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Ukrainian President Likely To Get Off Easy Over Contentious Trump Conversation

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump meet for talks in New York on September 25.

KYIV -- It remains to be seen if a telephone conversation with a foreign leader will be U.S. President Donald Trump's undoing.

But while Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has spurred impeachment proceedings in Washington, political analysts, journalists, and politicians in Kyiv say the controversy is unlikely to make a dent in the recently elected Zelenskiy's 71 percent approval rating.

Nor, they say, will the memo of the call made public by the White House on September 25 prompt a parliament controlled by Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party to launch impeachment proceedings in Ukraine.

However, some observers do see some cause for concern among the revelations about the Zelenskiy's conversation with Trump.

Zelenskiy said he was unaware that his comments on the call -- in which Trump repeatedly prods him to investigate a U.S. political rival, and Zelenskiy echoes criticism of European leaders and a former U.S. ambassador -- would be released by the White House.

"No, this will not harm Zelenskiy inside Ukraine, since the topic and content of the conversation [with Trump] does not concern the immediate interests of the vast majority of Ukrainians, including Zelenskiy's supporters," says Volodymyr Fesenko, director at the Kyiv-based think tank Penta Center.

The controversy comes as Zelenskiy tries to make good on campaign promises to fight entrenched corruption, overhaul Ukraine's institutions, and jump-start the economy.

It's also still fighting Russia on real and virtual grounds; Russia-backed separatists continue to launch attacks against government forces in eastern Ukraine while Moscow-backed hackers poke away at the country's infrastructure and state propaganda works to undermine Ukraine's image in the media.

However, Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center, says the segment of the memo where Zelenskiy tells Trump the next Ukrainian prosecutor would be "100 percent my person" could raise some concern among citizens about a true separation of powers between the executive and judiciary branches.

Some opposition politicians were irked by the statement. Iryna Herashenko, a lawmaker with the party of former President Petro Poroshenko, disapproved, saying in a statement on Facebook that "if we want to have a strong country, we must do everything to form strong, independent institutions."

Joe Biden

According to the memo, the U.S. president requested Zelenskiy open an investigation into the Ukraine work of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a leading Democratic contender to compete against Trump in 2020, and his son Hunter.

Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has accused Biden of pushing Kyiv to fire then-Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin to halt an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company. Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma at the time.

Zelenskiy, who was only two months in office at the time of the call and had yet to choose a prosecutor-general, told Trump he would have the country's next top law enforcement official open a probe. "He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue," he said, apparently referring to Burisma.

"Since we have won the absolute majority in our parliament; the next prosecutor-general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September," Zelenskiy is quoted as saying in the U.S. memo of the call.

Zelenskiy has since appointed Ruslan Ryaboshapka as prosecutor-general, and no investigation has been opened. Ryaboshapka did not answer when RFE/RL called for comment.

Getmanchuk says Zelenskiy's words could be seen by Ukrainians as an "attempt to influence the prosecutor general and his office." And that, she adds, "contradicts Zelenskiy's promises during his campaign to install an independent prosecutor and fight political corruption."

Criticism Of European Leaders

Zelenskiy's criticism of Western European leaders could also be of concern to Ukrainians, who have so far been pleased with the momentum he has built toward ending the five-year war in eastern Ukraine, including the freeing this month of 35 prisoners held by Russia.

His comments were prompted by what Trump characterized as Europe's lack of support for Ukraine. Trump told Zelenskiy that "Germany does almost nothing for you" and that German Chancellor Angela Merkel "talks Ukraine, but she doesn't do anything."

Zelenskiy is quoted as responding: "Yes you are absolutely right, not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent, and I can tell you the following; I did talk to Angela Merkel, and I did meet with her. I also met and talked with [French President Emmanuel] Macron, and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 18.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 18.

Getmanchuk says that Ukrainians "might not like Zelenskiy supporting Trump's narrative about Macron and especially Merkel, who remains the main heavyweight ally of Ukraine among world leaders."

Fesenko says he thought the exchange about European leaders "can have a negative effect, but not a critical one."

My Plane Or Yours?

Zelenskiy spent much of the call flattering Trump, calling him a "great teacher" and echoing his criticism of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Zelenskiy is quoted as calling a "bad ambassador."

The Ukrainian president also noted to the U.S. president that he had stayed at Trump Tower in New York City. And suggesting Trump make a trip to Ukraine after a scheduled trip to Poland, Zelenskiy said, "We can either take my plane and go to Ukraine or we can take your plane, which is probably much better than mine."

Taras Berezovets, a political analyst and television news presenter for a station that is supportive of former President Petro Poroshenko, whom Zelenskiy defeated in the April election, says he doesn't think Ukrainians will be disappointed in their president for appearing to yield to Trump in the phone call.

Word that Trump had frozen $250 million in aid from the Pentagon and another $141 million from the State Department meant for Ukraine earlier this month was met with shock and frustration in Kyiv, highlighting the importance Ukrainians place on U.S. support to maintain the armed forces and achieve an acceptable peace in its war-torn eastern provinces.

But little did Ukrainians know at the time that Trump, according to The Washington Post, had told his then-acting chief of staff at least one week before the July 25 call to hold back the nearly $400 million of aid.

"The call may make him look weak, but he has said he is a servant of the people," Berezovets says, suggesting that they take the man they elected into office at his word.

Natalia Gumenyuk, a journalist at Hromadske TV, wrote on Twitter that "the conversation between Zelenskiy and Trump sounded "bad, even very bad, but not catastrophic."

Across the pond, some in Washington had a different take on the situation.

U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, the Democratic co-chair of the Ukraine Caucus, said she thought the details disclosed in the memo could hurt Zelenskiy's domestic popularity and undermine his messages about cleaning up Ukraine's political system.

"I think President Zelenskiy has to aspire to the values and hopes of his people. He has to do a little soul searching at this point," she told RFE/RL in Washington on September 25, adding that the Ukrainian president should not have been put in the position he has found himself in by the president of the United States. "I think Zelenskiy's ratings could be hurt. He needs to pivot from this and hit a higher standard."

Todd Prince contributed reporting from Washington