“I have no doubt [the Russians] will try to take advantage of this situation,” said Bohdan Yaremenko, the former Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey who now has a seat in parliament. “They’re masters of the under-carpet game.”
On one front, Russian officials are already publicly telling Ukrainians (and the rest of the world) that the United States has proved itself to be an unreliable friend, with the release of the White House account of the embarrassing July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The disclosure changes “the format of relations between states, between leaders, between politicians,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on Russian television. “Because now everyone understands that it is dangerous to call to Washington, to hold talks and meet with it.”
More important in Ukraine is that Russia will probably use the scandal to portray Zelensky as a minor leaguer and Ukraine as an incorrigibly misgoverned country.
And, since this is yet another Ukrainian scandal with a link to the natural gas industry, analysts in Kiev expect Russia to argue to Western European nations that it now must move forward with the stalled Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The project would send Russian natural gas to Europe, bypassing current networks that pass through Ukraine.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on Sept. 27 that Russia — accused of helping Trump win the presidency in 2016 and locked in a low-grade armed conflict with Ukraine in its eastern regions — may have “had a hand” in whipping up accusations against Kiev within Trump’s circle.
Trump has demanded Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as the release in 2016 of the “black ledger” that implicated Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, in illegal doings here. Trump also appears to believe, on the basis of no evidence, that the hacked Democratic National Committee email servers are in Ukrainian custody.
Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has met with an array of Ukrainian former officials and business people, including some who have a hand in gas and oil companies — which inevitably links them to Russian suppliers. Prominent among them is Pavel Fuks, who now cannot travel to Russia because of his opposition to Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, but who says he took part in talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow in 2008. He was also banned in 2017 from traveling to the United States for five years, he said in court records, but did not explain why.
“We do keep track of who is conducting the political struggle inside the [United States], of course, but interfering is not a good idea,” Putin said Wednesday. “Why would we need that? It is against our interests, principles and the practice of Russian foreign policy.”
Suggestions to the contrary are “paranoia, evident to all,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, echoing Moscow’s repeated denials of U.S. intelligence assessments of widespread Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other races.
But it is what Russia is doing now and will do in the weeks to come that alarms politicians and analysts in Ukraine.
There is “a definite Russian footprint right now,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a member of Ukraine’s Rada, or parliament, and a former vice prime minister for European integration. Moscow, she said, is seeking to impose “a negative impact on the image of Ukraine, on the future of Ukraine, and on Ukraine’s relations with the United States.”
Russia has an unusual ability, she said, to “amplify the message,” not least as its “apprentices” spread the word throughout American social media.
'Weaker' the better for Russia
The Kremlin, said Grigory Frolov, head of an organization called the Free Russia Foundation, is working on a sort of trifecta. Out of this scandal, he said, “Russia is interested in making Trump weaker, Zelensky weaker, Biden weaker.”
On Wednesday, Zelensky decided to endorse a plan that would lay the groundwork for a settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, called the Steinmeier Formula, after the former German foreign minister who proposed it in 2015. He was immediately denounced by the opposition for capitulating to Russia, which backs the plan. But Zelensky’s aides later tried to make clear that many significant details still have to be worked out.
Under the proposal, elections would be held in regions now under de facto Russian control, and those regions would gain a degree of autonomy within Ukraine. Zelensky is insisting that armed forces would have to withdraw first, and that Ukraine would have to regain control of the border with Russia in those regions — but his critics fear that is only his opening negotiating position, and he may eventually agree to elections under much less satisfactory conditions.
His predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, resisted the Steinmeier Formula for three years, arguing among other things that such elections, if ever held, would be tainted by years of Russian propaganda.
But Zelensky, to show he is not boxed in by the Trump scandal, needs to keep moving, Frolov said. The president, he said, can look for little victories where he can find them. In September, he arranged a swap of 70 prisoners with the Russians, something Poroshenko had never managed. Another exchange is in the offing.
He is playing a weak hand, nonetheless.
Last month, Zelensky met with Trump in New York. “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem,” Trump told him. “A tremendous achievement and I know you’re trying to do that.”
That comment, said Konstantin Batotsky, an analyst here, was “a disaster” for Ukraine. It signaled to Putin, he said, that the United States could not be counted on to always be in Ukraine’s corner. It was worse than the phone call, he said.
Figuring out Zelensky
The loss of Kurt Volker, the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine who resigned following the revelation of the Trump administration’s pressure on Kiev, was another blow, Batotsky said.
“He was the gamer” who could have helped Ukraine find a way out of its mess, he said. “The Russians are extremely happy about this.”
Zelensky has one trait working in his favor: The Kremlin is not sure what to make of the former comedian who played a Ukrainian president on a TV show.
He wants to achieve peace, and he seems to have no strong ideology beyond a desire for clean government. He is from eastern Ukraine and is popular there — which complicates Russia’s approach. People like his optimism. Putin would rather deal with a pro-Western oligarchic president in Kiev who does little to improve people’s lives, Frolov said. That kind of opponent is easy to stir up public feeling against.
The arrival of the inexperienced Zelensky, who has total control of the parliament, is not about liberals vs. conservatives, Frolov said, but new vs. old.
“And this is not a discussion,” he said, “that Putin wants in Russia.”
Natalie Gryvnyak in Kiev and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.