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Zelenskiy Won Ukrainian Voters Over With Ease; Winning Trump Over May Be Tougher

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump (combo photo)

They are political novices who tapped public discontent to win presidential elections, arguably against all odds. They are also TV personalities with a knack for engaging their voters through social media and breaking political protocol.

So, when Volodymyr Zelenskiy meets with Donald Trump for the first time in Washington in the coming weeks, that common background could help Ukraine’s new president forge a bond with his U.S. counterpart and elevate the bilateral relationship.

Zelenskiy may come packing newfound power at home, following July 21 parliamentary elections in which polls suggest that his party - named Servant of the People, after the TV series in which he plays a history teacher who happens into the presidency -- will outpace rivals by a large margin.

The 41-year-old comedian won the presidential election with ease, sending incumbent Petro Poroshenko packing by garnering more than 70 percent of the vote in an April runoff. The result underscored deep dissatisfaction with the government five years after the Maidan protest movement pushed a Moscow-friendly head of state from power and ignited the wrath of Russia, which seized control of the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists whose war against government forces has killed some 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

But the evidence suggests that Zelenskiy may have a tougher time winning over Trump than he had winning the votes of Ukrainians. Even as the United States has moved to punish Moscow for its interference in Ukraine, among other actions that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials have called “malign activity,” Trump has repeatedly voiced hope for warmer ties with Russia and has cultivated a relationship with President Vladimir Putin – a target of animus for many in Ukraine.

Trump has said he has been “tougher” on Russia than other U.S. presidents – and Washington has increased support for Kyiv since Trump took office in January 2017, including authorizing the shipment of lethal weapons that his predecessor, Barack Obama, declined to send. But analysts and former officials who are critical of Trump say that U.S. policy on Ukraine has run counter to the president’s own rhetoric, suggesting that key members of his administration have been imposing their views.

“Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t care about Ukraine -- that he is either deeply skeptical or simply doesn’t think it’s an issue that should concern the United States,” says Andrew Weiss, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously served in the State Department and the Pentagon.

“The most we can hope for [from the meeting] is that Trump is changed from an intense Ukraine skeptic to someone who is grudgingly willing” to maintain the current U.S. support for Kyiv.

U.S. officials have called Ukraine of crucial importance because they see it as ground zero for the standoff between the democratic West and a revisionist, authoritarian Russia. Congress has approved more than $3 billion in assistance to Kyiv over the past five years, in addition to sovereign loan guarantees.

“I am not sure Trump appreciates what is going on in Ukraine and the threat Russia poses” to European security, says Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Trump has frequently criticized member states of NATO, which Zelenskiy wants Ukraine to join – something the Kremlin fiercely opposes.

The U.S. president has also sought out meetings with Putin, and praised him, while giving less face time to Poroshenko, who -- like Trump -- was a wealthy businessman before coming to power.

The chances of a close relationship between Trump and Poroshenko may have been damaged from the start by reports that his government helped propagate damaging information about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now in prison, ahead of the 2016 election. Manafort quit in the wake of the reports, which raised questions about Trump’s connections to Russia -- a topic that has repeatedly sparked outbursts and vehement denials by the U.S. president of anything untoward.

Zelenskiy, an outsider to politics and diplomacy until his election campaign, has no connection to that baggage. That gives him a potential leg up, analysts say.

“If Zelenskiy’s charm is as real in person as it is on the TV screen, he may be able to break through with this president in a way that his predecessor could not,” says Andrij Dobriansky, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

Another development that could alter U.S. ties with Ukraine is the appointment of a new ambassador to Kyiv in the wake of the departure in May of Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat and Obama appointee who had been targeted by Ukraine’s prosecutor-general in public attacks that were amplified by conservative U.S. media outlets.

But a potential roadblock to close cooperation between Zelenskiy and the White House will be efforts to undermine Joe Biden, who is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in 2020 and whose son Hunter sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Joe Biden was the point person on Ukraine while serving as vice president under Obama.

“The Zelenskiy team is going to be in this really awkward position of trying to navigate that issue -- both when they come to Washington but also on an ongoing basis,” according to Weiss, who says the Trump administration is “looking for voices from Ukraine to validate or amplify that bad things have happened.”

Weapons, War, And Peace

A date for Zelenskiy’s visit has not been announced, but it appears likely to take place by summer’s end.

When they do meet, Trump and Zelenskiy are expected to discuss greater U.S. military assistance to Kyiv -- such as possible deliveries of special-forces boats to the Sea of Azov, which lies between Russia and Ukraine and close to the spot where Russia seized 24 Ukrainian sailors and their ships last November -- and prospects for ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

Like Poroshenko before him, Zelenskiy may seek to play to Trump’s desire to announce sales for American goods or services abroad, former officials and analysts say.

Former businessman to former businessman: Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) meets U.S. President Donald Trump in September 2017.
Former businessman to former businessman: Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) meets U.S. President Donald Trump in September 2017.

Shortly after Poroshenko visited the new U.S. president at the White House in June 2017, Ukraine announced it would buy coal for the first time from Pennsylvania, a state that Trump won in 2016 and that could be crucial to his 2020 reelection bid.

Early in July, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv announced that Ukraine had requested for the first time to buy military equipment from the United States. The size of the deal was not announced and a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, John Herbst, said the agreement had been in the works for some time and is not tied to Zelenskiy’s meeting with Trump.

Energizing Ties

Meanwhile, officials in both countries say Ukraine’s national security interests also coincide with Trump’s desire for deals in the energy sphere. Kyiv is seeking to reduce its reliance on energy from Russia -- which has halted gas supplies to Ukraine in the winter amid price disputes at least three times in the past -- while Trump is eager to see more U.S. oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipped to Europe.

Ukraine imported U.S. oil for the first time in July but has yet to import U.S. LNG.

Underscoring the importance of energy to the bilateral relationship, Trump sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry to Kyiv in May to lead the U.S. delegation at Zelenskiy’s inauguration.

“The biggest thing a Trump-Zelenskiy meeting could achieve is some beginning talks about energy investment,” says Dobriansky.

A Speech In Congress?

While the mood of a White House tête-à-tête is hard to predict, Zelenskiy seems certain to get a warm welcome in Congress, which has played a key role in keeping up pressure on Russia amid resistance in some cases from Trump.

The Congressional Ukraine Caucus has asked Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat and Trump critic who is speaker of the House of Representatives, to allow Zelenskiy to address the House and Senate during his visit to Washington, potentially pushing back his visit – which had been expected in early August -- to September, following the congressional summer break.

Like Petro Poroshenko before him, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may seek to play to Trump’s desire to announce sales for American goods or services abroad.
Like Petro Poroshenko before him, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may seek to play to Trump’s desire to announce sales for American goods or services abroad.

“Inviting President Zelenskiy to a joint meeting of Congress would serve as a strong symbolic message to the Kremlin: The American people stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people during this time of great need,” the caucus co-chairs said in a letter to Pelosi.

Zelenskiy’s two pro-Western predecessors, Viktor Yushchenko and Poroshenko, addressed the U.S. Congress shortly after their inaugurations in 2005 and 2014, respectively, receiving standing ovations amid hopes of change.

But critics say both leaders failed to deliver on promises to reform the economy, rein in the powerful tycoons known as oligarchs, and curb corruption – a stubborn problem that some Ukraine watchers call as big a threat to the country as Russian aggression.

With that history as a backdrop, Zelenskiy may seek to dispel persistent speculation that he is beholden to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, one of Ukraine’s richest people, when he comes to Washington.

So far, the comic seems to have the benefit of the doubt. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, told a Senate hearing last month following a visit to Kyiv that he believed Zelenskiy was committed to fighting corruption.

“There is still a fairly deep reservoir of empathy for and support for Ukraine on both the Republican and Democratic ranks,” Pifer says.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.