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Amid Trump-Biden Tug-Of-War, Anxious Ukraine Ponders How To Proceed

A combo photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump
A combo photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump

KYIV -- In Servant Of The People, the TV series in which Volodymyr Zelenskiy played an accidental president, his character found himself caught up in a slew of scandals, each of which he managed to successfully overcome by the end of each episode.

Now, as Ukraine's actual president, Zelenskiy is stuck in the middle of a political fight in Washington with very real stakes and one that he cannot simply write his way out of.

Zelenskiy is reportedly facing pressure from President Donald Trump and his allies to dig up damaging information about the Ukraine work of Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. That pressure has mounted since July 25, when reports in The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets say the U.S. president urged his Ukrainian counterpart as many as eight times to open a case during a phone call that is now at the heart of a major political battle in Washington and the subject of an intelligence community whistle-blower complaint that has prompted calls for Trump's impeachment.

Trump has denied he did anything inappropriate in the phone call, which he described as "perfectly fine and routine." "Nothing was said that was in any way wrong," Trump tweeted on September 21.

What Zelenskiy chooses to do about it may have serious implications. Ukraine depends heavily on U.S. support that has helped to prop up its economy, implement anti-corruption reforms, and fight a war against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

The Ukrainian leader could investigate Hunter Biden. But doing that means risking being seen by Democrats as helping Republicans by meddling in the 2020 U.S. election, analysts say.

On the other hand, experts say that opting to not open a probe may anger Trump, who has spoken openly about a rapprochement with Russia and been lukewarm on Ukraine for years, even reportedly saying of Ukrainians, "They're all corrupt and they tried to take me down," a reference to unproven accusations from the Trump camp that Kyiv tried to undermine his candidacy in 2016.

Trump froze a $250 million military-assistance package for Ukraine before announcing last week that it would be released. Some in Ukraine fear the U.S. president may find a way to either stop the money from being sent to Kyiv, or else put a stop to future aid.

Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, said Zelenskiy's predicament was "dangerous" for Ukraine.

"For Zelenskiy, it is not beneficial to interfere in the U.S. election campaigns," Fesenko said. "Ukraine is interested in bipartisan support, and not in supporting only Democrats or Republicans."

Zelenskiy has thus far not indicated where he stands on the issue, and members of his administration either declined to speak on the record or did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko on September 21 denied suggestions that Trump had pressured Zelenskiy during the phone call.

"I know what the conversation was about, and I think there was no pressure," Prystayko said in an interview with media outlet Hromadske. "This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on many questions, sometimes requiring serious answers."

Sources with knowledge of discussions inside Zelenskiy's administration tell RFE/RL that his chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, has imposed a strict policy about not speaking publicly on the issue until the president decides how to proceed.

In his only related comments, made to a small group of reporters on the sidelines of an international forum in Kyiv on September 13, a week before news broke about the details of his call with Trump, Zelenskiy expressed frustration about the issue overshadowing his agenda at home.

"Everybody wants to hear about [Joe] Biden. For some reason people want to hear about that," Zelenskiy said. "We're talking about Ukraine."

Serhiy Leshchenko, a former lawmaker who advised Zelenskiy and his transition team, said the president didn't want to take sides in the matter.

"Once Zelenskiy says one word, even the littlest word, it will be all over the news...and it could be destructive for him and Ukraine," he said.

The first sign as to how Zelenskiy plans to proceed with Trump could come when the two leaders meet for the first time on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25.

The Ukrainian president has for months pressed for a meeting with Trump, who extended an invitation to Zelenskiy to visit the White House over the summer. But no date has been set for an official state visit and some in Kyiv worry that it may be contingent on Zelenskiy opening a probe into Hunter Biden.

Mykola Bielieskov, deputy director at the Kyiv-based Institute of World Policy, said a meeting at the White House was very important for Zelenskiy, because it would "demonstrate to Russia that Trump is prepared to support Ukraine" against Russian aggression, despite his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, Bielieskov said, Zelenskiy was "not eager to pay the price for the meeting at the White House," implying that the cost may be the Biden investigation.

For now, Zelenskiy must settle for meeting with Trump in New York, which will provide an opportunity -- albeit a short one, with only an hour set aside for it -- for the two TV stars-turned-presidents to hash things out.

But analysts in Kyiv say the Ukrainian leader must proceed cautiously, and that he is in a tricky position; he needs to say enough to please Trump while not making promises that could frustrate Democrats.

"I think he will try to please Trump, make a good impression on him," Fesenko said. "Zelenskiy knows how to charm people."

"On the topic of Biden...Zelenskiy can give the most general promise to help in the investigation of the Biden case in Ukraine, but without specific details," he added.

Citing his own sources within Zelenskiy's administration, Fesenko said that offer had been floated before. He said it came from Andriy Yermak, a senior Zelenskiy aide, at a meeting with Rudolph Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, in Madrid, days after the July 25 phone call.

Fesenko said that when Giuliani asked Yermak to see that a case into Biden's work was opened, "the answer was this: 'Send an official request and we will give an official answer.'"

Yermak gave no indication as to how Ukraine would respond to a potential request, Fesenko said.

Yermak could not be reached for comment. But Giuliani told The Washington Post that when he met with Yermak, the Zelenskiy aide indicated that Kyiv would consider the investigation, pending an official request from Washington.

"He told me he would make sure things were investigated appropriately but they would need some time to appoint a new prosecutor," Giuliani said.

Trump and Giuliani accuse Joe Biden of pushing for former Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin to be fired in order to stave off an investigation into his son Hunter, who served on the board of directors of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural-gas company, while Biden was vice president.

Biden has said he pushed for Shokin's ouster and threatened to withhold financial aid for Ukraine if it failed to do so.

But a former deputy prosecutor under Shokin has since said that the Burisma case had been shelved long before Biden's demand.

Western diplomats and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists all backed Shokin's dismissal, arguing that he was impeding crucial reforms and had failed to prosecute high-profile crimes.

Giuliani also said he asked Yermak for a second probe to be opened to look into whether Ukraine tried to undermine Trump's 2016 campaign by helping his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.

That request refers to the publication in 2016 of a ledger belonging to the pro-Russian party of deposed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which included several entries amounting to millions of dollars of off-book payments made to Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman.

Manafort was forced to quit the campaign after The New York Times reported on the payments. He was convicted on multiple counts of financial fraud last year in connection with his work in Ukraine.

However Zelenskiy chooses to proceed with Trump, the concern in Kyiv is that Ukraine will remain a divisive issue in U.S. politics for the foreseeable future.

"Whether we want it or not, Ukraine has become a factor in the U.S. presidential election campaign," Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine's former foreign minister, wrote on Facebook.

Klimkin said a major concern was that Ukraine, which has depended on bipartisan support in Washington since Russia annexed Crimea and fueled a separatist war in the Donbas in 2014, will be seen "as a source of problems."

"This can cost us dearly," he said.

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