But here’s the unexpected good news: Despite all the abuse from the White House, and the fact that he took office as an utter political neophyte in one of Europe’s most dysfunctional nations, Zelensky’s government so far has been an extraordinary — and, under the circumstances, almost miraculous — success.
The economy is soaring: Exports and domestic growth have spiked, inflation has plunged, and Ukrainians’ salaries have grown by nearly 10 percent in a year. As James Brooke of Ukraine Business News notes, the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, is appreciating faster than any other in the world.
The International Monetary Fund has given preliminary agreement to a new loan package that could spur foreign investment. Key anti-corruption measures have passed parliament, and big economic reforms, including the privatization of 500 state companies and the liberalization of land sales, are pending.
Last week, Ukrainian television was full of tearful reunions as prisoners of war held by Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine came home after years in detention. Troops on both sides of the front lines have pulled back. Meanwhile, Russia has just agreed to pay Ukraine $7 billion over the next five years to pump natural gas across its territory, along with $2.9 billion to settle previous disputes.
Before taking office, the 41-year-old Zelensky was a comedian whose only experience was playing a president on television. Yet for the first time since 2005, more Ukrainians believe the country is headed in the right direction than think it is on the wrong track. In a state where political corruption has been endemic, 62 percent say they trust their new president.
Vladimir Putin, if not Trump, has taken notice. He has so far agreed to two prisoner swaps with Zelensky and talked about a third one in a New Year’s phone call. He accepted the gas deal, abandoning previous attempts to strangle Ukraine in the winter by cutting off supplies.
“Putin is quite happy” to do business with Zelensky, says Anders Aslund, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council. “Putin was utterly contemptuous of [Petro] Poroshenko,” Ukraine’s previous president, “because of how corrupt he was. He doesn’t see that in Zelensky.”
Putin’s desire to subjugate Ukraine remains undiminished. Yet despite his inexperience, Zelensky has not proved to be a Kremlin pushover. At a summit meeting in Paris last month with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, called to discuss the implementation of a long-stalled peace plan for eastern Ukraine, Zelensky “tried hard to defend certain Ukrainian ‘red lines,’ ” such as restoring Ukraine’s control over the border with Russia, according to analyst Vladimir Socor. “Even Zelensky’s most serious critics felt reassured,” Socor wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
For those focused on corruption, one big question lingers about Zelensky: whether he will remain independent of Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who supported Zelensky’s television career and presidential candidacy, and who is trying to regain control over Ukraine’s largest bank despite being accused of looting it. The jury is still out. But so far, says David Kramer, a Ukraine expert at Florida International University, Zelensky “has kept Kolomoisky himself seemingly at arm’s length.”
For decades, successive U.S. administrations have tried to coax this kind of performance from Ukrainian presidents, mostly without much success. Yet now that Zelensky is doing virtually everything the State Department once dreamed of, there is a U.S. vacuum in Kyiv. The temporary ambassador, William B. Taylor Jr., left last week, after testifying to Trump’s pressuring of Zelensky; no one has been named to replace him. Neither has there been a replacement for Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine who resigned and testified. Pompeo has now canceled two visits in two months.
Arguably the most influential American paying attention to Ukraine is Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani — and he has allied himself with Ukraine’s anti-Zelensky, pro-Putin forces, including some of the country’s most corrupt oligarchs and politicians. He’s still trying to gather dirt on Joe Biden. Trump himself is still peddling Russian propaganda about Ukraine’s supposed intervention in the 2016 election.
Meanwhile, Zelensky, who still wants the legitimization of a White House visit, has yet to be given a date. It’s hard not to conclude that the Trump administration isn’t happy that Ukraine finally has a competent president.