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‘The Cards Are In Zelenskiy’s Hands:’ Ukrainian Expectations For Trump-Zelenskiy Meeting

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends the general debate of the 74th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations n New York City on September 24, 2019
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends the general debate of the 74th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations n New York City on September 24, 2019

With expectations building in both the U.S. and Ukraine for an expected September 25 meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and U.S. President Donald Trump, two Ukrainian observers see Zelenskiy as holding the advantage.

Ukraine, struggling with a floundering economy and Russia’s encroachments on its territory, needs U.S. economic and military support, but President Trump needs something, too, when the pair meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, they underline – Kyiv staying neutral about the details of Zelenskiy’s July 25 phone conversation with the U.S. leader.

President Trump has acknowledged raising during that conversation the topic of an investigation into the Ukrainian business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential-race frontrunner Joe Biden. He also has acknowledged earlier placing a hold on some $391 million in congressionally approved U.S. aid to Ukraine, The Washington Post reported. White House critics suspect that the president could have used the aid as a lever to try and force Zelenskiy to reopen the Biden investigation.

The White House released the assistance earlier this month.

The conversation, which came to light following U.S. media inquiries into an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint about President Trump, has reinvigorated Democratic Party calls for the president’s impeachment.

The U.S. leader has acknowledged that he mentioned Biden in the phone call, which he described as a “beautiful, warm, nice conversation,” but maintains that he never made the aid money a quid pro quo for such an investigation. In response to calls that he release a transcript of the conversation, he has stated that doing so could set “a bad precedent.”

But to keep that conversation confidential, Trump needs Kyiv’s agreement as well, observed former Zelenskiy aide Serhiy Leshchenko.

Leshchenko, a journalist who revealed off-the-books payoffs by ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, believes that the U.S. president will ask Zelenskiy not to release the transcript.

“The cards already lie now in Zelenskiy’s hands,” Leshchenko said in a September 23 interview with Current Time.

He doubts, however, that the Ukrainian president will press any advantage in this regard and “blackmail” President Trump.

“Instead of doing something, it’s enough now if he doesn’t do anything,” Leshchenko said of Zelenskiy. “And he’ll receive sympathy from Trump’s side. “

But Ukrainian political analyst-consultant Sergei Postolovsky believes that Zelenskiy should not hesitate to make his own requests plain.

An increase in military assistance should top the list, he advised, along with a request that Trump “exert influence” on France and Germany to contribute to that aid – contributions already in line with the U.S. president’s thinking.

“The most important thing,” he continued, would be for Trump to also press the two European countries for a peace deal at international talks with Russia this month about the conflict in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists.

Despite these ambitious objectives, Postolovsky advised that Zelenskiy display moderation during his September 25 talk with Trump.

“I think that he needs to behave here like a gentleman – what happened, happened,” he said of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone conversation.

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For its part, Zelenskiy’s office has stated that the Ukrainian leader wants to discuss a strategic partnership with the U.S. and not just aid.

Leshchenko downplayed as “excessive” expectations that, in the course of his time in New York City, Zelenskiy will somehow shed further light on what transpired during his July conversation with the U.S. president – information that might advance the arguments of either the White House or the Democratic Party.

"We shouldn’t count on some kind of revelations during this visit. And, to be honest, any president in [Zelenskiy’s] place would act the same because it’s important to take the position of his own country and not of some party in America.”

Similarly. Postolovsky underlined the need for pragmatism at the UN.

“[W]e shouldn’t forget that Donald Trump today is, after all, the president of America. And the elections will take place only in a bit over a year and it’s not known who will win,” he noted.

Given Ukraine’s need “to solve problems,” Postolovsky said, “I would not, in Zelenskiy’s place, ruin relations with Trump to please the Democratic Party.”

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