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How Ukraine's President Wound Up In The Middle Of The Trump Impeachment Inquiry

If there were ever a person stuck in a place he never wanted to be, it's Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy had been in his post for only two months when he had that infamous July 25 phone call with President Trump — during which Trump asked the Ukrainian president to help investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. For Zelenskiy, the call made what was already a delicate diplomatic situation even more complicated.

Zelenskiy presides over a country that has been locked for five years in a bloody conflict with Russian-backed separatists that has left at least 13,000 people dead. It's a fight that has made Ukraine increasingly dependent on American military assistance. Now, the effort to secure that aid has thrust Zelenskiy to the center of the battle playing out in Washington over whether Trump should be impeached.

A real shot

Until his election in April, Zelenskiy was a comedian best known for playing the president of Ukraine on TV. His wildly popular show was called "Servant of the People."

"He's quite a funny guy, like a really great comedian, a super talented actor. It's true that until last year, I would never have imagined somebody like that would run," says Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, who grew up watching Zelenskiy on TV.

Gumenyuk says even though his show was a comedy, it made it possible for voters to give Zelenskiy a real shot. The political newcomer won election in a landslide with roughly 73% of the vote.

"Somehow in people's minds, people think he understands politics because he always makes jokes about politics," she says.

But now, Zelenskiy is no longer just playing a part, but in charge of a country that is not only mired in war, but struggling with a weak economy and rampant corruption.

Then there is the issue of Ukraine's relationship with the U.S. Asked about his phone call with President Trump, Zelenskiy told reporters from the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September, "It was normal, we spoke about many things ... nobody pushed me." The remarks came during a joint appearance with President Trump.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, another Soviet republic, says there's no way Zelenskiy could have been prepared for that phone call.

"I mean, someone who had no real experience in foreign affairs let alone politics, shortly after winning and taking office is thrust into this huge power play involving the fate of his [country's] relations with the United States, and I fear he was just overwhelmed, if not out of his depth," he says. "If you have president of the United States, in so far as we can tell, holding up military assistance when you're in a war, that's pretty serious."

'A horrible position'

At his U.N. speech in September, Zelenskiy said that achieving peace in eastern Ukraine was one of his primary objectives. This helps explains why he raised the issue of U.S. military assistance in his July phone call with Trump.

The Trump administration had actually bolstered assistance to Ukraine when it delivered lethal aid to its military, a step the Obama administration had not taken. But by the time the two leaders spoke in July, nearly $400 million in future aid had been suspended, according to The Washington Post.

On the call, Zelenskiy told the American president he was ready for more U.S. military help, including Javelin missiles that help defend against Russian tanks, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House.

Zelenskiy shakes hands with President Trump during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25.
Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images

Trump's response: "I would like you to do us a favor though." Trump then asked Zelenskiy if he would "look into" Biden and the work his son Hunter did for the Ukrainian energy giant Burisma, as well as a conspiracy theory related to the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee that U.S. intelligence has traced to Russia.

That seemed to signal a change, even though Trump has denied that there was any quid pro quo and described the call as "absolutely perfect."

"That military assistance was a strong signal of American support for Ukraine," says Steven Pifer, who served in the late 90s as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "So that's the official policy. And then you have the second policy, which the president seems to have outsourced to Rudy Giuliani."

Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, had been digging for information about the Bidens in Ukraine.

"That's part of the whole quid pro quo conversation with the Ukrainians," Pifer says. He says it left Zelensky in "a horrible position."

"It seems to me that President Zelenskiy is figuring out a path to navigate this without angering President Trump but also without doing stuff that plunges this country into our domestic politics," Pifer says. "It doesn't help Ukraine in any way to become a football in our 2020 election."

A political future beyond the phone call

All this has had dramatic ramifications in the U.S., where only the fourth impeachment inquiry in history is underway.

In Ukraine, Gomenyuk says, many people were closely following the story early on, concerned that Zelenskiy might somehow allow Ukraine's relationship with the U.S. to unravel. But now, she says, many seem to see Zelenskiy as navigating an impossible situation as best he can.

Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, greet the crowd at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv on March 31. "He's very much a family man," Ukrainian lawmaker Sviatoslav Yurash said.
Genya Savilov / AFP/Getty Images

"It didn't make him better. You know, it didn't serve him for good, but it didn't harm him a lot," she says.

Other questions Zelenskiy is facing about some of his business ties could prove to be even more challenging for him. His critics point to connections to an oligarch who owns the TV network that aired Zelenskiy's show and, some suggest, helped him win the presidency. That oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, has himself faced accusations of corruption.

At the end of the day, there's a lot more that will determine Zelenskiy's political future than his relationship with President Trump.

Some see a chance for Zelenskiy to free Ukraine from its past.

Zelenskiy attends the rehearsal of his comedy show Liga Smeha (League of Laughter) on March 19 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

They point to his own journey to the presidency that traces back to an industrial working-class city in southeast Ukraine.

"He's the guy that made it. That's his story. He's the guy from the tough neighborhood that made it," says Sviatoslav Yurash, who worked as a campaign adviser to Zelenskiy. At 23, he's now youngest member of Ukraine's parliament.

He sees in Zelenskiy a politician who can relate to Western-leaning people in Ukraine who long to be part of Europe, as well as the factory workers and coal-miners in the east who speak Russian and have cultural ties to Moscow.

Zelenskiy, he says, is the first politician he can remember who's genuinely inspired younger Ukrainians who'd lost faith in their long-corrupt political system.

"We are the generation who have been essentially let down completely by the choices of our political elites," he says. "We are basically the independent generation that has [grown] up to expect something else from our country than just to survive as many of the Soviet past did and we demand transformation."

And Zelenskiy has time to deliver. He began his address at the United Nations in September by saying, "Each of you, ladies and gentlemen, had the first speech from this rostrum. Please recall your feelings at that moment. Every one of you, respected and honored today, was once a beginner."

So as much as that infamous July 25th phone call has put Zelenskiy in a perilous position and the saga involving Trump has unexpectedly overshadowed his first months in office, Zelenskiy wants to remind people that he's just getting started.

Danny Hajek produced this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's learn about the guy who was on the other end of that phone call, the call where President Trump asked for a favor, a favor from the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. If there were ever a person stuck in a place he never wanted to be, it's him. Zelenskiy spoke about that call in September when he was sitting awkwardly next to Trump at the United Nations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to democratic open - (foreign language spoken)...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Elections.

ZELENSKIY: ...Elections of USA.

GREENE: The world wanted to finally hear how's Zelenskiy felt about that call and whether he felt pressured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKIY: It was normal. We spoke about many things. And I - so I think, and you already, that nobody pushed me. Yes.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In other words, no pressure.

GREENE: For Zelenskiy, that moment was about so much more than finding the right words. His country's security depends on its relationship with the United States. And right now, that means Donald Trump. On that visit to New York, Zelenskiy had only been in office for four months, and he was desperate for the validation of an official White House invitation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKIY: You invited me, but I think - I'm sorry, but I think you forgot to tell me the date.

(LAUGHTER)

ZELENSKIY: But I think in the near future.

TRUMP: They'll tell you the date.

ZELENSKIY: Oh, yes. They know before us.

GREENE: Zelenskiy does often lean on humor. The 41-year-old is a comedian and an actor who just got into politics. He's 5-foot-7. He has a small frame. He clearly loves being goofy and cracking jokes. Maybe imagine Steve Carell from "The Office" becoming our president.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: This guy was with everybody's family television for 20 years at least.

GREENE: That's Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, who grew up watching Zelenskiy on TV.

GUMENYUK: He was quite a funny guy - like, a really great comedian, a super talented actor. And it's true that, till the last year, I would never imagine somebody like that would run.

GREENE: Hard to imagine, yeah, because he's a lifelong entertainer. But here's the weirdest part. Up until becoming president of Ukraine, he was on TV playing the president of Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking in Russian).

GREENE: His wildly popular show was called "Servant Of The People." Gumenyuk says even though it was comedy, the show made it possible for voters to give Zelenskiy a real shot.

GUMENYUK: Somehow, in the people's minds, I believe that he - people think that he understand the politics because he always made jokes about politics.

GREENE: But think of that Trump phone call. Think about that appearance at the United Nations. Zelenskiy is now really in it.

TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES: I feel sympathy, empathy. I feel sorry for the guy.

GREENE: That's the voice of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was himself the president of another former Soviet Republic, Estonia, from 2006 to 2016. He says there is no way Zelenskiy could have been prepared for that phone call.

ILVES: I mean, someone who had no real experience in foreign affairs, let alone politics, shortly after winning and taking office is thrust into this huge power play involving the fate of his country, relations with the United States. And I fear he was just overwhelmed, if not out of his depth.

GREENE: You say the fate of his country at stake - do you really feel like it's that serious?

ILVES: Well, if you have the president of the United States to - insofar as we can tell, holding up military assistance when you're in a war, that's pretty serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

GREENE: That war he's talking about is a conflict with Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: In Russia and Ukraine, girding up for war.

JOSH ELLIOTT: ...Concerns that Russia could now be on the verge of invading Ukraine. The growing tensions...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Raising fears that Russia wants to go beyond Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine.

GREENE: OK, so let me put this in context. Think about if the U.S. lost Florida to a foreign power. That's essentially what happened when Russia forcibly annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Then let's say after that, separatists supporting that foreign power went to war to try and take over a swath of the larger U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Well, that's essentially what Ukraine is fighting now in its east. Zelenskiy brought up this conflict in his address to the United Nations. That's heard here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKIY: (Speaking through interpreter) More than 13,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, 1 1/2 million people forced to leave their homes. These numbers, they keep growing each year.

GREENE: Zelenskiy added that achieving peace was one of his primary objectives. And this explains why he brought up U.S. military assistance in that phone call with President Trump. He told the American president he was ready for more U.S. military help, including these Javelin missiles that help defend against Russian tanks. President Trump's response - quote, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."

And that seemed like a change. The Trump administration had actually bolstered aid to Ukraine, delivering lethal aid to its military - a step that President Obama hadn't taken, which is why the idea of that aid being contingent on something really seemed unthinkable. Steven Pifer is a veteran American diplomat who served in the late '90s as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

STEVEN PIFER: That military assistance was a strong signal of American support for Ukraine. So that's the official policy. And then you have the second policy, which the president seems to have outsourced to Rudy Giuliani.

GREENE: Giuliani is, of course, President Trump's personal attorney, who we now know had been digging for information about the Bidens in Ukraine.

PIFER: And that's part of the whole quid pro quo conversation with the Ukrainians.

GREENE: Well, what kind of position does that put Zelenskiy in if he has two different foreign policies (laughter) coming from the United States?

PIFER: It puts Zelenskiy in a horrible position. So it seems to me that President Zelenskiy is figuring out a path to navigate this without angering President Trump but also without doing stuff that plunges his country into our domestic politics. And to my mind, that's exactly what he needs to be doing. It doesn't help Ukraine in any way to become a football in our 2020 election.

GREENE: All of this has had dramatic ramifications in the United States, where only the fourth impeachment inquiry in history is underway. As for Ukraine, journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk says many people there were following the story early, concerned that Zelenskiy might somehow be allowing Ukraine's relationship with the U.S. to unravel. But now, she says, many seem to see Zelenskiy as navigating an impossible situation as best he can.

GUMENYUK: It didn't make him better (laughter). You know, it didn't serve him for good. But it didn't harm him a lot.

GREENE: In fact, other questions Zelenskiy's facing about some of his business ties could prove to be even more challenging for him. His critics point to connections to an oligarch who owns the TV network that aired Zelenskiy's show and, some suggest, helped him win the presidency. At the end of the day, there is a lot more that will determine his political future than Donald Trump and a phone call. Some see a chance for Zelenskiy to free Ukraine from its past. They point to his own journey to the presidency that traces back to an industrial, working-class city in Southeast Ukraine.

SVIATOSLAV YURASH: He's the guy that made it. That's his story. He's the guy from the tough neighborhood that made it.

GREENE: That's 23-year-old Sviatoslav Yurash. He worked as a campaign advisor to Zelenskiy, and now he's the youngest member of Ukraine's parliament. He sees in Zelenskiy a politician who can relate to Western-leaning people who long to be part of Europe as well as the factory workers and coal miners in the east who speak Russian and have cultural ties to Moscow. Zelenskiy, Yurash says, is the first politician he can remember who's genuinely inspired younger Ukrainians who had lost faith in their long-corrupt political system.

YURASH: We are the generation who have been essentially let down completely by the choices of all the political elites. My generation's also grew up without the ever-present Soviet Union. We basically are the independent generation that has grew up to expect something else from our country than just to survive, as many of the Soviet past did. And we demand transformation.

GREENE: And we should say Zelenskiy has time to deliver. He actually began his address at the United Nations in September looking out at all those world leaders and saying, each of you, ladies and gentlemen, had the first speech from this rostrum. Please recall your feelings at that moment. Every one of you, respected and honored today, was once a beginner.

And so, Steve, you can hear, as much as that infamous July 25 phone call has put Zelenskiy in a perilous position, as much as the saga involving President Trump has unexpectedly overshadowed his first months in office, I think Zelenskiy wants to remind people as much as he can that he is just getting started.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

David, when you mention the perilous position that he was placed in, does what's happened to him and what he's been through tell you something about Ukraine?

GREENE: I think so. I mean, I keep returning to just how stuck he is between all of these competing forces. I mean, he - as people have told us, he really can't offend President Trump because he has to maintain that all-important relationship between the two countries. He also can't seem like he's doing Trump's political bidding in any way because that risks alienating Democrats, and he doesn't want to do that if a Democrat could be in the White House.

INSKEEP: Sure.

GREENE: And when you read about Ukraine, I mean, this is in many ways its history, at least after Soviet times - I mean, stuck in the middle at the center of this tug of war, you know, unable to move really forcefully in any one direction. You know, many want Ukraine to join NATO, join the European Union at some point. But the big risk there is you alienate Russia. And Russia is so tied to Ukraine. I mean, the Russian Orthodox Church was founded in Kyiv. And there are a lot of Ukrainians who feel this close kinship with Russia. But you move closer to Moscow, and pro-Europe Ukrainians won't accept that. I mean, they've taken to the streets to fight against them.

I just always remember this op-ed that was written by the ageless U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger. He wrote it a few years ago. He said, the East and the West, they just have to accept the reality that Ukraine will never be an outpost for either side. It's always going to be this bridge. In other words, Kissinger argues that being stuck in the middle is somehow Ukraine's fate. And I think you might say that's Zelenskiy's fate right now.

INSKEEP: Well, David, thanks for your report on what's happening on that bridge. Really appreciate it.

GREENE: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER KLEIN'S "SLEEPWALKERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.