American politics and Ukraine

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 17th of October, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, American politics overseas.

House Democrats are building their latest case for the impeachment of President Trump. It all began about three weeks ago and at the center of the controversy is the largest country in Europe: Ukraine.

The American political kerfuffle is not headline news in Ukraine. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky scheduled an all-day press conference last week to talk about it anyway. Journalists from around the world peppered him with questions for a whopping 12 hours. They mostly centered on his July 25th phone call with President Trump.

REICHARD: The young Ukrainian president is now in a tough spot: He’s caught between getting dragged into an American political scandal and maintaining American support for an ongoing war with Russian separatists.

WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson unravels the Ukrainian perspective on that momentous phone call.

AUDIO: [Servant of the People TV clip]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Less than a year ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was busy filming Servant of the People, a popular television series in Ukraine. He played a high school teacher suddenly catapulted into the presidency after a rant about corruption went viral.

AUDIO: [Zelensky victory celebration]

Six months ago, Zelensky swept presidential elections in real life, becoming the sixth president of Ukraine. And before he could get his own agenda up and running, he found himself embroiled in an American political scandal.

Just two months after he took office, President Donald Trump gave Zelensky a call.

He urged the Ukrainian president to investigate possible corruption involving his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, and his son. One week before the phone call, President Trump froze a nearly $400 million military aid package to Ukraine. But Trump denies any quid pro quo.

TRUMP: My call was perfect. The president yesterday of Ukraine said there was no pressure put on him whatsoever, none whatsoever, and he said it loud and clear for the press.

President Zelensky is doing his best to avoid getting entangled in American politics. He even made light of the call during a September press conference with President Trump.

TRUMP: It’s a great pleasure for me to be here, and it’s better to be on TV than by phone.

Despite Zelensky’s joking, the phone call scandal threatens to derail Ukraine’s most important objectives: fighting government corruption, ending the war with Russia, and recovering occupied Ukrainian territory.

But it could also serve a good purpose. David Satter is a Russia expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He says the scandal could empower Ukraine and other countries to take a closer look at foreigners linked to corrupt companies abroad.

SATTER: It gives false respectability to those companies that they don’t deserve. If this has the effect of discouraging people like Hunter Biden from taking the easy money that’s available to them for serving on the boards [of countries that are, not of countries] of companies that are corrupt, then it might be a good thing. 

And the battle against corruption could aid the battle on the ground, Satter added.

 SATTER: A developing and prosperous Ukraine [would be uh] would have an affect on Russia. In fact it would be a strong argument for democratization in Russia and the kind of conditions that would make it possible to bring an end to these conflicts.

But corruption isn’t the only concern for Ukrainians.

Zelensky unleashed a firestorm of controversy in early October when he announced plans for peace talks with Russia and elections in the occupied eastern region known as Donbass.

PROTESTS: [Sounds of protests]

Nearly 10,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the proposals. They accuse the president of capitulating to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2014, Ukraine lost the Donbass region and the Crimean peninsula to Russian separatists armed by the Kremlin. Nearly 1.5 million Ukrainians were displaced and roughly 10,000 killed. Russia then illegally annexed Crimea.

During the September press conference, Trump urged Zelensky to sit down with Putin.

TRUMP: I really hope that Russia, because I really believe President Putin would like to do something, I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement.

Andre Barkov is managing director of a Christian-based micro-loan company in Ukraine. He compared that suggestion to putting someone in a cage with a lion and trying to facilitate peace.

ANDRE: There is no way to get together with Putin and get something that is in Ukraine’s interest. Putin’s agenda is to swallow Ukraine. 

President Trump has done more to aid Ukraine than his predecessor. In 2017 he authorized sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles.

That’s what makes his decision to delay the recent aid confusing and potentially problematic. The president gave no explanation for the freeze. He eventually lifted it on September 11th.

Zelensky said he wasn’t aware of the postponement until after his call with President Trump. And he claims he was not pressured into investigating the Bidens.

Barkov says there is a silver lining in the latest events: Thanks to all the press coverage, Ukraine is back in the news. And Americans are getting a reminder that it’s not a part of Russia.

And for the sake of Ukraine and its Christian community, Barkov hopes it stays that way.

ANDRE: Churches are growing, evangelicals are in good shape, nobody persecutes us, we can celebrate our salvation, we can worship whenever and wherever we want.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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