By Lena Surzhko-Harned
The scandal that erupted in response to the July phone conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has had obvious consequences for Trump.
But there also are consequences for the newly elected Zelenskiy and his team, as well as for Ukraine more generally.
In the phone call, Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden – a leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in 2020 – and his son for corruption related to the son’s business dealings in Ukraine. Much of the conversation seemed focused on Ukraine’s history of corruption and attempts to root it out.
During his press conference with Donald Trump in New York on Sept. 25, during the U.N. summit, Zelenskiy attempted to remind the world that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with its own national interests, which he, as president, is charged to defend.
He also said that he cannot be forced or pressured to do anything and refused to be drawn in the middle of U.S. politics.
“Sure, we had – I think good phone call. It was normal,” said Zelenskiy. “We spoke about many things, and I – so I think and you read it that nobody pushed me.”
Whether Zelenskiy likes it or not, Ukraine is in the middle of a U.S. political scandal.
Regardless of the results of the political process in the U.S., Ukraine’s reluctant role in the scandal reinforced the notion of deeply entrenched corruption in Ukraine. At the time when the new Ukrainian administration is trying to fight corruption and attract foreign investment, this incident might prove damaging.
And as has been the case throughout history, Ukraine appears to be the victim of international politics rather than an equal player.
Managing European allies
To understand how damaging the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call could be to Ukraine, some history is necessary for context.
Following mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 in Ukraine, known as the Revolution of Dignity, president Viktor Yanukovich was deposed and fled to Russia. Russia then seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Later that year a war between Russian-backed militants and Ukrainian forces erupted in the eastern regions of Ukraine, collectively known as Donbas.
Ukraine has been forced into a costly war to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity against what it sees as Russian aggression. Diplomatic, economic and military support from the U.S. and Europe have been crucial in this effort.
On the economic and geopolitical side, Ukraine’s previous leaders steered a pro-European course of development with an eye to future integration with the European Union. Zelenskiy pledged to support this course.
So when Zelenskiy made critical comments towards the European Union and European partners in the phone call with Trump, he was placing those crucial alliances at risk.
In his response to Trump’s comments that Europe “should be helping you more than they are. Germany does almost nothing for you,” Zelenskiy said that he agrees with Trump “not only 100%, but actually 1000%” and that “the European Union should be our biggest partner but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union.”
European financial institutions contributed US$16 billion in economic aid to Ukraine since 2014. These funds were aimed at reforming Ukraine’s economy, which has been damaged further by the conflict with Russia. The EU has also contributed military equipment. In addition, from 2011 to 2019, NATO contributed $43.8 million to Ukraine’s defense.
It will require diplomacy to control the possible consequences for Ukrainian security.
Commitments in doubt
Zelenskiy attempted to retract his critical comments last week.
But behind his revealing comments about the EU in the phone call with Trump are newly growing doubts among the Ukrainian public about the commitments of European allies to Ukraine. That’s particularly the case when it comes to sanctions on Russia, which Ukraine sees as crucial in restoring Ukraine’s occupied territories and applying pressure on pro-Russian militants.
Feeding those doubts is the continued joint Russian-German construction of a controversial natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that would bypass Ukraine. That project is predicted to damage Ukraine both politically and economically because Ukraine has been the major transit country for Russian gas, which brings its government billions in fees and economic activity.
In June, Russia was allowed to return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, after being suspended in 2014 as response to its Crimean annexation. France supported this return, despite Ukraine’s objections.
Reactions in Ukraine
Inside Ukraine, the Trump conflict has produced a mixed response.
Zelenskiy ran on the platform of fighting corruption, which has long plagued Ukraine’s government. He will likely have to answer for his statement to Trump that the new prosecutor general, who was investigating corruption, is “100% his man,” rather than an independent investigator.
In the press conference with Trump, Zelenskiy said that he merely meant that he trusts the professionalism and independence of the new prosecutor.
“He is my friend (comrade), it is true,” Zelenskiy said. “All my team are my people. They are not my property. I can not tell them what to do.”
However, his guarantee of independence for the prosecutor may not have been enough to satisfy domestic critics. The day after the press conference, a member of the opposition party in the Ukrainian parliament requested a full transcript of the phone conversation in Ukrainian.
The conversation has given his political adversaries powerful ammunition. Luckily for Zelenskiy, his party has a super-majority in the parliament, which will offer him a degree of political protection.
And then there is Russia
Ukraine remains in a vulnerable position when it comes to Russia.
Since the start of the conflict in 2014 the Global Conflict Tracker with the Council on Foreign Relations estimates its consequences as more than 10,000 dead civilians and 1.5 million displaced persons.
President Zelenskiy ran on the platform of ending the war in Donbas and initiated a well-publicized prisoner exchange with the Russian Federation in early September in hopes of softening tensions with Moscow.
Prior to his visit to New York, Zelenskiy’s administration was working on various formulas in preparation for possible peace talks with Russia that would include France, Germany and perhaps the U.S. and the U.K.
But Ukraine might lose support from its strategic partners in this and other efforts. Without the support of the Western allies, Russia will gain the upper hand to pressure Ukraine to accept the peace on Russia’s terms. That could include giving up Crimea and/or giving greater political autonomy to the breakaway region by amending the Ukrainian Constitution.
Moreover, Russian propaganda has long suggested that Ukraine is a pawn in the hands of the West. The Ukrainian political elite, according to the Moscow propagandists, is controlled by the Western interests.
This scandal fits right into that narrative.
Lena Surzhko-Harned is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Political Science at Penn State University. She wrote this piece for The Conversation, where it first appeared.