The news in both Ukraine and the United States last week was dominated by the fallout from the release of a transcript of a conversation President Donald Trump had with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy back in July shortly after Zelenskyy’s political party swept the parliamentary elections in Ukraine. The White House released the transcript in response to a legal whistleblower complaint filed by a government insider who had learned of the details of the conversation and construed it as demonstrating that Trump had contravened the law and constitutional safeguards as to what a President of the U.S. can and cannot do.
Trump incomprehensibly and naively believed that the transcript would exonerate him from such claims. Instead it poured gasoline on the fire. Even a cursory reading of the transcript makes it obvious that Trump was abusing his powers in trying to force Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian authorities to dig up dirt on his potential rival Biden in the upcoming Presidential election. It is clear that Trump is living in a delusional world where he believes that he is above the law and can do whatever he wants regardless of what constitutional limitations there may be on Presidential power. The upshot of it all was that Congress has officially initiated formal impeachment procedures against the President.
The scandal and resulting media focus on it has made Ukraine front page news, which is somewhat of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Ukraine has always struggled to get its cause noticed and understood, particularly in America, where it has seldom been portrayed in a favourable light. Generally, it is viewed as a third world, unstable country, beset by corruption, ineffective leaders and governments, and a backwater of the Russian empire. Most Americans know very little of Ukraine’s history, culture or even basic geography, and often buy into the well funded and staffed Russian disinformation efforts aimed at discrediting and destabilizing Ukraine’s recent efforts at becoming a democratic, European oriented civil society. Being thrust into the spotlight by the events of the past week has forced American media, American politicians and American citizens in general to take a closer look at Ukraine and its new leader and government. It has provided an opportunity and an audience for Zelenskyy and Ukraine to paint a more realistic picture of what today’s Ukraine is all about.
Of course, being in the public spotlight also poses some very real risks. Zelenskyy must be very careful in how he deals with Trump, and avoid being dragged into Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts at hanging on to the Presidency in the face of a slew of emerging impeachable offences. Trump has become politically toxic, both domestically and internationally, and it is beginning to look like it is only a matter of time now before his embarrassing tenure as President comes to an end. Zelenskyy must walk a fine line in terms of maintaining good relations and credibility with the American political establishment, without becoming too closely aligned with President Trump and his questionable foreign and domestic political maneuvers.
I have read the transcript of the July conversation between the two Presidents in detail, and aside from Trump’s implicit extortion attempt, the thing that struck me the most was how deferential and submissive Zelenskyy was to Trump’s efforts to steamroller him. He praised Trump effusively, noted that he had stayed in the Trump Tower the last time he was in New York, and emphasized how much he had learned from Trump. He went as far as stating that he hoped to emulate Trump’s success by “draining the swamp” in his own country. He promised to cooperate fully in investigating the alleged Biden corruption in Ukraine, and looked forward to having Trump’s sleazebag personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani visit Ukraine and meet with Ukraine’s new Prosecutor General.
Now, to be frank, I am not sure whether this is just typical polite diplomatic barter between heads of state not meant to be taken seriously, but I would have hoped that Zelenskyy might have shown a little more spine by being polite but firm about not getting involved in the domestic affairs of a foreign state. I would commend Zelenskyy for promising to “drain the swamp” in Ukraine, but would hope he would have the good sense to avoid getting dragged into Trump’s own personal swamp. Any close, future association with Trump could be very problematic for Zelenskyy. If he is to take any lessons, he should look at the way that our own Chrystia Freeland handled Trump and his minions during the NAFTA negotiations – firmly, professionally and with principle.