It's Me, Not You: Zelensky Between Trump And Biden — And Putin

The impeachment storm in Washington comes with high stakes in Ukraine as well, especially for the country's own TV-star-turned-President.

President Zelensky in Kiev on Aug. 29
President Zelensky in Kiev on Aug. 29
Anna Akage

Donald Trump's response to the Ukraine-related impeachment probe is nothing short of surreal, with the U.S. president now openly calling on foreign powers to investigate a domestic political rival. The view from Kiev, meanwhile, is surreal in other ways.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, like Trump was a television star before turning to politics, has proven to be much less able than his American counterpart to play both roles simultaneously. Embarrassed by the initial revelations of the July 25 phone conversation with Trump — in which he also criticized Germany and France for not doing enough for Ukraine — Zelensky has released a single statement on the subject: "I think you read everything in the transcript of the July 25 talk. I don't want to be dragged into the democratic, open elections in the U.S. We had a good, normal conversation. We talked about a lot, and no one pressed me," said Zelensky during a meeting with Trump last month.

The view from Kiev is surreal in other ways.

The affair is exceptionally ill-timed for the 41-year-old Ukrainian president, an experienced and quick-on-his-feet comedian who has nevertheless stumbled as a newbie in politics. "In Ukraine, the focus of attention is expected to shift to what position Zelensky took during Trump's phone call," writes Kiev-based online media Novoe Vremya. In particular, many were surprised by the phrase: "The next Chief Prosecutor will be 100% my man."

Indeed, the troubling constitutional questions around Trump pushing a foreign country for an investigation of rivals, leading Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, also threatens to compromise the integrity of Ukraine's political system. (It should be noted that Trump's call Thursday for China to do the same doesn't raise the same questions for Beijing, because of its lack of democratic institutions).

Zelensky and Trump in New York — Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House/ZUMA

In Kiev, First Deputy Chairman of Ukraine's parliament, Iryna Herashchenko, wrote in a Facebook post just after the first revelations: "On the topic of independence of the parliament and security structures, as it has to be in the developed democracy countries, I have nothing to add. Those institutions were formed for centuries, while ours are designed and appointed according to their Ukrainian top politicians' own needs. If we want to have a strong country, we have to do everything for creating strong, independent institutions. Not "100% my man" and not in a "your-wish-is-my-command" mode."

All the attention around closed-door dealings with major geopolitical fallout has raised a variety of theories in Ukraine of what really lies behind the story. Writing on the Ukrainian news website Levy Bereg, Oleg Petrovets suggests that it may have been Biden himself who orchestrated the leak of the phone conversation. Another of the authors' plotline has Trump as the source of it all, aiming to prod Biden into responding and thus shining attention on the corruption allegations.

As big as the Trump story is, the man keeping Zelensky up at night right now is Vladimir Putin. On Tuesday, after months of negotiations, Ukraine agreed to the so-called "Steinmeier formula" for new elections in the occupied territories of Donbass, which Zelensky hopes will bring an end to five years of armed conflict between the two neighbors. His domestic opponents insist that the Ukrainian president has given in to too many Russian demands in order to secure a summit with Putin later this year in Paris. "The Steinmeier Formula, to which the new government agreed, is elections in the occupied territories without Ukraine's participation," writes Ukrainian political analyst Serhiy Taran.

The man keeping Zelensky up at night right now is Vladimir Putin.

Still, even as tensions remain high in its own neighborhood, Ukraine is sure to remain at the center of events inside the halls of Washington — and hardly the way Zelensky had in mind when he was trying to warm up to Trump.

As summed up in a Facebook post last month by Ukraine's former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. "Whatever happens next ... Ukraine will remain as the country that led to the beginning of the impeachment process of the U.S. president. Not a very cheerful prospect. But now everyone knows what we are capable of."

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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