Report

Ukraine Reacts: Trump’s Call Is Putin’s Victory

For disappointed Ukrainian democracy activists, Trump’s demands of Zelensky have made Washington the moral equivalent of the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during the awarding ceremony of the Order of Parental Glory at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on May 30.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during the awarding ceremony of the Order of Parental Glory at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on May 30. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

For years, Ukrainian anti-corruption activists like Daria Kaleniuk looked to the United States for support in her country’s fight against graft and fake news. The Moscow-backed takeover of Crimea and eastern Ukraine was ground zero for Russian disinformation that spread across the world. Corruption was so pervasive in Ukraine that voters opted for a comedian with no political experience, Volodymyr Zelensky, who defeated the incumbent president by nearly 50 percent in elections last spring. 

But the release of a July 25 memo detailing a conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Zelensky has, for many Ukrainians, turned the United States from a model of good governance and truth into a dispiriting example of the very kind of corruption and disinformation they are battling. 

“We have faced intimidation and manipulation in Ukraine for quite a long time. Now this is happening at the highest possible level of the United States, where the personal lawyer of the president of the United States is carrying out speculation and manipulation,” said Kaleniuk, the executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based watchdog group. “Usually the United States [was] the key [ally] of Ukrainian civil society to stop political pressure into law enforcement investigations. But I am reading the transcript where the president of the United States is doing the contrary than what we were encouraged to do.”

The chief beneficiary of this behavior will be the Kremlin, say Ukrainian activists and Western officials involved with Ukraine. They believe Trump is playing into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has engaged in a yearslong disinformation war to portray the United States and European Union as weak as a way of laying claim to Crimea and political domination of Ukraine. Trump’s casual comment to Zelensky, during their meeting at the U.N. General Assembly gathering on Wednesday, that “I really hope that you and President Putin can get together and solve your problem” also reinforced the Kremlin line. 

“Oh, Putin is loving this. It makes the Americans look unreliable and strengthens the hand of the Russians and the pro-Russians in the east,” said Alex Crowther of the National Defense University. “By withholding aid, you are injecting instability into an already unstable situation and strengthening the Russians.” 

For Kaleniuk, the anti-corruption activist, the episode has rendered America the moral equivalent of Russia in its willingness to traffic in the sort of disinformation and political interference she has taken aim at for years. “The key root of corruption is impunity, and impunity is possible when politicians or oligarchs or anyone else dictate to law enforcement agencies whom they have to investigate and whom they don’t have to investigate,” Kaleniuk said.

Perhaps what stands out most to Ukrainians is the sheer outrageousness of the false information that Trump is pushing, which rivals that of the Kremlin.

In the July 25 phone call, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his top political rival and the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 elections. Trump claimed that, as vice president, Biden shut down a Ukrainian government investigation into Burisma, a natural gas company that his son Hunter Biden sat on the board of. “If you can look into it … it sounds horrible to me,” Trump said, according to the memo. Trump added that he would have his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr call Zelensky. 

Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, had previously pushed the Ukrainian government to look into Biden this summer. “We’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani told the New York Times in May. 

Biden did travel to Ukraine in 2016 to urge the firing of the country’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. But in fact Shokin is widely accused of blocking the investigation into Burisma. At a 2018 event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden described leveraging a billion-dollar loan guarantee during a trip to Ukraine to get Shokin fired. “I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch. He got fired,” Biden said.

Yet, according to Kaleniuk, Biden was not trying to protect his son when he came to Ukraine. He was actually doing the opposite because he was cracking down on corruption and Shokin—who was not investigating Burisma.

Trump’s apparent characterization of Shokin in the phone call as someone who was “very fair” and “treated very badly” is not shared in Ukraine. (Trump did not explicitly name Shokin in the call.) “Shokin, when he was the prosecutor general, was not willing to investigate Burisma. He was working to end an investigation in the United Kingdom into Burisma,” Kaleniuk said.

Shokin was a “useful idiot,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, an anti-corruption activist and former member of parliament who campaigned for Zelensky. Leshchenko said the release of the memo could actually benefit Ukraine. “The situation will make it hard to remove aid from Ukraine because when either Democrats or Republicans manipulate the situation it looks bad,” Leshchenko said.

Other reactions in Ukraine to the conversation between Trump and Zelensky ranged from confusion to disappointment to even a political opportunity. Some said the call did considerable damage to Zelensky in the opening months of his presidency, undermining his image as someone trying to defeat corruption. In response to Trump’s comments about the former prosecutor general and his request to investigate Biden, Zelensky offered support. “The next prosecutor general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September,” Zelensky told Trump, according to the memo. “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned.”

“This ‘100 percent my person’ is the worst part for Ukraine,” said Liubov Tsybulska, the head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group in Ukraine. “Zelensky triumphed with slogans about justice, about reforming the court, fighting corruption, and now it turns out the new prosecutor general is his puppet.” 

A spokesperson for Zelensky did not respond to questions from Foreign Policy regarding the accuracy of the non-verbatim memo. 

In his conversation with Trump, Zelensky also disparaged German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron for not enforcing sanctions on Russia. “They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine,” Zelensky said, according to the memo.

Privately, members of Ukraine’s political elite expressed concern to Foreign Policy that Zelensky’s comments could have dangerous repercussions. The Ukrainian president’s statements come amid the contested construction of a pipeline from Russia to Germany, called Nord Stream 2. It would largely bypass Ukraine and deprive the country of some $3 billion in transit fees.

Others were cautious not to overstate the impact of the revelations. Zelensky’s critique of the two European leaders and other statements he made will not cause “much if any blowback,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and William J. Perry fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “Neither the Germans nor French should be surprised that Ukrainian leaders feel that way.”

Zelensky needs to be cautious about “whether he responds to Trump’s request to investigate the Bidens,” Pifer said. “If he is not careful, he could undermine the bipartisan congressional support that Ukraine has enjoyed since it regained independent in 1991.”

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

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