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Why Ukraine’s Zelensky remains so focused on getting a White House meeting

Why Ukraine’s Zelensky remains so focused on getting a White House meeting
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Trump in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on in September. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
By Natalie Gryvnyak and
Jan. 29, 2020 at 8:49 p.m. GMT+1
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's precarious location — on the friction point between Russian authoritarianism and Western democracy — makes attention from the United States critical to politicians here. Meetings and even photo opportunities with American VIPs are invested with huge significance.
For the Ukrainian president, the holy grail is a White House meeting.
For many lower-ranking officials, just getting a selfie with an influential American is political gold, seen as “the epitome of success,” as one former Ukrainian intelligence official put it recently.
With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo due to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Friday, Ukraine’s leadership is looking for a signal on its standing with President Trump.
Trump told officials in an Oval Office meeting last May, shortly after Zelensky’s election victory, that Ukrainians “are all corrupt, they are all terrible people” who “tried to take me down,” according to testimony from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, during House impeachment hearings.
Getting past the Trump problem is crucial for Zelensky, a former television comedian who ran for president on a platform of dealing with Ukraine’s enduring problem of corrosive corruption and ending a war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas.
But the signs for Ukraine are worrying.
Volker has not been replaced since his resignation in September. There has been no new U.S. ambassador appointed to replace Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled by Trump last spring. And a disquieting silence has descended over U.S.-Ukraine relations amid the Senate impeachment trial over Trump’s attempts to pressure Zelensky to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Another bad sign came last week. An NPR journalist, Mary Louise Kelly, said that Pompeo, furious that she asked him about Ukraine and Yovanovitch in an interview, berated her, asking whether she thought Americans cared about Ukraine.
Volker was involved in negotiations with Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak last summer for the Ukrainian president to announce the investigation Trump wanted in return for a White House meeting, according text messages released during the impeachment process.
Volker on Tuesday called on Pompeo to announce the date for a White House meeting at Friday’s gathering.
“Pompeo’s visit to Ukraine is an important opportunity to finally make that a reality,” he wrote in Foreign Policy, arguing that Zelensky offered the best hope for Ukraine to fight corruption, implement reform and act as a bulwark against Russian aggression.
Yermak told Time magazine in December that a White House meeting would send a message that Zelensky’s new leadership had already achieved a lot.
Ukraine is seen as a crucial counterweight to Russian power in the region. It is desperately reliant on U.S. military aid, facing on ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and still reeling from the loss of the strategic Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters en route to London on Wednesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Ukraine’s political elite has been deeply frustrated at the derailment of U.S.-Ukraine relations by the impeachment hearings.
Even if Pompeo does deliver Zelensky a White House meeting, as Volker suggested, attention will inevitably turn to whether Zelensky offered something helpful to Trump in return.
Zelensky has repeatedly denied that he felt any pressure from Trump to announce the inquiry the U.S. president wanted when the two spoke on the phone on July 25 — the phone call that helped stir the impeachment.
“There is no doubt that this visit has a significant political and psychological component that is linked to the U.S. impeachment trial,” said Makar Taran, a specialist on U.S. studies at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv.
Despite his hopes for a White House meeting, Zelensky cannot afford to be pulled deeper into U.S. politics in a U.S. election year, said political analyst Taras Semenyuk of the KyivStratPro think tank.
“The president of the United States has stooped from his legal obligations to the level of standard profit-for-profit arrangements,” Semenyuk said. “It’s Trump’s logic, benefit in return for benefit. I will give you military help and you will give me incriminating evidence on Biden.”
“Zelensky will not publicly help Trump in the elections, because it would entail very unpleasant consequences for his ratings and Ukraine’s ratings in general,” he added.
Zelensky at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Zelensky’s main task is a possible reset in U.S.-Ukraine relations without wading into American politics, said Andriy Buzarov, a foreign policy expert on the public council of the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an advisory body.
“Zelensky and his team will do everything possible to avoid getting involved in the internal political strife of the United States on one side or the other,” Buzarov said. “Zelensky has two clear tasks — to get continued United States support for Ukraine, no matter who is president of the United States or Ukraine, and to minimize the involvement of the Zelensky team in the internal political disputes of the United States.”
He said the U.S. impeachment drama had damaged Washington’s standing in Ukraine.
“All the issues related to the impeachment and the politicization of U.S.-Ukraine relations has undermined the image of the U.S. president and the United States in Ukraine.”
Russia’s long-term strategic objective is to maintain its regional power and to hamper Ukraine’s efforts to transform into a vibrant, liberal, pro-Western democracy. The main beneficiary of weakening U.S. support for Ukraine is Russia, according to analysts in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chokehold on Ukraine goes beyond territory and conflict. Russia is building a new northern gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, bypassing the need for Russia to use Ukraine’s pipelines to send its gas to Europe.
After U.S. sanctions last month, construction on the pipeline halted. Putin insists Russia can finish it alone.
Taran said Pompeo should prioritize security ties, where the two countries have common interests, rather than drift into domestic politics.
“Both sides,” he said, “need to show that the bilateral relations, shaken by domestic politics, are in good shape and back on a sustainable track.”