Midway through Sondland’s testimony, the lead story for one publication was the return of some navy boats that had been seized by Russia. Another ran a story on the suspicious meat used in sausages. And the top story for another outlet was about President Volodymyr Zelensky’s personal superstitions about shaving.
Of course, Ukrainians are not ignorant of the impeachment drama. But the hearings have made one thing obvious: Despite the dropping of Ukrainian names, the references to Ukrainian gas companies and the recurrent descriptions of corruption in the country as “endemic,” this scandal isn’t really about Ukraine. It’s a battle about American politics and American corruption. And for Ukrainian officials, the best thing may be to stand back and avoid the crossfire.
That may not be so easy. Speaking to BBC Ukrainian last week, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko admitted that his country’s involvement in such a partisan battle could end up hindering Ukraine. “The worst thing we can do is become a bargaining chip,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are such a chip now.”
“I think everybody in Ukraine is so tired about Burisma,” Zelensky told reporters on Tuesday, rolling his eyes as a CNN correspondent tried to press him on an oil company that appointed former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden to its board. “We have our own country. We have our independence, we have our problems and questions. That’s it,” he added.
The most pressing problem for Ukraine is not in Washington, but Donbas. In the country’s east, Russia-backed separatists have fought against government forces for five years with bloody trench warfare — a result of the fact that neither side uses air power — and the loss of an estimated 13,000 lives.
The two problems are intertwined, however. Russia has supplied separatists with considerable firepower, leaving the Ukrainians to rely on U.S. and European partners to level the playing field. Night vision, radar detection and drones have been supplied by the United States.
Though Zelensky and others said they had no knowledge of a “quid pro quo,” testimony in Washington has suggested that American support for Ukraine was conditional. Trump is alleged to have ordered a hold on $400 million in military aid in return for the Ukrainian president announcing an investigation into Burisma.
The aid went through after news of the hold leaked. But the pressure on Ukraine, as well as the unflattering scrutiny of the country that has come out through impeachment hearings, has led some to publicly consider how close their alliance to the United States actually is.
“People want peace, a good life, they don’t want to be at war. And you '— America — ' are forcing us to be at war, and not even giving us the money for it,” Igor Kolomoisky, a billionaire with close ties to Zelensky, told a New York Times reporter last week.
You wouldn’t blame Ukraine for feeling like an afterthought in impeachment. Throughout hearings, lawmakers have mangled Ukrainian names, struggled to understand that the country wasn’t simply divided into pro-West and pro-Russian camps, and found unfortunate bipartisan unity in calling the nation “the Ukraine.”
They referred to corruption in Ukraine but did not talk about the steps the country has taken to tackle the problem and rarely acknowledged the Ukrainians who do the vast majority of fighting graft — people like Kateryna Handziuk, an activist who died after an acid attack.
Multiple testimonies suggest that even Trump wasn’t really all that concerned with the country. David Holmes, a counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, testified this week that he heard Sondland say that Trump had no interest in Ukraine. “Nope, not at all, doesn’t give a s--- about Ukraine,” Holmes recalled Sondland saying.
Sondland pushed back on this characterization of his comments on Wednesday, but also testified that he was told Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine would be lifted if Zelensky announced an investigation into the actions of the younger Biden — not that such an investigation needed to actually take place.
Hours later, Trump was photographed reading from handwritten notes that claimed he wanted “nothing” from “Zellinsky.”
The center of a political storm in Washington is never a good place to be — especially when you’re thousands of miles away. For a rookie politician like Zelensky, it’s a bewildering situation. And the timing couldn’t be worse: The Ukrainian leader is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time in Paris on Dec. 9.