President Trump’s decision to press Ukraine’s new leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, for a “favor” while withholding much-needed military aid to the country has weakened a key U.S. ally in the fight against Russian aggression.
With clashes against Russia-backed separatists ramping up in some pockets of eastern Ukraine, Zelensky, a comic-turned-reformer, now finds himself preoccupied with ensuring he has U.S. support while also staying out of a spiraling American political fight.
“Putin must be rubbing his hands with joy,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. “It is one more proof for Putin that Zelensky is very inexperienced and weak as a politician. Putin can toy with him like a cat with a mouse.”
The White House account of a July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelensky shows the Ukrainian leader fawning over the U.S. president, agreeing that European leaders have not done enough to help Ukraine and promising to do what he can in response to Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter over conspiracy theories of corruption that Ukrainian prosecutors had already dismissed as unsubstantiated.
Just months after taking office, Zelensky is scrambling to recover — mending ties with Germany and France, seeking bipartisan support in Washington and keeping his formidable political enemies at bay, including Putin and Petro Poroshenko, the man Zelensky defeated in April by running on an anti-corruption platform.
“Zelensky is walking a tightrope,” said Peter Zalmayev, executive director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative. “He was a neophyte trying to ingratiate himself, but was being goaded by the manipulator in chief.... If this is what happens to him with Trump, imagine what happens with a KGB-trained” spy.
Zelensky’s success and Ukraine’s stability are critical to U.S. interests.
Before Trump put a hold on nearly $400 million in aid — including artillery, sniper rifles and Javelin antitank weapons critical to confronting Russian advances — the president often boasted that he was doing more to support Ukraine than President Obama. The Trump administration released the aid this month, after an intelligence community whistleblower complained that the president’s request for a political favor was an abuse of power.
Trump has acknowledged both asking Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and temporarily withholding the aid, but he insists the two were unrelated. He has said the delay was caused by his concerns about corruption in Ukraine and the failure of European nations to contribute more.
Ben Hodges, a retired three-star general who previously commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe, said the military assistance is essential to ensuring Ukraine does not feel abandoned by the West. “Ukrainian soldiers are getting killed every week,” he said. “It’s about the sovereignty of a European country, and Russia’s use of force to violate that sovereignty.”
Hodges said Russia, which wants to prevent Ukraine from slipping further to the West, would waste no time taking advantage of a breakdown in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. “The Russians will exploit that immediately.”
Critics accuse Trump of playing politics with foreign policy by misjudging his ability to pressure the newly elected Ukrainian leader and bypassing traditional agencies such as the State Department and the National Security Council in favor of his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
When amateurs like Giuliani are involved, dangers lurk, analysts and current and former U.S. and Ukrainian officials say. Part of Trump’s miscalculation, analysts said, was the image he had of Ukraine as a country that would be easy to manipulate, based on Giuliani’s imprecise accounts and ignoring the pertinent institutional knowledge held by the more traditional diplomatic agencies.
“The main damage is the way the president and Giuliani act out of complete ignorance of Ukraine,” said Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine-based senior fellow with the Washington think tank Atlantic Council. “This is a result of Trump’s disregard for knowledge and expertise, and then holding a vulnerable country hostage to your ignorance.”
Giuliani, who acknowledged having several meetings with senior Ukrainian officials and prosecutors but denied any wrongdoing, has said he was not freelancing because he was working at the State Department’s behest. But the department’s role has not been explained fully.
“There are two foreign policies at play,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, referring to a traditional one led by the State Department and one apparently dedicated to Trump’s reelection. “For Ukraine the real danger is that ... if they become a political football in the U.S. election, it threatens to undo [more than two decades] of strong bipartisan support.” The military aid, he said, was especially important as a signal to Russia.
Ukrainians recall that Giuliani’s first visit to Kyiv as Trump’s representative came in 2017, not long after the inauguration. Giuliani delivered a letter from Trump to then-President Poroshenko. The contents of the letter have not been made public.
Sergei Leshchenko, a former lawmaker who was part of Zelensky’s campaign, joined former prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko in telling The Times this week that the allegations raised by Giuliani in attempting to push a Biden corruption investigation were bogus. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Leshchenko said that while Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of the Burisma gas company might have been seen as a possible conflict of interest, there was nothing to suggest that either Biden was part of any scheme.
He said Giuliani fell victim to “rascals” selling a conspiracy story he wanted to hear. “Trump, with the help of Giuliani, has seriously undermined the U.S. reputation as the principal guardian and promoter of supremacy of law and other civilized world values,” Leshchenko said.
Moreover, the Ukrainian prosecutor who was Lutsenko’s predecessor — whose resignation was demanded by Biden, along with the European Union, International Monetary Fund and others — was not investigating Burisma at the time. In fact, that was the problem: The prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was seen as lackadaisical on corruption cases.
“Everybody demanded his resignation at the time,” Leshchenko said. “Shokin was backsliding on corruption and suspected of being corrupt himself.”
Shokin was traveling outside Ukraine this week and unavailable for comment.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch also got caught up in false claims about corruption. She was pushing Poroshenko to do more, but eventually was criticized by Giuliani, and Trump recalled her in May. Among other things, she was insisting an anti-corruption court be set up under international monitoring; Poroshenko drafted a law that would have given himself authority over the court and all prosecutions.
So far, Zelensky has sought to distance himself from the controversy engulfing the United States. He has kept a low profile, speaking briefly to reporters Monday. He insisted Ukraine was an independent country and would not conduct any investigations “on command.”
Meanwhile, the fighting against Russia-backed separatists has continued, with a significant uptick in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in recent days, according to Ukrainian media.
“This is bad news for our national interests,” said John Herbst, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and now heads the Eurasia Center in Washington. “It is in our interest to help Ukraine make things difficult for Putin in Donbas. All we need to do is help them, send arms, maintain and ramp up sanctions. We don’t have to actually fight. Instead, unfortunately, it seems President Trump was playing low-order politics.”
Wilkinson is a Times staff writer and Loiko a special correspondent. Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.