With Trump Fading, Ukraine’s President Seems to a Reset With the U.S.

MOSCOW – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is finally free from the shadow of President Trump and is trying to put relations with the United States back on a solid footing with the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“Joe Biden apparently knows Ukraine better than the previous president,” said Zelensky in his first interview with an American news organization since the elections.

“Before his presidency, he had close ties with Ukraine and he understands the Russians well, he understands the difference between Ukraine and Russia, and he seems to me to understand the Ukrainian mentality,” said Zelensky. “It will really help to strengthen relations, end the war in Donbass and end the occupation of our territory. The United States can help. “

During the Obama years, Mr Biden was blamed for relations with Ukraine, where he worked, with varying degrees of success, to fight corruption and, after 2014, end the war in eastern Ukraine, an area referred to in Ukraine as the Donbass.

That background and his son Hunter Biden’s business activities caught the attention of Mr Trump over the past year, who viewed Mr Biden as a potential rival for the presidency. Uncomfortable for Mr. Zelensky, this dynamic drew Ukraine into American politics just a few months after he was sworn in as President for Anti-Corruption in May 2019.

“They locked us up,” said Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian turned politician, speaking more freely about the matter with Mr. Trump’s imminent departure. “But I think we behaved with dignity that is appropriate to a sovereign country.”

When he took office, Mr. Zelensky had hoped to receive diplomatic assistance from the United States in negotiations to end the serious war with Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine. But that strategy dissolved in the impeachment scandal last year.

Thereafter, Mr. Zelensky largely refrained from publicly discussing US policy towards Ukraine in order not to offend one side or the other.

Mr. Zelensky is now exempt from these restrictions and, more than a year after his unfortunate first attempt, is on his way again to seek greater American commitment to ending the only active war in Europe.

More than 13,000 people have died in the war in the lowlands of eastern Ukraine since Russia intervened militarily six years ago to support breakaway enclaves. These days, the two armies are fighting sporadically along a 280-mile trench line, throwing mortars and artillery fire at each other.

Like the Berlin Wall, this front divides people according to East-West politics, not according to ethnicity. Villages on both sides speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. The Ukrainian central government wants to integrate into the European Union, while Russia tries to keep the country in an area of ​​influence.

The negotiations to end the conflict are also geopolitical. France and Germany are now mediating in what is known as the “Normandy Format” negotiations. Mr. Zelensky has sought a US role in the negotiations since the beginning of his presidency.

William B. Taylor Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Kiev who served as head of mission last year during the events leading up to Trump’s impeachment, said Mr. Zelensky was right in thinking that relations with America are a hopeful new one Corner could turn. “Zelensky’s instincts are still good,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Relations between the US and Ukraine are getting stronger and more coherent, and that will benefit Zelensky,” said Taylor. “I am encouraged and optimistic about the new government’s Ukraine policy.”

Mr. Zelensky said in an interview via video link from Kiev that he was grateful for the American support during the Trump administration, including the tightening of sanctions against Russia. “I should thank the United States in Donald Trump’s time,” he said. However, he did admit more could be done, such as encouraging American investment in government-controlled areas near the conflict.

“We really don’t want to run on a treadmill,” he said, referring to Europe-led negotiations that had not dragged on for six years. A ceasefire reduced violence, but not stopped it.

The Trump administration was largely absent from the process. The president wholeheartedly endorsed the unsubstantiated claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election instead of Russia, and he believed Ukraine subtly favored Hillary Clinton.

In this toxic atmosphere, the nominal US envoy for the settlement talks, Kurt Volker, found himself next to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and negotiated not about issues of war and peace, but about the request that Mr. Zelensky should investigate Mr. Trump’s political adversary, Mr. Biden, and his family – which ultimately led to Mr. Trump’s infamous phone call asking Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor” and advising to withhold military aid if he didn’t .

As the impeachment saga unfolded, Mr Zelensky walked a narrow path and refused to announce an investigation into the Bidens while helping Mr Trump by addressing leaks that may have helped the Democrats impeach.

Despite Mr Zelensky’s efforts, the Trump administration ignored Ukraine after its impeachment and did not bother to appoint a new ambassador for peace or push for the confirmation of a new ambassador.

In the interview, Mr. Zelensky said that he rejects efforts to include Ukraine in American politics, which could only harm the country’s interests.

“I don’t want Ukraine to be the subject of a fight between Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “We are great partners. But partner in what? Let us be partners in geopolitics, in the economy between our countries. But certainly not between personalities and beyond with two candidates for the presidency of the United States. “

Mr Biden is expected to encourage Mr Zelensky to push his anti-corruption agenda forward and make a clean break with Ukraine’s shady business oligarchs, some of whom post pro-Russian views on their television channels.

Mr. Zelensky has raised his feet in this regard. An oligarch who supported Mr. Zelensky in his campaign, Ihor Kolomoisky, cost Ukraine $ 5.6 billion in a bank bailout on allegations of embezzlement, raising fears that Kiev’s elite would siphon off Western aid. Mr. Kolomoisky denies wrongdoing.

Mr. Zelensky said he saw no need to demonstrate the distance to Mr. Kolomoisky. “I’m not sure if I should show anything,” he said now, as that would suggest that his decisions had been influenced in the past, which he denied. A new law rules out oligarchic interference in banking supervision in Ukraine, he said.

When the topic of coronavirus vaccines turned, Mr. Zelensky struggled to contain his frustration with Mr. Trump and his order to ban the export of vaccines. Prior to the ban, Ukraine had talks with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to expedite deliveries but is now having to settle for the first commercial vaccine shipments months later than expected due to Mr Trump’s order.

Russia has gleefully taken up the U.S. export ban for propaganda purposes, and the idea that Ukraine, with friends like these, might consider turning to Moscow for life-saving vaccines – regardless of Russia’s support for the separatist war.

“Of course, it is impossible to explain to Ukrainian society why, if America and Europe don’t give you vaccines, they shouldn’t get vaccines from Russia,” Zelensky said. He was preparing for an “information war” on the subject.

Nevertheless, Ukraine, as the largest democracy in the former Soviet Union, has remained a natural long-term partner for the United States.

“It seems to me that the United States relates to Ukraine like the United States relates to democracy,” he said. “No matter who is president, he will always respect democracy and in the same way there will always be this relationship with Ukraine, regardless of who is president. At least I see it like that. “

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