Day 6

'Ukraine loses either way': How the Trump impeachment hearings are hurting Kyiv

With Washington embroiled in impeachment hearings, Ukraine is without the support of one of its most important allies in its conflict with Russia. DW journalist Nick Connolly says Ukraine's isolation is emboldening its foes.

'Ukrainian leadership ... realized very quickly what a dangerous situation this is,' says DW's Nick Connolly

Volodymyr Zelensky, the comic actor-turned-president, has suddenly found himself at the centre of global attention following his July call with Doanld Trump. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

As impeachment hearings roiled Washington again this week, the fallout was being felt half a world away for the man on the other end of the fateful phone call that sparked it all.

On Wednesday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified that there was indeed a "quid pro quo" when U.S. President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democrats while allegedly dangling military support for Kyiv. 

But according to DW's Kyiv correspondent Nick Connolly, the fallout of that July call is affecting Zelensky, too. 

Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho spoke with Connolly about how the impeachment hearings in Washington, D.C., are hurting Ukraine. 

Here is part of that conversation.

Does Zelensky just want to crawl under a rock right now? 

I think that's been the strategy, to try and sit this out, keep schtum and not say anything. I think that's becoming increasingly difficult as these impeachment hearings continue.

But for now, they are really trying to say as little as humanly possible and hope that this somehow passes them by.

If we turn to Ukrainian people for a moment, how much attention are they devoting to Trump and Zelensky?

Well, that's the extraordinary thing — for the first time ever, really, Ukraine is on everyone's lips in Washington. But people here in Ukraine couldn't care less, or at least don't know why they should care, even though there is reason for them to really worry about this.

I've been trying to pitch this to locals and to report on the story. You ask people on the streets of Kyiv — people who otherwise maybe follow the news — what is it that Trump actually wanted from Zelensky, and 90 per cent of people can't even tell you what that call was about. 

And even if they do know what this was —  the allegation being this is a conflict of interest, Trump mixing party politics with U.S. diplomatic policy —  that just elicits a yawn. That really isn't something that shocks anyone in this country.

Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, testified that there was indeed a quid pro quo when the Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate democrats while dangling military support for Kyiv. (Getty Images)

Why not? What's more pressing to Ukrainians right now?

I think there's a general cynicism about politicians and there's an expectation that they will mix their personal politics, their personal business, with state business. That is taken as a given. 

But in terms of the domestic agenda … people's living standards are still significantly lower than they were before the conflict with Russia in 2014. And now with the summit coming up in Paris in December, it seems like the Europeans, particularly Emmanuel Macron in France, are going to try and push Ukraine to make concessions to Russia so they can get back to business as usual with the Kremlin. 

So that really is dominating the agenda and all these hearings in Washington do seem a really, really long way away from here.

That meeting is coming up between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French president Emmanuel Macron next month to talk about the conflict with Russia. And I'm wondering how that negotiation is going to be affected by what's going on in Washington?

Well, I think the American presence is very sorely missed, at least from the Ukrainian perspective. One of the reasons why this meeting is now going ahead is because it's clear that Trump is not going to support Ukraine through this. 

The Democrats and other more traditional Republicans in Washington, who in the past would have stood up for Ukraine — told the Ukrainians not to make big concessions — they are so consumed now with these impeachment hearings that … Ukraine's here and now is not on their agenda.

So I think the absence of the U.S. leadership, or involvement in all this, is crucial to the reason why the Europeans, particular Emmanuel Macron, felt that this was the time to launch this initiative and try and kind of resolve this conflict without U.S. involvement.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a meeting in New York on Sept. 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

How important is the U.S. and its support for Ukraine?

Well there [are] two sides. There is obviously the practical side: The U.S. is still the only Western ally that has supplied Ukraine with lethal weapons, so that's most notably the Javelin anti-tank missiles. That was a really huge symbol of U.S. willingness to get involved in this very uneven conflict between [Ukraine and] Ukraine's much bigger neighbour Russia. 

So that feeling that Washington is just not interested in dealing with Ukraine on a day-to-day basis, and that even Trump might be now frustrated with the Zelensky government for not delivering on the compromising news stories about the Bidens, that really is encouraging Ukraine's foes to really put pressure on Kyiv.

I'm wondering what Zelensky could do right now to get Washington back on his side? 

I think it's very difficult. I think he's left scratching his head and basically trying to play for time. I think at the moment doesn't seem like there are many people in Washington who have time or the energy to deal with this. 

Lots of people who historically were champions of Ukraine in Washington —  John McCain, who passed recently, then a whole generation of Eastern Europe experts — they have all now left that post and it seems like the younger generation that is taking over those jobs just really isn't interested in this country and this region. 

There's a bit of a vacuum and a fear here that just this isn't on anyone's radar in Washington.

I think it might have been funny at the beginning, but I think the Ukrainian leadership, for all its lack of experience, realized very quickly what a dangerous situation this is for Ukraine.- Nick Connolly, Kyiv correspondent for DW

In the phone call with Donald Trump Zelensky agreed with Trump that France and Germany aren't doing enough to support Ukraine. Has Ukraine offended its European allies with that?

I don't think so.... I think most European politicians … have probably a lot to fear if their private, or calls that are assumed to be private, were to be made public. So I think there is a fair bit of solidarity there with Zelensky, who interestingly wasn't asked before that transcript was released. So that came as a shock to everyone here in Kyiv. 

I think also he was trying careful in that call, where he really did try and chime with what President Trump was saying [about] the former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who obviously is not that important to Ukraine now that she's out of the job. 

Interesting enough, I think if you kind of consider Zelensky as a showman, someone who has spent a lot of time in entertainment, you could even think that he was trolling Trump by the level of the flattery. It was kind of insane — not only saying that he wanted to drain his own swamp here in Kyiv but also reminding Trump that he'd stayed in a Trump Hotel in New York [and] that he agreed with him not a 100 per cent but 1,000 per cent.

It seemingly went down very well with Donald Trump, but you could maybe say that he was actually making fun of the leader of the free world.

Zelensky is a comedian, he's also an actor. He's produced television. Do you think that he sees humour in the absurdity of the situation?

I think it might have been funny at the beginning, but I think the Ukrainian leadership, for all its lack of experience, realized very quickly what a dangerous situation this is for Ukraine. I think this isn't a moment for humour now. Ukraine loses either way.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Nick Connolly, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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