Moscow-based analyst Masha Lipman told The Associated Press. “Russia has de facto control over part of Ukrainian territory, and Ukraine by the same token is in a weak position.”
Zelenskiy hailed Tuesday’s deal as a major step and the final hurdle before a much-anticipated summit between Zelenskiy, Putin and the leaders of France and Germany, who have helped mediate. But other Ukrainian politicians said the accord opens the door to cementing Russia’s presence in the region, and they accuse Zelenskiy’s administration of sidelining society from the decision-making in such a crucial development. Many Ukrainians also worry European partners are giving up on their graft-ridden country and ready to resume business with Russia.
Anti-corruption activist Daria Kaleniuk argued that the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call is not only hurting Ukraine but also “damaging the reputation of the United States as a place where there is rule of law and a place where there are strong institutions.”
Now “it will be much harder now to convince Ukrainian leadership that we need to move on toward Western values and toward independent judiciary and law enforcement,” she said. “Ukraine is suffering, the U.S. is suffering _ the only group of people who are happy are those people in the Kremlin,” Kaleniuk added.
Former President Petro Poroshenko is among those Ukrainians accusing Zelenskiy of caving to Russia. Poroshenko tried to distance himself from the U.S. impeachment inquiry but acknowledged he met Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani in 2017. He said Giuliani came to visit as a “friend of Ukraine” and they discussed “political support and investment” but nothing else. He wouldn’t elaborate.
Giuliani wants Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Speaking to reporters, Poroshenko said he “never ever spoke about commercial companies” with Trump, former President Barack Obama, Biden, or “any U.S. officials.”
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.