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The Week In Russia: Stuck In The Middle With You

Volodymyr Zelensky holds a bullet as he addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In his speech, the Ukrainian president warned world leaders about the dangers of "Russian aggression" in his country.
Volodymyr Zelensky holds a bullet as he addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In his speech, the Ukrainian president warned world leaders about the dangers of "Russian aggression" in his country.

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Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy have now both been at center stage in U.S. political controversies that have affected elections to the White House and the fate of its occupant. In terms of how they got there and how they have handled it, though, there are plenty of differences.

Like The Same Thing, Only Different

In some ways, it seems like a fool's game to place the presidents of Russia and Ukraine side-by-side for purposes of comparison and contrast. Their countries are vastly different in geographical size, geopolitical position, and more.

As for the men themselves, the most dramatic differences between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy include age (66 and 41), background (KGB officer, funnyman), and time in office (20+ years as president or prime minister, 4+ months as president).

But now that both Putin and Zelenskiy have been in the center-stage spotlight in American political controversies that have colored U.S. presidential campaigns, it's hard to avoid making the comparison – or at least hard to resist it.

To recap what put each of them in the spotlight, if that's even possible: Putin was accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of ordering a multipronged "influence campaign" aimed at discrediting the American electoral process during the 2016 presidential race, undermining Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and helping her Republican rival, Donald Trump, win the White House.

Zelenskiy seems to have been thrust into a lead role more accidentally. The Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has launched an official impeachment inquiry, the first step in a process that could potentially force Trump from office, largely as a result of a phone call the two presidents held on July 25.

In it, Trump prodded Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to face him in the 2020 presidential election, who pushed for the dismissal of Ukraine's chief prosecutor in 2016. Trump's conduct in the call has fueled accusations that he sought to enlist a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political rival.

So, there's the difference: Zelenskiy is seen by Trump's accusers as having been beseeched or bullied to meddle in a U.S. election, while Putin is accused of setting the meddling in motion himself.

But the difference goes deeper, or wider, and includes the way that the two presidents have handled the attention.

'I Don't Want To Be Involved'

Zelenskiy is still just starting to deal with the matter, as the whistle-blower complaint that unleashed the scandal became known to the public less than two weeks ago, and the memo recounting his phone conversation with Trump was released by the White House on September 25 -- the same day the two presidents held talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

So far, the Ukrainian president seems to be doing his best to cede the lead role and stay -- to the degree that it is possible -- in the shadows. Kyiv has not released a transcript of the call, and Zelenskiy has said the conversation was "normal."

His main tactic at this point appears to be a mix of diplomacy and defiance, stating that "nobody pushed" him in the call -- even after the memo showed that Trump mentioned the matter several times -- and suggesting that he, and Ukraine itself, are impervious to influence from abroad.

"Nobody can put pressure on me because I am the president of an independent state," Zelenskiy said shortly before the talks with Trump at the UN. He has also sought to inject humor into the matter, joking that the only person who is capable of putting pressure on him is his six-year-old son.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at the UN.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at the UN.

Speaking to reporters alongside Trump, the comic-cum-president delivered a one-liner about the brouhaha: "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved in the democratic elections of the U.S.A."

Was that a dig at Putin? If not, it could easily be mistaken for one – and it came on the day Zelenskiy, in his first-ever address to the annual UN General Assembly, tried to wrench the sudden sharp interest in Ukraine away from Washington and Trump and focus it on Moscow, Putin, and what he called "Russian aggression" in Ukraine.

"None of you will be able to feel safe as long as there is a war in Ukraine, a war in Europe," he said, a reference to the war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of two provinces in the region in eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.

The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014, when it erupted after Russia seized Crimea, further southwest, and fomented separatism following the ouster of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv.

The war, of course, is part of the 'malign activity' that U.S. officials accuse Putin and Russia of pursuing around the globe in the past six years or so. And it seems likely to continue after the spotlight in the U.S. political standoff shifts away from Zelenskiy and Ukraine, regardless of the outcome for Trump and the 2020 election.

Another element in the "malign activity" is Russia's alleged effort to influence the 2016 election.

Pride And Pragmatism

Much as Zelenskiy has sought to steer clear of the spotlight amid the controversy centered on Trump, Biden, and Ukraine, Putin has sought – most of the time -- to play down Russia's interference in the election. Or, as with Russian involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, simply deny it despite the evidence.

But the denials have never been quite complete. Instead, perhaps as the result of a combination of pragmatism and pride -- a need to hedge in the face of evidence and a failure to repress the instinct to take credit where one believes it is due -- blanket denials have given way to equivocation, admissions, or revelations that show a flash of the truth but seek to keep the rest under wraps.

It happened with Russia's occupation of Crimea: The "little green men" – soldiers in unmarked uniforms who popped up on the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014 -- were first cast by the Kremlin as a mystery, then said to be locals, and eventually acknowledged to have been Russian servicemen.

And a year after the takeover, a fawning film on Russian state TV depicted it as a smooth and successful operation with Putin at the controls. So much for deniability.

As for eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv and NATO say thousands of Russian troops have fought in a conflict fueled by weapons and other support from Moscow, Putin has poked holes in the Kremlin's own denials of involvement by the Russian military in what Moscow inaccurately refers to as a Ukrainian civil war.

At his annual press conference in 2014, Putin asserted that Russians fighting there were "doing their duty at the call of their hearts or voluntarily taking part" in the conflict. At the same event in 2015 he elaborated, sort of.

"We have never said that there are no people there involved in resolving certain issues, including those related to the military sphere. But this does not mean that there are regular Russian troops there," Putin said. "Feel the difference."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Seems a bit hard to feel, though, given the convoluted wording of a sentence in which he specified "regular troops" and did not even flatly deny that such troops were in Ukraine.

A similar shift from clear denial to something short of it occurred in the months after the U.S. intelligence community came out with its main accusation of Russian election meddling in January 2017, two months after Trump won the presidency.

Putin said in June 2017 that "patriotically minded" Russians could have been involved in the hacking attacks that U.S. intelligence agencies said were part of the "influence campaign" he ordered. But he added: "We're not doing this on the state level."

The distinction may be pretty small.

"The boundary between state and private action, however, is often blurry in Russia, particularly in matters relating to the projection of Russian influence abroad," a New York Times article on Putin's comments said. "This provides a measure of plausible deniability for actions that the Kremlin does not want to be linked to publicly."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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