First, Zelensky’s office became entangled in a campaign by pro-Trump political operatives, including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, to dig up opposition research on former vice president Joseph Biden, whose son Hunter pursued controversial investments in Ukraine. Zelensky’s team should have remained aloof from the controversy; instead, it got dragged into a series of exchanges between Zelensky’s people and Giuliani, achieving nothing but a public relations mess. Now the former New York mayor openly poses for pictures with Zelensky’s political adversaries, and the Ukrainian president’s office is having trouble persuading the Trump administration to schedule a date for Zelensky’s first visit to the White House.
The bad blood comes at a moment when Trump is pushing for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven, the club of leading industrial nations — even though Moscow has shown no sign of relinquishing control over the annexed Ukrainian province of Crimea, Russian troops are still occupying Ukrainian territory and more than 100 Ukrainian political prisoners are being held in Russia.
Nor has Zelensky had much luck in Western Europe. During a recent meeting with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron described the war in eastern Ukraine as an “irritant” — a strikingly offhand way of referring to a Russian military invasion that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. Macron’s rapprochement with Putin looks especially bad after months of a public bromance between the Ukrainian and French presidents. Zelensky’s personal diplomacy failed to make Macron an ally. Instead, the French president has been promising to “tie Russia and Europe back together” and recently discussed the fate of Ukraine with Putin without a single Ukrainian official present.
In another display of failed personal diplomacy, Zelensky’s first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in June failed to dissuade Germany from leading a push to invite Russia back into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a key European interparliamentary body. That move marked an important precedent: For the first time, Russia was readmitted to an international organization without making any concessions on its aggression against Ukraine. (The Germans have also ignored Ukraine’s pleas to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which the Ukrainians see as undermining their own bargaining position toward Moscow.)
Finally, Zelensky’s efforts to reset relations with Putin have also brought few results. Soon after he entered office, Zelensky decided to launch a strategy of direct phone diplomacy with Putin. The Ukrainian foreign allies warned him against the move, saying that it could endanger the West’s efforts to negotiate peace. Zelensky went ahead anyway — and his first attempt to arrange an exchange of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners collapsed.
Ukraine’s ability to prevail against Russia requires a smart, creative and outsize foreign policy effort, not amateurish personal diplomacy. Over the past five years, Ukraine has done a remarkable job of building its international standing. But now Zelensky is sidelining Ukraine’s most skilled diplomats in the belief that he can instead rely on his strong charisma instead.
How many more diplomatic blows the Ukrainian president needs to suffer before realizing that this was a bad idea is unclear. But there’s still time to fix the mess.
First, rather than neglecting key diplomatic talents, the new Ukrainian leadership should support them by reinforcing key missions in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Washington. Second, Zelensky should spare the Ukrainian diplomatic corps from his reformist zeal; successful diplomacy depends on continuity. Moreover, Ukraine needs to elevate its top female diplomats and appoint one as the next foreign minister, a good way of countering the explicitly patriarchal culture of Russian diplomacy. Third, Ukraine has to be bold in reinventing foreign policy in the region and work closer with diplomats representing democracies. Such moves might include conducting regular summits with Ukraine’s allies and creating shared “situation rooms” with like-minded countries to coordinate responses to the Kremlin’s aggressive policies.
If you’re a neighbor of Russia, you can’t afford to be weak in foreign policy. If the survival of your state depends on strong international solidarity, then even a single foreign policy misstep could be one too many.