The Grand Gaming Table

In September 2019 the theme of Ukraine returned to the ages of the world press. It concerned the publication of the transcript of a conversation between newly elected President Zelensky and US President Donald Trump. In this conversation, Trump allegedly asked Zelensky to assist his lawyers in resuming an investigation into the activities of Hunter Biden, the son of Joseph Biden, one of Trump’s main rivals in the 2020 presidential election.

The latest chapter in the modern history of Ukraine began in the fall of 2013. In those days, the attention of the whole world was riveted on Kiev, where the dramatic events of the Maidan were unfolding. It began with a peaceful protest against President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. It subsequently deteriorated into direct bloody skirmishes, as a response to provocations from the authorities and pressure from the Kremlin.

After the victory of the Maidan and the flight of Viktor Yanukovych from the country, the Russian Federation launched the ‘Russian Spring; project in Ukraine. As a result, Ukraine has lost control of some parts of its eastern regions. Here pro-Russian puppet regimes were established. As a result of these events, Russia annexed Ukrainian Crimea. In its turn, this led to an actual (albeit undeclared) war between Ukraine and Russia. All this time, the US administration and American politicians provided moral support to the protesters. In December 2013, ten days after the bloody crackdown on the student rally, Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, visited Kiev. Right after her came Senator John McCain, who defiantly supported opposition leaders. The Americans have repeatedly condemned the annexation of Crimea.

Although the Obama administration imposed sanctions against Russia, the Ukrainian side was not successful in attracting the United States to the peace process in Minsk, as well as in implementing a security treaty.

In May 2014, Petro Poroshenko was elected President of Ukraine. Poroshenko put a great deal of effort into the American direction of Ukraine’s foreign policy. Its unspoken motto could be defined as ‘more America in Ukraine’. The main task of Poroshenko as the President of Ukraine was to ensure the security of Ukraine and guarantee the preservation of its independence. During these years, the United States committed significant amounts to Ukraine for military assistance with non-lethal weapons, and provided impressive loan guarantees.

At the same time, when President of the United States of America, Barack Obama failed to provide either the lethal weapons, or the status of a special ally outside NATO, which Petro Poroshenko had hoped for. In contrast to the position of the Ukrainian President, the USA professed the principle of ‘more Europe in Ukraine’.

The White House administration has made the development of the partnership between Ukraine and the US dependent on reforming the Prosecutor’s office, the judiciary system, and the fight against corruption. At the insistence of the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, a National Anti-Corruption Bureau was created in Ukraine. Ukraine’s problems in the fight against corruption cooled off the good intentions of the US administration.

Although the Obama administration imposed sanctions against Russia, the Ukrainian side was not successful in attracting the United States to the peace process in Minsk, as well as in implementing a security treaty. With respect to the construction of Nord Stream 2, the US administration wielded tough rhetoric, but in fact made no attempt to block this project.

With the Donald Trump administration coming to power in the White House, relations between Ukraine and the United States became even more complex. Poroshenko failed to attract Trump as a peacemaker in the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict. Moreover, the corruption scandal in Ukroboronprom, which erupted at the end of Poroshenko’s term of presidency, even more adversely affected these relations.

In the spring of 2017, the FBI initiated an investigation by special prosecutor Mueller. It concerned the suspicious relationship between Russian officials and representatives of the Donald Trump election campaign. The whole machine of the Democratic Party was involved in the search for evidence of Russian influence on the US elections. The investigation (which ended in March 2019) found two facts of Russian interference in the election of the US President, in particular, the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s correspondence by Russian intelligence.

The Congress was to make a decision on the question of whether Trump was obstructing justice, according to the investigation. Mueller’s investigation and the subsequent initiation of impeachment against President Trump became an expression of a sharp electoral struggle between American Democrats and the Republicans. Because of ‘the Kremlingate’ investigation, however, a ‘Ukrainian trace’ appeared in the documents.

Mueller’s investigation and the subsequent initiation of impeachment against President Trump became an expression of a sharp electoral struggle between American Democrats and the Republicans.

In June 2018, a popular Ukrainian news resource Strana.ua spoke about the role of Ukrainian officials in the 2016 election campaign in the United States based on the words of a former employee of the Ukrainian Embassy of Ukraine in Washington by the name of Andriy Telizhenko. He specifically suggested that the Ukrainian government in 2016 was misled by a request for support from a team of Democrats, believing that Trump is a pro-Russian President. The goal was to get Donald Trump out of the race. And here the Ukrainian side played right into the hands of Trump’s political opponents.

“They decided to play in the big league without having a global strategy. This led to a miscalculation.”—believes Telizhenko.

After his rise to power in the White House, Donald Trump launched a campaign against his main opponent Joe Biden, who was the Vice President during the time of President Obama.

It was then, in 2016, at the height of the election campaign in the United States, that a Ukrainian MP from the party Poroshenko Sergei Leshchenko published material about ‘secret accounting books’ of the Party of Regions in the Ukrainska Pravda. Based on the report, the total cost of political needs of Viktor Yanukovych and his supporters amounted to more than $66 million. These materials happened to mention the name of Paul Manafort, an American political strategist who at that time headed the election headquarters of current US President Donald Trump. Due to the publication of these documents, Paul Manafort was forced to resign, and was subsequently brought to trial. According to the investigation of an American news source Politico, and with reference to the very same Telizhenko, Ukrainian action against Trump could be coordinated by a representative of the Democratic National Committee, a US citizen of Ukrainian origin Oleksandra Chalupa.

Information that made everyone doubt the veracity of Telizhenko’s words appeared in the media, however, in the middle of March. Vladislav Davidson, the editor of the Ukrainian edition The Odessa Review in English and the son of the American media magnate Gregory Davidson, said in an interview that Telizhenko offered him $ 5,000 in 2018.

For this money, he asked Davidson to come to an agreement with several well-known Republicans to make statements on censorship in Ukraine. It was an attempt by Ukrainian deputies to limit the influence of two channels ‘112’ and ‘News One’ (owned by Putin’s godfather Viktor Medvedchuk) in Ukraine due to the fact that after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Russian propaganda was broadcast in Ukraine. According to CNN, Telizhenko is an ally of Giuliani. On this basis, the FBI found him an unreliable witness. In turn in the beginning of March, the Senate Committee on Internal Security and Government Affairs withdrew the planned interrogation of Telizhenko in the case against Biden.

After his rise to power in the White House, Donald Trump launched a campaign against his main opponent Joe Biden, who was the Vice President during the time of President Obama. As far back as 2017, Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani was trying to secure cooperation with Ukrainian authorities through certain people. Referring to its own sources, The Wall Street Journal wrote that American businessmen, immigrants from Belarus and Ukraine, Lev Parnas and Igor Furman, who were close to Giuliani, allegedly met with Poroshenko in the presence of Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko.

They insisted that Poroshenko had to initiate an investigation against Biden. In return, they promised to arrange a visit to the White House for Poroshenko. In particular, it was about the investigation of the ties of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who since 2014 was on the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, one of the largest private oil companies in Ukraine. Its founder and the ultimate beneficiary was the former Minister of Ecology, Nikolai Zlochevsky, who, in particular, is suspected of money laundering, tax evasion and illegal obtaining of mining licences.

With the election of Vladimir Zelensky as President of Ukraine in April 2019, Trump representatives intensified their efforts in the Ukrainian direction.

During the time of Poroshenko, this story was not built upon further. With the election of Vladimir Zelensky as President of Ukraine in April 2019, Trump representatives intensified their efforts in the Ukrainian direction. In early May, Rudolph Giuliani announced his trip to Kiev. According to him, the purpose of the trip was to convince the Ukrainian authorities to start an investigation related to the interests of the US president. Several days later, however, the trip was cancelled.

Giuliani assumed that in Ukraine, President Zelensky might find himself among the people who are ‘enemies of the US president’, and in some cases, enemies of the United States. Apparently, he meant Sergey Leshchenko, who joined Zelensky’s team in early 2019. On the same day, on his Twitter account, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the Council of Europe Dmitry Kuleba wrote: “Such a harsh statement by Giuliani, who is Trump’s close ally, is dangerous. Maintaining and increasing US support is in Ukraine’s fundamental national interest. It is a delicate game that the team of the new president will have to play and make difficult decisions”.

Zelensky realized all the ins and outs of this game pretty soon. The situation of his relationship with the US culminated in a scandal over his conversation with Trump on 25 July 2019. The State Department published a transcript of the conversation Zelensky and Trump had on September 25. There, in particular, Trump asked Zelensky to help out Giuliani’s deal with Biden’s case. Already on 26 September, US intelligence released the text of a complaint against US President Donald Trump regarding the prolonged pressure that, according to intelligence officers, the United States applied against Ukraine for the sake of the personal goals of the American president.

And, indeed, over the several months preceding the conversation, there were some quite clear signals from a number of key US officials who tried to convince Kiev authorities that Giuliani should be reckoned with. A week before the call, Trump also instructed to freeze $400 million of military assistance for Ukraine. All this led to the initiation of the impeachment of the US President. It ended in a fiasco for its organizers and made Trump even stronger.

We have to do justice to the fact that in these few months after the scandal, President Zelensky and senior Ukrainian officials distanced themselves as much as possible from these processes. They did not comment on either Biden’s case, on issues related to the impeachment, or on Ukraine’s alleged interference in US elections, which, in fact, there is no evidence of.

We have to do justice to the fact that in these few months after the scandal, President Zelensky and senior Ukrainian officials distanced themselves as much as possible from these processes.

A similar position was taken by ex-president Poroshenko. In a commentary for the Pryamoy channel on 26 September, he said: “I will not comment on telephone conversations of presidents of other countries. I think that this is definitely not the thing that I should do.” He noted that over the past 5 years, Ukraine has received unprecedented bipartisan support from American congressmen. He expressed the opinion that “under no circumstances should Ukraine be involved in election campaigns in either the United States or any other state.” At the same time, he thanked the United States and the European Union for their support of sanctions, military, economic and other forms of assistance and expressed hope for the extension of the sanctions against Russia in December 2019.

In a similar tone, the former US ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000) Stephen Pifer commented on this scandal. In an interview with the Ukrainian newspaper Novoye Vremya in October, he said: “It is important for Ukraine to remember that everything that happens around the scandal between Trump and Zelensky is an American political process. And Ukraine does not need to get involved in the internal political field of the United States. There is a fine line between protecting one’s interests and interfering in the politics of another state. It seems to me that Zelensky is aware of this line”. He called Ukraine a victim in this process and called this scandal “the Trump scandal and nothing more”.

The dramatic impeachment story for President Trump ended on 5 February. On this day, the US Senate voted against impeachment. A week before, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Kiev.

In December, an influential Ukrainian publication Zerkalo Nedeli noted that the Office of the President began to signal that Ukraine was an ally of the United States. With reference to NYT, it was alleged that the Ukrainian president was looking for a lobby that would allow him to establish contacts with the US President Donald Trump. In particular, the Ukrainian side was concerned about the issue of US military assistance and sanctions against Nord Stream-2. On December 19, a new ambassador, the experienced diplomat Vladimir Yemchenko, was appointed to Washington.

The dramatic impeachment story for President Trump ended on 5 February. On this day, the US Senate voted against impeachment. A week before, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Kiev. He met with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, Foreign Minister Vadim Prystaiko and Defense Minister Andrei Zagorodniuk.

In the Ukrainian expert community, this visit was considered more of an attempt to extinguish the political scandal in Washington. As President of the National Strategy Fund Taras Berezovets wrote, “one of the key reasons why Michael Pompeo flew to Kiev was to make sure that new compromising information against Trump would not leak from Zelensky’s entourage. The Americans have zero confidence in the current Ukrainian President and Trump wants to make sure that after all the recent screwups and leaks from Zelensky’s side he would not [be again] set up with a new scandal.”

On camera, the politicians expressed full understanding. In his speech, Pompeo said: “We provided defensive weapons so that Ukrainians could protect themselves. We support the new leader, President Zelensky, in his efforts to overcome corruption and build democracy in the country.” For his part, Zelensky said that the issue of the impeachment of American leader Donald Trump did not affect the relations of Kiev with Washington. “It seems to me that we have taken a further step in our relationship. … We are doing everything to improve our relationship”.

The day after Pompeo’s visit, Rudolph Giuliani published excerpts from an interview with former Prosecutor General of Ukraine Viktor Shokin on his YouTube channel. Shokin is involved in Giuliani’s personal YouTube project and voices a number of statements aimed at discrediting Joe Biden. It is clear that Trump continues to play the card of Ukraine for his personal benefit and places his chips here as if on the ‘Outside section’ of a roulette.

This game definitely does not play, however, into the hands of Ukraine. The former US ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor gave a good piece of advice to the authorities of Ukraine. At the end of December, before returning to Washington, he gave an interview to Yulia Mostova, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli. There he said, in particular, regarding Giuliani: “I would advise against letting them confuse the Ukrainian government. Giuliani is a private civilian, a personal lawyer to President Trump, as far as is known, even unpaid”.

While preparations for the 2020 election campaign are taking place across the ocean, Ukraine has a number of pressing problems that it will have to address.

While preparations for the 2020 election campaign are taking place across the ocean, Ukraine has a number of pressing problems that it will have to address. These are problems of economic development, and the fight against corruption, as well as the question of reforms.

First of all, there are the reforms of the security services. In the condition of developing decentralization of the country, only these services can fight local corruption and restrain various separatist sentiments that may arise in different parts of the country in case, some country from the ones neighboring Ukraine wants to play their game on Ukrainian territory. The President is faced with the issue of relations with oligarchic groups. They can be allies of the President only situationally, but in fact—they all are his opponents. They have no intention to benefit the country. Their goal is to hit the jackpot in ‘Casino Ukraine’.

The ruling party faces the challenge of local elections in the fall of 2020, for which it is not yet ready. In fact, the ruling party ‘Servant of the People’ does not have an extensive party structure throughout the country. In addition, the President will be forced to negotiate with local influence groups.

The question of resolving the situation in Donbas remains acute. In addition, there is the related issue of sanctions against Russia. Here Vladimir Zelensky has a lot of work to do in the European direction, where the political situation is sliding towards weakening sanctions against Russia. In the American direction of Ukraine’s foreign policy, there are a number of issues that are in the sphere of Ukraine’s interests. This is the role of the United States in resolving the situation in Donbas, and participation in the; and American investment in strategic sectors of the economy, and cooperation with the IMF.

The ruling party faces the challenge of local elections in the fall of 2020, for which it is not yet ready. In fact, the ruling party ‘Servant of the People’ does not have an extensive party structure.

Will Ukrainian diplomacy be able to build profitable cooperation with their overseas colleagues? Will Ukrainian authorities be able to defend the interests of their country, not allowing others to engage themselves in the game? Will Ukraine manage to secure the cooperation of American politicians among both Republicans and Democrats without becoming an executor of the will of one of the parties? Will Ukraine repeat its own mistakes of the past? Here are the questions, the answers to which we will see in the near future.

P.S. Two events that would significantly affect the course of events in Ukraine took place when this material was published.

The first is the resignation of Alexei Goncharuk’s government.

This was regarded as Zelensky’s curtailment of declared reforms and the oligarchy’s revenge. The second is the coronavirus pandemic, which significantly affects the development of the situation in the world as well as in Ukraine. The public health system was not ready to take a hit. Volunteers and business representatives are actively involved in the work of anti-crisis headquarters in many cities.

Here is what Odessa businessman Alexander Yakovenko wrote on his FB page on 21 March: “Yesterday, the governor invited representatives of large/medium-sized businesses to a closed meeting. Topic: The fight against covid-19. We are on the verge of an apocalypse. There is nothing in our hospitals. From basic protective equipment to resuscitation equipment. Everything is in the hands of volunteers and business again:
— in 2014 we put the army on its feet
— in 2020 we put medicine on its feet”

But this is the subject of another study.

Alexander Dobroyer

Alexander Dobroyer is sociologist, philosopher, theologian and journalist. Moderator of the Leadership Seminars of The Aspen Institute Kiev. Program Coordinator of the IdeasFest (Odessa). Concept Manager in the Personal Branding Agency “Obrani”. Academic Director of Impact Hub Odessa.

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