Ukraine's man in the middle: With Putin on one side and Trump on the other, Zelenskyy learned quickly to keep talking but say nothing
The closest President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to complaining about Ukraine being dragged into a scandal and impeachment hearings in the U.S., was when he said his people were “tired” of Burisma, the energy holding where Joe Biden's son held a board post for about 5 years, starting in 2014.
President Donald Trump in a July 25 phone call asked Zelenskyy to investigate the Bidens for the role they played in Ukraine, but since that ill-fated phone call, Zelenskyy repeated hundreds of times that there was “no pressure” to do it.
“Nobody can pressure me because I am the president of an independent country. The only person who can pressure me is my son, who is six years old,” Zelenskyy once said in a fleeting comment to a Russian TV station.
The biggest scare in Zelenskyy’s camp was actually about how his behavior and statements would be interpreted by his American counterpart.
But could a different answer from Ukraine’s president even be conceivable? Not for as long as he remains sane, says one official who worked with Zelenskyy while his ordeal with Trump had started.
Zelenskyy stayed silent because he had nothing to gain by speaking up, and everything to lose. Speaking up would not necessarily mean that pressure from Trump and his associates would let off, but it would be safe to bet that the relationship between the two states would sour very quickly.
Don't Annoy the Americans
Ukrainians are scared of annoying the U.S., its most powerful ally and long-term strategic partner. The biggest scare in Zelenskyy’s camp was actually about how his behavior and statements would be interpreted by his American counterpart.
“However Trump interprets the situation, it becomes a reality,” a government official said. Thankfully for Ukraine, Trump picked up Zelenskyy’s line, insisting that “there was no pressure” and that the infamous phone call was “perfect.” The statement, however, failed to save Trump from impeachment proceedings.
At the same time, Ukrainian government officials have a very good idea that diplomatic pressure comes in many different forms, and Trump’s attempt was not the worst of it.
Here, they were dealing with a seemingly friendly request for help from the U.S. president, which allegedly would also help to release $400 million in much-needed military aid.
On the other hand, there is the kind of pressure Ukraine faces from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President who annexed Crimea and supported insurgents in the eastern areas of the country. On one occasion in August 2018 Putin threatened “to crush” the Ukrainian army during peace negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk. Now he also likes to talk about his new long-range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear strike. This represents a very different, much cruder type of pressure.
Zelenskyy, after being elected on April 21, was dealt a bad set of cards in the relationship with the U.S.
His predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, made a heavy bet on Hillary Clinton’s win in 2016 and even met with her publically to express support less than three months before the presidential vote, angering Trump.
This legacy, combined with Trump’s desire to cajole Russia, meant that from his first moment in his relationship with Trump, Zelenskyy had to walk a very tight rope to keep things straight and stable.
And he still does. If he stumbles now, he will be devoured by merciless U.S. politics, and Ukraine will go down with him.