Ukraine's man in the middle: With Putin on one side and Trump on the other, Zelensky learned to keep talking but say nothing
The closest Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to complaining about his country being dragged into a scandal and impeachment hearings in the United States was when he said his people were “tired” of Burisma, the energy holding where Joe Biden’s son held a board post for about five years, starting in 2014.
Donald Trump in a July 25 phone call asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens for the role they played in Ukraine, but since that ill-fated phone call, Zelensky 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,” Zelensky once said in a fleeting comment to a Russian TV station.
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 Zelensky while his ordeal with Trump had started.
Zelensky 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 Uniter States, its most powerful ally and long-term strategic partner. The biggest scare in Zelensky’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 Zelensky’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 Ukraine. 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.
Zelensky, after being elected on April 21, was dealt a bad set of cards in the relationship with the United States.
His predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, made a heavy bet on Hillary Clinton’s win in 2016 and even met with her publicly 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, Zelensky 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.