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Last Supper: An 'Obama' Grub-And-Pub Crawl In Ukraine's Capital

The Obama Burger features a thick beef patty, crispy bacon, an egg, and a fresh bun coated with melting cheese.
The Obama Burger features a thick beef patty, crispy bacon, an egg, and a fresh bun coated with melting cheese.

KYIV -- When a mocha-colored food truck appeared on a downtown street here last year, it looked like something that would be better placed in the foodie havens of Portland or Brooklyn. Much of its menu was in English, but what stuck out most was the logo: a caricature of U.S. President Barack Obama, sporting that wide smile and those big ears recognizable the world over.

It's the Obama Burger Truck. And it's the creation of 25-year-old entrepreneur Pavlo Oliynik, who says he's not really into politics and doesn't have a strong opinion about the American president's time in office.

"The name of truck, Obama, was picked just to let people know that we have American cuisine and that's it," he told me in English as a thick beef patty, crispy bacon, an egg, and a fresh bun coated with melting cheese -- the key ingredients of his signature Obama Burger -- sizzled on the griddle behind him. "Obama is just, like, the simplest association with the U.S."

Something odd happened in Ukraine during Obama's presidency: his name and likeness emerged as a marketing ploy to peddle consumables and other light fare. Oliynik's is not even the only "Obama burger." A restaurant in the eastern city of Mariupol, near the front line of Ukraine's simmering conflict with Russia-backed separatists, also offers one. There are Obama nesting dolls on offer at tourist-friendly markets throughout the Ukrainian capital. And borrowing from Obama's autobiography and iconic "Hope" campaign poster, a brewery in the western city of Lviv bottles an Obama Hope Stout.

Such gimmicks are frequently tainted by racism seemingly fueled by the high degree of ethnic homogeneity in Slav-dominated Ukraine, whether in the dark tones of the beer or the black buns of the burgers in Mariupol.

Still, the United States' first black president is generally well-liked in Ukraine, although the praise is not unreserved.

"His self-irony and self-criticism are impressive -- perhaps they're just a [mark of] high political culture that is not yet prevalent here in Ukraine," Rostislav Sosnovyy, who is from Bakhmut in the war-torn east, said of Obama. When it comes to supporting Ukraine, however, "I find it difficult to assess what was in his power, and the consequences of these actions."

"Strong allies are important and necessary, and any support is helpful," Sosnovyy said.

Some attack Obama for what they say has been Washington's failure to provide Ukraine with security assurances stemming from the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which a newly independent Ukraine surrendered its former Soviet nuclear arsenal.

But whatever the specific grievances, Ukrainian dissatisfaction with the Obama administration has been fueled in part by the cautious Western responses to Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the separatist conflict that prevents Kyiv from reasserting control over parts of Luhansk and Donetsk.

"Unfortunately, we cannot say that [Ukraine] had U.S. President Barack Obama's strong support," Foreign Policy Research Institute Director Hryhoriy Perepelitsya told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in a recent interview.

Perepelitsya complained that Obama "distanced himself from the Ukrainian problems and, in fact, passed the initiative to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian the Europeans, as he believes that it is a case for Europe and Russia, not America."

[Obama] never supplied lethal weapons to our country, but he managed to impose sanctions against Russia and against Vladimir Putin's cronies ... That's probably been stronger than any military assistance, actually."
-- Political consultant Taras Berezovets

Many Ukrainians shrug at the level and quality of U.S. assistance over the past three years and complain that Obama did not visit their country -- as presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did before him -- to deliver a strong message to Moscow that Washington has Kyiv's back.

That was unlikely under the calculus Obama described to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg for the article The Obama Doctrine. In it, the U.S. president stated plainly, "The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do."

Many Ukrainians would have liked to see the United States provide Ukraine with lethal military aid -- especially early on in a conflict that has now killed more than 9,750 people -- to bolster their defenses against a more powerful Russia.

One of the counterarguments, voiced in Kyiv and elsewhere by opponents of such arms supplies, is that delivering weapons to Ukraine would escalate tensions with Russia and spark more pitched battles like those in 2014, at the height of the war.

There has been support from Obama, though. Since the Ukraine crisis erupted into violence in early 2014, the United States has committed more than $1.3 billion in foreign assistance to Kyiv for crucial political and economic reforms, as well as training and equipment for the country's armed forces.

"Unfortunately, we cannot say that [Ukraine] had U.S. President Barack Obama's strong support."
-- Hryhoriy Perepelitsya, Foreign Policy Research Institute

And in March 2014, Obama targeted Russia with sanctions over its seizure of Crimea and its backing of pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine's east.

One of Obama's last acts in the White House was the extension, on January 13, of all U.S. sanctions against Russia through March 2018 -- a move that appeared designed to make it harder for incoming U.S. President Donald Trump to roll them back after his January 20 inauguration.

Political consultant and Kerch native Taras Berezovets talked recently about the importance of the outgoing U.S. administration's efforts in Ukraine between sips of the hefty, 8-percent-alcohol Obama Hope Stout at the Pravda beer pub on Khreshchatyk Street, Kyiv's main drag.

"He never supplied lethal weapons to our country, but he managed to impose sanctions against Russia and against [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's cronies within a week after they began their military offense in Crimea," Berezovets said. "Those sanctions have been devastating for the economic situation in Russia. That's probably been stronger than any military assistance, actually."

He also cited U.S. financial aid and training for Ukraine's national police force as a major show of support. "It happened because of Obama's vision," he said.

No one knows how much support Ukraine can expect from the Trump administration.

But Kyiv -- perhaps spurred by the U.S. president-elect's suggestion that he might consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and his admiring remarks about Putin -- has not waited around idly to find out.

Burned by some senior Ukrainian functionaries' public disparagement of Trump and support for his Democratic opponent, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during the campaign, the government in Kyiv has warned officials to scrub their social-media accounts of posts critical of Trump.

President Petro Poroshenko's administration also hired a lobbying firm in Washington to help cozy up to Trump's team.

But not everyone in Kyiv cares about wooing the new U.S. administration.

Back at the Obama Burger Truck, Oliynik, who usually steers clear of political talk, said customers have been asking whether he will begin to offer a Trump burger anytime soon. Some even offered suggestions for how to dress the burger, including topping it with a bun resembling the president-elect's famous coiffure.

But Oliynik said there are no plans for a burger named after one of America's most widely copyrighted names, and he is not having any of it.

"We wrote on the window [of our food trailer] that jokes about Trump are not funny," he said.