Argument

Welcome, Ukrainians, to the American Swamp

Zelensky can walk away from the Trump scandal stronger. Here’s how.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York on Sept. 25.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York on Sept. 25. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

“Welcome, Americans, to the Ukrainian swamp” is how the Washington Post recently headlined a story about the ongoing scandal involving the Trump administration’s alleged attempt to influence Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The title should have read: “Welcome, Ukrainians, to the American swamp.”

In fact, the scandal has nothing to do with Ukraine, which is really little more than the object of Republican and Democratic intrigue, and everything to do with the crude, probably corrupt, and possibly impeachable machinations of U.S. policymakers. Nor is the scandal necessarily a disaster for Ukraine, as many pundits have argued. Quite the contrary: If Zelensky plays his cards right, it could be a godsend for his country and himself.

After all, what happened? It was Trump who called the newly elected Ukrainian president and apparently tried to strongarm him. And it was Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani who tried to pressure the Ukrainians into investigating Biden’s son Hunter. Zelensky, like his country, happened to be an innocent bystander who was caught in Washington’s vicious politics, and it appears that he did the best he could to politely extricate himself from the U.S. mess.

The readout of Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Zelensky amply demonstrates this point. Sure, Zelensky was pleasant. But how should one of the least powerful presidents in the world speak to the most powerful person? Fawningly and, if possible, evasively, praising one’s interlocutor when it costs you nothing, agreeing when agreement makes sense, and refraining from explicitly disagreeing. And that’s exactly what Zelensky did.

Twice, he says Trump is “absolutely right.” Once, he agrees with Trump “100 percent.” Another time, he says, “not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent.” Needlessly, Zelensky tells Trump, “I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you. We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example for our elections.” He even resorts to a standard Trumpism and says he wants to “drain the swamp here in our country.” This is the language of the humble supplicant trying to ingratiate himself to his lord.

When Trump launches into some of his standard criticisms of the Europeans, Zelensky again piles on. “I did talk to [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel,” he says, “and I did meet with her I also met and talked with [French President Emmanuel] Macron, and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions.” He continues, “It turns out that even though logically, the European Union should be our biggest partner, but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union, and I’m very grateful to you for that, because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine.”

Zelensky is absolutely correct on that score, because both Germany and especially France have turned a blind eye to Russia’s flagrant violations of international law in regards to Ukraine and are now actively seeking to pressure the country into accepting the so-called Steinmeier Formula for resolving the war in the Donbass by effectively granting Moscow veto power over Kyiv’s internal and external policies.

Zelensky also agrees with Trump’s negative estimation of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch: “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador, because I agree with you 100 percent. Her attitude toward me was far from the best, as she admired the previous president and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new president well enough.” Whether Yovanovitch deserves the modifier “bad” is unclear—although she has not escaped criticism from analysts in the West over her purported interference in Ukrainian politics—but Zelensky was surely entitled to hold that opinion of someone who supported his predecessor and rival, former President Petro Poroshenko, and to express it in a private conversation.

Most important, Zelensky responds evasively in the two instances where Trump is exerting obvious political pressure. At one point, Trump says the following: “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Who knows whether Zelensky actually understood Trump’s garbled language, but his response is masterfully noncommittal: “Yes it is very important for me and everything that you just mentioned earlier. For me as a president, it is very important, and we are open for any future cooperation. We are ready to open a new page on cooperation in relations between the United States and Ukraine.” After making some general comments about Giuliani, Zelensky reverts back to his supplicant’s role: “I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us. I will make sure that I surround myself with the best and most experienced people. I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends, and you, Mr. President, have friends in our country, so we can continue our strategic partnership.”

When Trump finally asks Zelensky to look into Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, the Ukrainian president responds with indirection and engages in a diversion from Trump’s point: the next procurator general “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue. The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty, so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case. On top of that, I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us, it would be very helpful for the investigation to make sure that we administer justice in our country.” Trump talks about Biden, while Zelensky answers with vague comments about honesty and justice.

Finally, in his penultimate exchange of pleasantries with Trump, Zelensky comes out of the blue with a plea for greater economic cooperation with the United States: “As to the economy, there is much potential for our two countries, and one of the issues that is very important for Ukraine is energy independence. I believe we can be very successful and cooperating on energy independence with United States.” It’s almost as if he realized at the last moment that, having fawned before the U.S. president, he has the opportunity to ask for one favor.

Unsurprisingly, Zelensky ends on a reaffirmation of Trump’s supposed support of Ukraine: “We are already working on cooperation. We are buying American oil, but I am very hopeful for a future meeting. We will have more time and more opportunities to discuss these opportunities and get to know each other better. I would like to thank you very much for your support.” One gets the impression that he was hoping to put his own words in Trump’s mouth and thereby induce him to express his rhetorical, and possibly practical, support of Ukraine. Which Trump more or less does, ending the conversation with the following: “Congratulations on a fantastic job you’ve done. The whole world was watching. I’m not sure it was so much of an upset, but congratulations.”

All in all, Zelensky did a creditable job promoting and defending Ukraine’s interests, while also satisfying, or seeming to satisfy, Trump’s. It’s now up to the Ukrainian president to take advantage of the media firestorm surrounding Ukraine. He should present his country not as the terrible swamp of corruption that the Western media still insists it is, but as a struggling democracy that has made, and will continue to make, great strides in combating corruption over the past several years, pushing through significant economic reform, all while keeping the Russians at bay in the Donbass.

That task is easier than it seems for two reasons.

First, it is highly likely that neither rational Republicans nor rational Democrats will come to view Ukraine as responsible for their troubles in Washington. Fringe elements will of course trumpet Ukraine’s evil influence on Washington, but they are unlikely to be believed by serious policymakers in both parties. Some analysts fear that, in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Ukraine could become a stalking-horse as Russia was in the 2016 election, but that fear has no basis upon closer inspection. Russia actively interfered in the 2016 election; Ukraine, in contrast, has been interfered with.

And, second, Ukraine is not at all the swamp that it used to be under President Viktor Yanukovych, who, together with his cronies, allegedly absconded with some $15 billion during his presidency from 2010 to 2014. Poroshenko’s administration cracked down on two key oligarchs (Ihor Kolomoisky and Dmytro Firtash), defanged a third (Rinat Akhmetov), and co-opted a fourth (Victor Pinchuk). A whole series of measures were adopted in the last five years that significantly reduced corrupt practices in government and saved the state billions of dollars. Zelensky has a good foundation for continuing the fight against corruption.

If Zelensky acts wisely, he’ll exploit the enormous media coverage he and his country are getting to put across a positive message about Ukraine. The fact is that Ukraine is being unjustifiably identified as the source of the United States’ problems. It’s not, of course: The United States is. All Zelensky needs to do is to tell the truth about his country and its past achievements, current plans, and future prospects, and perhaps he can walk away with a better deal for his country—more interest, respect, and investment—than the one Trump is alleged to have offered.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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