News of US pressure on Volodymyr Zelenskiy has sparked fears among reformers, but on the streets it is seen as an American affair
Andrew Roth in Kyiv – The Guardian
The revelations that Donald Trump attempted to pressure Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden’s family have reverberated through civil society and political circles in Kyiv, prompting some to ask if the United States can be viewed as a trustworthy ally in the country’s attempts to reform and stave off pressure from Russia.
Members of Ukraine’s civil society and veterans communities on Thursday complained about the threat of withholding military funding and US political support to score points in domestic US politics.
“This [whistleblower] complaint confirms all the worries that we had,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Centre. “This is very strange to have this pressure from a longtime ally of Ukraine, a request to interfere in an investigation from a country which was a role model for us for a long time.
“It’s coming at the exact moment when we finally have a chance to reform Ukrainian law enforcement agencies and make them free from political influence.”
Thursday’s release of the whistleblower complaint gave additional details of Trump’s use of executive resources to pressure the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to renew an investigation into the appointment of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, to the board of a natural gas company in 2014.
The whistleblower cites US officials saying that Trump directed Mike Pence not to attend Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May and also “made clear” that he did not want to meet Ukraine’s president until he saw how Zelenskiy “chose to act” in office.
In particular, the withholding of nearly $400m (£320m) in military and other aid to the country was seen as a politicisation of the conflict with Russia which has cost Ukraine thousands of lives and left some of Ukraine’s territory under the control of Russian-backed separatists.
“Politics should not affect whether our troops get what they need, supporting the guys who are out there,” said Mykhailo, a veteran of the conflict who served in 2014 and 2015, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used.
As one foreign diplomat noted, the money cannot simply be counted in terms of purchases of military hardware, because of Russia’s broad superiority in firepower, but could be spent to improve training and on technology to save lives. Some support for Ukrainian soldiers still comes through crowdfunding efforts.
While the revelations about Trump and Zelenskiy’s talks have rocked political circles, media coverage of the scandal has been muted here – a sharp contrast to the wall-to-wall reporting of the revelations in the foreign press. The scandal here is seen mainly as an American affair, said political analysts, and unlikely to take support from Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy rode a wave of public support to the presidency this year, followed by a broad victory for his party, Servant of the People, which holds the first parliamentary majority in Ukraine’s recent history. Recent approval ratings put his support at higher than 70%.
On Maidan, where Ukraine’s revolution began just under six years ago, ordinary Kyivans were broadly supportive of the president, saying that dealing with Trump would require Zelenskiy to be flexible and use “charm”. Of a dozen people approached by the Guardian, most said they had not read or seen reports about Zelenskiy’s discussions with Trump.
According to the memorandum describing the telephone call, Zelenskiy sought to flatter Trump, telling him that he had stayed at Trump Tower during a visit to New York and assuring him that prosecutors would look into the company where Biden’s son was installed on the board of directors. He told the US president that the next prosecutor would be “100% my person”.
“[Trump] is a difficult character and I think Zelenskiy was in a hard position, he needed to find a common language,” said Svitlana Bondarenko, 34, an accountant.