Trump-Zelensky Phone Call: Consequences for Ukraine

Dr. Nickolay Kapitonenko

International Relations Expert - East Europe

A phone conversation between United States President Donald Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on the 25th of July last year generated a number of political consequences. The consequences that affected the subsequent impeachment proceedings against Trump are widely known. But how has the scandal impacted Ukrainian politics and bilateral relations between the two states? In short, it introduced some risks and eroded trust. It is worth exploring in more detail.

When the first accusations of President Trump’s abuse of power with a view to weakening Joe Biden’s chances of winning the next presidential election were raised, the initial reaction in Kiev was one of anxiety. Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, wanted a visit to Washington and a meeting with Trump. Generally speaking, support from the White House is what any Ukrainian president seeks, for both international and internal reasons. Equally as important, Zelensky wanted to stay away from any scandal, in which he could hardly play a role other than that of a punching bag in an American heavyweight political fight.

The Ukrainian president remembered the miscalculation of the previous administration’s support for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The surprise victory of Donald Trump has made politicians in Ukraine more cautious. With the upcoming 2020 US elections it has been crucial for the new Ukrainian president to stay as distant as possible from an unpredictable political campaign. The result is too difficult to forecast. But Trump’s active stance and the scandal itself pressed the new Ukrainian leadership to take sides: it is supposed that both receiving American aid and a meeting with Trump in Washington were given in return for Zelensky’s readiness to publicly open an investigation against Hunter Biden, who was employed for several years by a Ukrainian company, Burisma Holdings.

Zelensky tried to play safe, following advice from numerous aides. He used only formal rhetoric, aiming at maintaining positive relations with both Republicans and Democrats. Preserving bipartisan support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression has been crucial. The words “bipartisan support” have been among the most widely used in Kiev in recent history.

At the same time, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s attempted visit to Kiev, allegedly delayed a $400 million assistance package for Ukraine, and scandals around the US diplomatic mission to the country signaled that the issues were a long way from reaching closure. Kurt Volker, US special representative for Ukraine negotiations, resigned on September, 27 after being involved in the scandal and American diplomatic involvement in managing the conflict in the East of Ukraine has been limited ever since.

The current agenda of Ukrainian-American relations is modest. Washington responded with political, diplomatic, and economic support for Kiev following Russian move in 2014 to annexation Crimea. President Barack Obama took steps to ensure a multilateral regime of sanctions against Moscow; as well as providing Ukraine with financial and technical assistance. Contrary to many expectations, President Trump generally continued that line without significant changes in any direction. Later on, the State Department approved supplies of lethal weapons to Ukraine, in particular Javellin anti-tank missiles. American financial aid to Ukraine has been slightly increased over recent years but remains well under what Kyiv would have wanted. Washington is staying out of the ongoing conflict in the East of the country, although has been consistent in rejecting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The scandal around Trump has revealed that, with his presidency, bilateral relations are shaped not so much by strategic interests, but by links among establishments behind the scene. Relations between the two countries are often referred to as “strategic partnership”, but are hardly up to that level. The US has traditionally been disappointed in how Ukraine handles reforms and underachieves as a democracy; while many in Ukraine fear possible grand bargains between Washington and Moscow at their expense. Lack of trust and many lost opportunities characterise the US-Ukrainian relationship.

The bad news is that due to the scandal, it is very difficult to change anything significantly. Washington seems to be fine with its balance between supporting Ukraine and not getting too involved in a confrontation with Russia. In Kiev, on the other hand, more bets are currently on European partners, primarily Germany and France, to deal with the political dimension of the crisis. The Trump-Zelensky scandal raised lots of emotions, but its strategic implications are yet to fully emerge.

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