Ukraine suf­fers Trump af­fair fall­out

US in­quiry drama en­snares Ze­len­skiy at cru­cial mo­ment

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By An­gela Charl­ton and Yuras Kar­manau

KYIV, Ukraine — Many Ukraini­ans are shrug­ging off ef­forts in the U.S. to impeach Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as some­one else’s prob­lem, but they are wor­ried about one thing: that Ukraine’s role in the Trump af­fair strength­ens Rus­sia’s hand at a cru­cial mo­ment.

The drama is hob­bling Ukraine’s in­ex­pe­ri­enced Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy just as he’s try­ing to show he’s tak­ing on the prob­lems that mat­ter most to Ukraini­ans — en­demic cor­rup­tion, and an armed con­flict with Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists in the east that has killed 13,000 peo­ple and di­vided the na­tion.

Ze­len­skiy an­nounced a lon­gawaited agree­ment this week with the sep­a­ratists that paves the way for peace talks to end five years of fight­ing, but sev­eral Ukrainian law­mak­ers have de­nounced it as ca­pit­u­la­tion to Rus­sia.

Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists staged protests on the iconic Maidan square, scene of two pop­u­lar up­ris­ings in Kyiv, and Ze­len­skiy met with leg­is­la­tors Wed­nes­day to try to calm their con­cerns and keep the fledg­ling ac­cord alive.

An impeachmen­t in­quiry by the U.S. Congress against Trump was trig­gered by a na­tional se­cu­rity whistle­blower’s dis­clo­sure of a July 25 phone call be­tween the U.S. pres­i­dent and Ze­len­skiy. The call un­folded against the back­drop of a $250 mil­lion for­eign aid pack­age for Ukraine that was be­ing read­ied by Congress but stalled by Trump.

Democrats say it ap­pears that Trump was us­ing the money as lever­age as he pressed for Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate his Demo­cratic ri­val, former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, and his son.

The Ukrainian leader is then heard on the call flat­ter­ing Trump, crit­i­ciz­ing the U.S. am­bas­sador and Euro­pean lead­ers, and say­ing Ukraine’s chief pros­e­cu­tor is “my guy.“

The U.S. scan­dal “is weak­en­ing Ze­len­skiy’s stand­ing in­side the coun­try,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the R.Poli­tik po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis firm.

Ze­len­skiy “gave a rea­son to doubt his abil­ity to be an hon­est pres­i­dent,“Stanovaya said. “It’s the first big blow for him” since he over­whelm­ingly won Ukraine’s April elec­tion.

Ze­len­skiy’s com­ments on the call also fuel the Krem­lin’s view that Ukrainian lead­ers are be­holden to U.S. in­ter­ests. Rus­sian com­men­ta­tors point to trans­ac­tions like the pend­ing $39 mil­lion sale of anti-tank mis­siles to Ukraine to help bat­tle the sep­a­ratists. The pro­posed aid, an­nounced Tues­day, is in ad­di­tion to about $400 mil­lion in U.S. mil­i­tary aid that has been re­leased.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, in his first pub­lic com­ments on the phone call, came to Trump’s de­fense Wed­nes­day. He said Trump’s crit­ics are try­ing to find “any pre­text“to topple him. To Putin, it’s nor­mal for Trump to ask Ze­len­skiy to in­ves­ti­gate “pos­si­ble cor­rupt deals” linked to Bi­den.

“I don’t see any­thing in­crim­i­nat­ing there. Any head of state should have done the same thing,“Putin said.

U.S. spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller con­cluded the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in­ter­fered in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in a “sweep­ing and sys­tem­atic fash­ion.” Putin has de­nied that con­clu­sion, and Trump has re­peat­edly sought to cast doubt on the find­ings.

The U.S. and Euro­pean Union im­posed sanc­tions on Rus­sia over its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its sup­port for the sep­a­ratists.

Those penal­ties have hurt trade be­tween Rus­sia and the EU, and both sides are ea­ger to end the con­flict in Ukraine.

As Ukraine heads into pos­si­ble peace talks with its nu­cle­ar­armed neigh­bor, “Rus­sia is in a strong po­si­tion,“Moscow-based an­a­lyst Masha Lip­man told The Associated Press. “Rus­sia has de facto con­trol over part of Ukrainian ter­ri­tory, and Ukraine by the same to­ken is in a weak po­si­tion.”

Ze­len­skiy hailed Tues­day’s deal as a ma­jor step and the fi­nal hur­dle be­fore a much-an­tic­i­pated sum­mit be­tween Ze­len­skiy, Putin and the lead­ers of France and Ger­many, who have helped me­di­ate.

But other Ukrainian politi­cians said the ac­cord opens the door to ce­ment­ing Rus­sia’s pres­ence in the re­gion, and they ac­cuse Ze­len­skiy’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of sidelin­ing so­ci­ety from the de­ci­sion-mak­ing in such a cru­cial de­vel­op­ment. Many Ukraini­ans also worry Euro­pean part­ners are giv­ing up on their graft-ridden coun­try and ready to re­sume business with Rus­sia.

Anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Daria Kale­niuk ar­gued that the Trump-Ze­len­skiy phone call is not only hurt­ing Ukraine but also “dam­ag­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of the United States as a place where there is rule of law and a place where there are strong in­sti­tu­tions.”

Now “it will be much harder now to con­vince Ukrainian lead­er­ship that we need to move on to­ward Western values and to­ward in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary and law en­force­ment,” she said.

“Ukraine is suf­fer­ing, the U.S. is suf­fer­ing — the only group of peo­ple who are happy are those peo­ple in the Krem­lin,” Kale­niuk added.

Former Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko is among those Ukraini­ans ac­cus­ing Ze­len­skiy of cav­ing to Rus­sia.

Poroshenko tried to dis­tance him­self from the U.S. impeachmen­t in­quiry but ac­knowl­edged he met Trump at­tor­ney Rudy Gi­u­liani in 2017. He said Gi­u­liani came to visit as a “friend of Ukraine” and they dis­cussed “po­lit­i­cal sup­port and in­vest­ment” but noth­ing else. He wouldn’t elab­o­rate.

Gi­u­liani wants Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate Bi­den and his son Hunter, who served on the board of the Ukrainian gas com­pany Burisma.

Speak­ing to re­porters, Poroshenko said he “never ever spoke about com­mer­cial com­pa­nies” with Trump, former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Bi­den, or “any U.S. of­fi­cials.”

EVAN VUCCI/AP

Ukraine Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Pres­i­dent Trump is hurt­ing Ze­len­skiy po­lit­i­cally, ob­servers say.

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