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'We Were Dragged Into This': What Ukrainians Think About The Trump Scandal

Ukrainian Katya Gorchinskaya: "Almost nobody [in Ukraine] understands the geopolitical consequences."
Ukrainian Katya Gorchinskaya: "Almost nobody [in Ukraine] understands the geopolitical consequences."

KYIV -- On September 24, in Washington, Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped up to a podium and announced that the U.S. House of Representatives would start formal impeachment procedures against President Donald Trump, accusing him of betraying his oath of office and national security by pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate a political rival.

Meanwhile, more than 8,000 kilometers to the east, Alina Kosse was sheltered inside her bullet-riddled cottage in the eastern Ukrainian town of Mariyinka, where government forces were engaged in a firefight with Russia-backed separatists.

Mariyinka has been largely destroyed in the war that erupted in 2014, after Russia seized Crimea and fomented separatism following the ouster of a Moscow-friendly president in Kyiv, and most of its residents have fled. The front line runs through its center. There is no running water, electricity is spotty, and food is scarce.

So the last thing on Kosse’s mind -- and on the minds of the few hundred people left in town, she said -- was the political scandal gripping Washington, even if it centers around Ukraine and its new president.

“People here aren’t talking about it at all,” she told RFE/RL by phone, adding that a soldier had been killed in action overnight. “You can’t spread this on bread. We are only interested in what can be put in our stomach. People are interested in cheap potatoes.”

Even if Kosse had been watching any of the various Ukrainian news reports aired that night -- assuming she could hear the presenter’s words over the din of automatic weapons fire and shelling she said was endless -- she would not have seen that Democrats had taken the extraordinary step of launching a process that could unseat the U.S. president.

While the impeachment debate has been plastered across the front pages of every newspaper and led every evening news program in the United States for days, in Ukraine there has been little coverage of it.

Other Challenges

Lead stories on major news sites on September 24 included news about the new chief of the National Police, the Cabinet of Ministers sending to parliament a bill on land sales, and an e-ticket system for public transport in Kyiv.

Ukrainians who spoke to RFE/RL for this story said that conversations around their dinner tables and workplace water coolers -- or the equivalent -- have continued to center mostly on everyday life and domestic issues.

Their country faces huge challenges as it tries to implement reforms, jump-start the economy, and stave off what Zelenskiy, in remarks in a UN speech, called Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Zelenskiy, who defeated former President Petro Poroshenko in an April runoff with 70 percent of the vote, has promised to tackle these issues head-on.

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

Those who have followed the Ukraine-focused drama in Washington tend to come from the political elite, and their silence may have substantial motivation. Pressure from Trump and his allies to probe the actions of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and a Ukrainian company that had Biden’s son Hunter on its board have forced them to walk a political tightrope.

Trump and his allies accuse Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge the incumbent in 2020, of using his clout to help the company Burisma -- which was paying Biden's son Hunter, who was on its board of directors -- avoid damage from a criminal investigation by pushing for the dismissal of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, who was fired in March 2016.

'I Know The Essence Of It'

Ukrainian officials and anti-corruption activists contend that the Burisma probe had long been dormant at the time and that the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, had in fact been the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the investigation.

“My first reaction was, ‘Well, OK,’" Anna Dotsenko, a Kyiv resident who works in television production, said about the scandal in Washington that Zelenskiy has been caught up in. The Ukrainian president was potentially thrust deeper into it on September 25 when the White House released a memorandum of a phone call that Trump and Zelenskiy held two months earlier.

Olha Ivanova, a charity worker in the capital, said she knows about the news but has not followed it closely.

“I know the essence of it and I am curious [about] what will happen now,” she said. “It looks like a very American scandal, where we are just unfortunate victims due to the will of the U.S. establishment and mistakes or certain political interests of a few Ukrainian officials.”

Kristina Berdynskykh, a reporter for Novoye Vremya, a Ukrainian news magazine, said “Ukrainian media don’t pay attention to this topic, since it is obvious that Zelenskiy is not the most important person in this story -- Trump is.”

Ukrainian readers, she added, “think that this is the internal business of the Americans.”

Many agree. Halyna Odnoroh, a civic activist in the Azov Sea city of Mariupol, which sits 20 kilometers from the front line of the war and found itself at the center of a major geopolitical firefight last year, when Russian border guard and security service boats attacked Ukrainian Navy vessels near the Kerch Strait, said, “the problem is between Congress and the president.”

“We were drawn into this problem,” she added.

Katya Gorchinskaya, a former CEO of the independent Hromadske TV news outlet, suggests that is the wrong way to look at it.

“Almost nobody [in Ukraine] understands the geopolitical consequences and significance of Ukraine being dragged into American politics,” she said. “They don’t understand the short-term and long-term effects that could come from this.”

But some say they do understand the stakes.

Odnoroh said now that Ukraine has been thrust into the middle of a major political drama, “we need to try to get the most out of it.”

“Attention is always good,” she said. “The more [people in the West] talk about Ukraine, the greater the chance of people seeing how Russia is violating us.”

Still, others would have preferred to stay out of the spotlight altogether.

A Kyiv barista, so nervous about having his name published in the media that he asked for anonymity to speak openly to this reporter, wondered what would have happened “if Zelenskiy hadn’t picked up the phone.”

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