It was a piece of political theater starring two former TV celebrities – one in the role of corruption fighter and would-be peacebroker; the other in the role of deferential ally.
At a televised joint appearance before their September 25 meeting in New York City, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and U.S. President Donald Trump, performed largely as Ukrainian analysts had predicted: Zelenskiy emphasized his desire for friendship with the U.S. and avoided the name of Hunter Biden, while Trump, as political analyst Vladimir Fesenko had forecast with a laugh, talked “about how Ukraine needs to fight corruption.”
Overall, the Kyiv-based political analyst Fesenko commented to Current Time, the two leaders’ 18-minute-long media appearance offered nothing “surprising.”
But for Ukraine’s new, 41-year-old president, an ex-comic actor, it was a critical appearance.
A July 25 phone call between Zelenskiy and President Trump has placed Ukraine at the center of the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into the U.S. president. Democrats allege that Trump this summer withheld $391 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in a bid to force Zelenskiy to start a corruption investigation into the Ukrainian dealings of Hunter Biden, a former board member of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma and the son of Trump’s potential rival in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, ex-Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump contends that Vice President Biden exerted his influence in 2016 to secure the dismissal of then Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who reportedly had been examining Burisma for alleged corruption. Trump has implied that Burisma’s $50,000 monthly retainer to Hunter Biden amounted to a payoff for such intervention,
“Now, when Biden’s son walks away with millions of dollars from Ukraine and he knows nothing, and they’re paying him millions of dollars, that’s corruption,” he alleged to reporters on September 25.
For Hrihory Perepelitsa, director of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Foreign Policy, Trump’s resurrection of the Burisma case essentially amounts to an “unofficial request” to Ukraine to play a role in the upcoming U.S. elections.
“The invitation to Ukraine to take part in this domestic political showdown [with Biden] is absolutely unacceptable and President Zelenskiy made this plain,” Perepelitsa said of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone discussion.
Indeed, on September 25, Zelenskiy took pains to emphasize his neutrality in any Trump-Biden spat.
“I don’t want to be involved [in] democratic, open . . . elections [in the] USA …” he told reporters, speaking in English.
Ukrainians, he said, “have many more important questions” with which to contend: separatist control of eastern Ukraine’s Ilovayisk railway center, reforms related to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, and fighting corruption, “as President Trump rightly mentioned …”
Citing a released memorandum of his July 25 phone call with President Trump, he emphasized that Ukrainian Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka is “independent” and that he did not call or “push” him, at Trump’s behest, to look into Biden’s past with Burisma.
“I don’t owe anyone anything,” Zelenskiy later commented to Ukrainian reporters. “I said that we’re prepared to investigate.”
For his part, President Trump echoed Zelenskiy’s denials of making the Burisma case a quid pro quo for U.S. aid money. Trump released the congressionally approved assistance earlier this month.
Yet, given Ukraine's need for U.S. support, Zelenskiy needed to make sure that he recognizes President Trump’s status, advised Ukrainian political analyst-consultant Sergei Postolovsky.
During his press appearance, Zelenskiy invited Trump to visit Ukraine, and received an invitation to Washington, D.C. in kind.
He did not, however, respond to Trump’s accusations toward Biden. Ukrainian officials have never released proof to support such allegations.
Zelenskiy also remained silent when Trump ventured, without citing evidence, that e-mails deleted by his 2016 presidential election rival, ex-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “could be” in Ukraine.
The comment appeared related to Trump’s July 25 request that Ukraine "do us a favor" and "find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike . . . "
CrowdStrike is a California-based cybersecurity company that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee’s servers; an attack U.S. intelligence attributes to Russia. It has denied any link with Ukraine.
For all of Zelenskiy’s attempts to separate himself from the scandal, however, the Ukrainian political establishment could still have questions about his dealings with Prosecutor General Ryaboshapka, political strategist Andrei Zolotarev remarked to Current Time.
In his July conversation with Trump, the Ukrainian president had stressed that his party’s control of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, meant that the country’s new prosecutor general “will be 100% my person, my candidate …”
“He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue,” Zelenskiy promised, in apparent reference to Burisma. He requested the U.S. president for “any additional information” about the matter “to make sure that we administer justice in our country.”
Whether the president, as invited, presented Kyiv with “additional information” about Burisma is not known. Zelenskiy in July had indicated a willingness to speak with both Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr about the U.S. president’s concerns.
On Wednesday, Trump gave no sign that the impeachment inquiry has prompted him to reconsider. He stressed to Zelenskiy that eliminating corruption “will make you great personally and it also will be so tremendous for your nation in terms of what you want to do and where you want to take it. “
Throughout his visit this week to the United Nations, Zelenskiy had made those ambitions clear -- namely, to end the war with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
After expounding on the virtues of fighting corruption, Trump reminded Zelenskiy that the U.S. had given Ukraine “anti-tank busters” (Javelin missiles) to use in the area. Even so, he encouraged him to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict over both Donbas and Russia-annexed Crimea.
“I really think that President Putin would like to do something,” Trump commented, without elaboration. “I really hope that you and President Putin can get together and solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement.”
In response, President Zelenskiy stared fixedly at reporters.
He had, however, already talked to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the Donbas conflict.
In post-meeting remarks to Ukrainian journalists, Zelenskiy stated that Lavrov had approached him during the United Nations General Assembly’s opening session to “get acquainted” and declare that Russia wants “to end the war in Donbas.”
“I said that if you’re ready, great, let’s end it,” the Ukrainian leader recounted. “Give back our territories, we’ll exchange people. “
A source in the Ukrainian presidential office later characterized the discussion to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency as “preparation” for expected Donbas peace talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine in the near future. The negotiations were last held in 2016.
If no progress occurs at these discussions, Zelenskiy has a backup plan in mind: “If it won’t work, then we’ll invite Trump” to participate, he said.
The U.S. president has already indicated his willingness to attend.