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Kyiv should stay out of US politics

It was and remains an imperative that Ukraine has a stable relationship with the United States. The deterioration of American support might seriously undermine Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian pressure.

June 10, 2020 - Volodymyr Dubovyk - Articles and Commentary

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his meeting with the President of the United States Donald Trump in September 2019. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine (cc) flickr.com

There have been certain developments in Ukraine over the last few weeks that appeared to endanger its key relationship with the United States, and they also have the potential to impact the course of the American presidential elections. In late April, a judge in Kyiv announced that the former Vice President Joe Biden is involved in a case put forward by the former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. On May 19th, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Andriy Derkach, presented recordings of conversations in 2015 and 2016 between Biden and the former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, implying that wrong-doing took place. Finally, and most alarmingly, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a comment the following day that suggested there would be further investigations into the matter.

In his May 20th press-conference president Zelenskyy touted the investigation into Joe Biden’s actions regarding Ukraine as he served as vice-president. Despite the fact that no new information has emerged from the recordings, there is now a sense of a renewed tension.

The events of the last weeks, culminating with the Zelenskyy’s remarks, have revived the story that put Ukraine’s relationship with the United States on the brink of deterioration and generated a political crisis in Washington and impeachment hearings in Congress. The new administration of president Zelenskyy, who was inaugurated a year ago, then faced intense pressure by President Trump and his entourage to provide “dirt” on the presidential contender Joe Biden.

The willingness of Zelenskyy to look into the “kompromat” on Biden, which he appeared to confirm on May 20th, is a departure from Kyiv’s previous stance. If undertaken as a policy shift, it will harm critical relations with Washington, strengthen Moscow’s position vis-a-vis both Kyiv and Washington, and potentially affect the upcoming elections in the United States. It is no surprise that such a perspective has caused many to speak up. Ukrainian experts have warned of the dangers of such a course and so have many Americans, including former United States ambassadors to Ukraine.

Both Ukrainian and American experts have long reached the conclusion that Zelenskyy should limit his commenting on anything related to Biden’s dealings with Ukraine in the past. Staying out of American politics has been seen as the proper course of action. Ukraine has enjoyed solid unfailing support from the United States for years. This support has become critical in recent years after the onset of Russian aggression in 2014, and it remains crucial now as that aggression continues.

When making his remarks on May 20th, Zelenskyy might have been motivated by his animus towards the previous president Poroshenko. Ukraine’s current Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, has announced that there is now an official investigation into the Poroshenko-Biden recordings. However, it seems unclear as to what the focus of the investigation will be. Zelenskyy now says that he is alarmed by the very fact that someone was able to record the conversations of the president.

It should be noted that the previous Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who is well-regarded by many Ukraine watchers and Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists, has refused to condone politically-motivated investigations into Poroshenko. This may have been a key reason for his removal. Many agree that the question of the tapes’ provenance is, indeed, an important one.

Whether Zelenskyy has made these comments in an ad-hoc manner or deliberately planned them remains unclear. He may have been set up by powerful domestic players, including the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi who has had his share of grievances directed at the United States lately. It is also clear that Moscow would benefit enormously if Ukraine’s relations with the United States were to unravel, and it is supposedly in Russia’s capacity to record or otherwise obtain the conversations.

There have been no statements from Kyiv since May 20th. If Zelenskyy’s comments were an honest mistake, it would have been more appropriate for his office or him personally to expediently say so. In his most recent interview with “The Telegraph,” he finally did so, maintaining that Kyiv has no intention of becoming involved in United States politics. He also made assurances that the Poroshenko-Biden tapes are not a priority to him. In his most recent interview, Zelenskyy did not sound like someone trying to drag Ukraine into United States politics, yet it was him who made those dubious remarks on May 20th. This episode leaves some bad taste and may have a lingering effect on bilateral relations.

Time will tell if this recent episode was, indeed, just a one-time fluke, or if there will be more temptation on the part of some Ukrainian figures to wander into delicate territory and risk Ukraine’s partnership with the United States. There are people who care less about this partnership and more about their own personal immediate gains. Those people can be found on the both sides of the Atlantic.

Any attempts to unsettle relations between Kyiv and Washington should cease once and for all. The deterioration of American support might seriously undermine Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian pressure. Furthermore, it could damage the entire Euro-Atlantic orientation of Ukraine, which has been seen as a priority for this nation. Such a pivot would also send shock waves through the entire region. For the sake of transatlantic security this must not happen.

Volodymyr Dubovyk is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Studies, Odessa I. I. Mechnikov National University, Ukraine. He is a co-author of Ukraine and European Security (Macmillan, 1999).

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