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Ahead of White House meeting, Ukraine’s Zelensky expresses frustration with Western allies

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with journalists in Kyiv on Aug. 18 about his upcoming meeting with President Biden and other topics. (Ukrainian Presidential Office)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ahead of his meeting with President Biden at the end of the month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed frustration with Western allies' hesitancy to greenlight Kyiv's accession to NATO and taken issue with Biden's comment that the country still has "to clean up corruption" before it can be considered for membership in the military alliance.

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday with The Washington Post and four other media outlets, Zelensky said the ambiguity over Ukraine’s NATO admittance is “a signal to other countries that you guys are not welcome here, and Russia is just around the corner, increasing its clout.”

Zelensky’s White House visit — something he’s been pushing Washington for since his infamous call with President Donald Trump two years ago prompted impeachment hearings — comes as Zelensky has increasingly voiced his disenchantment with the lack of Western support in Ukraine’s battles with Russia.

Seven years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the east of the country, the conflict has shown no signs of ending. About 13,000 people have been killed, though the last large-scale fighting was more than four years ago. Tensions in the region spiked this spring when Russia massed troops and military hardware along the border in what it said were military exercises.

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Russia partially pulled back those forces in April. But Zelensky cautioned that the buildup remains, as Russia left behind some equipment near the border and could rapidly ramp up its troop presence “at any given moment.”

Zelensky has said being a NATO nation would offer Ukraine protection from a fresh Russian offensive. Countries in the alliance have a mutual-defense pact, meaning that if one nation is attacked, the others will join in the response. But admitting Ukraine risks provoking Moscow — President Vladimir Putin has called it a “red line,” and he raised the issue in his June summit with Biden in Geneva.

Asked for a “yes or no” about Ukraine’s NATO candidacy in June, Biden said, “School’s out.” He added that Kyiv still needed to address corruption issues and meet other criteria.

“It’s very popular to accuse Ukraine of corruption, and it’s not that I hold these views only since I became president, but I’ve always felt offended by this,” Zelensky said. “Because you know what? No country is free of corruption.”

Zelensky, 43, was a comedian who played a president on his hit sitcom before he swept to a resounding victory in Ukraine’s election two years ago. But while Zelensky ran on an anti-establishment and reformist message, pledging to break the grip that powerful oligarchs have on the country, he’s made little headway.

Ukraine wants to show Biden it’s serious about ending ‘oligarch era.’ That’s not so easy.

This summer, Zelensky pushed what’s known as the oligarch bill, which would force tycoons subject to the law to disclose their assets. It would also bar them from financing political parties, holding government posts and taking part in privatizations. The legislation is a step toward appeasing the International Monetary Fund, which has put a $5 billion loan deal on hold because of concerns about reforms.

But critics have said that the two leading oligarchs targeted so far have been Zelensky’s political rivals. Viktor Medvedchuk, a multimillionaire and friend of Putin, was charged with treason. Petro Poroshenko, a confectionary and media magnate and the president defeated by Zelensky in the 2019 election, has also been the target of numerous corruption probes.

Meanwhile, recent polling has shown that support for Zelensky has slumped, though he’s still more favored than other Ukrainian political leaders.

He will take another hit with the soon-to-be-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will link Russian natural gas directly with Europe, via Germany. Because the pipeline circumvents Ukraine, a current transit partner with Russia, Kyiv could lose some $2 billion in annual payments from Moscow as part of a contract for Russian gas that’s set to end in 2024.

Ukraine had been counting on U.S. measures to halt the controversial project, but in May, the Biden administration said it had decided against imposing sanctions on the company in charge of Nord Stream 2 in an effort to rebuild relations with Germany.

U.S., Germany reach agreement on Russian gas pipeline, ending dispute between allies

In exchange for an end to U.S. efforts to block Nord Stream 2, the countries agreed that Germany would invest in Ukraine’s green technology infrastructure, and Berlin and Washington would work together on initiatives to mitigate Russia’s energy dominance in Europe.

Zelensky said Wednesday that he doesn’t “really have much faith” that all of the commitments of the agreement would be met. Asked if he viewed the pact between the United States and Germany as a betrayal, Zelensky shrugged and smiled.

“Certainly, I’m not happy about this arrangement, if I can call it that, and the format in which it was achieved,” he said.

Though construction of the pipeline is scheduled to be completed on Monday, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Zelensky said he would once again appeal to Biden to intervene during their meeting at the White House on Aug. 31.

Zelensky on Wednesday repeatedly stressed security concerns for Ukraine once Nord Stream 2 becomes operational, noting that Moscow could become more aggressive in its dealings with Kyiv once Ukraine is no longer a transit space for Russian gas.

In July, the Kremlin published a 5,000-word Putin-penned essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he claimed that “Ukrainians and Russians are generally one people.”

While some analysts dismissed the article as propaganda, Alexei Venediktov, the prominent editor in chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, said it will be “the basis of future and current policy of the Russian Federation on Ukraine.”

Venediktov added that “Putin lays out territorial pretensions to Ukraine.”

As for his feelings about Putin, Zelensky described his Russian counterpart as being “irrational” and “emotional, sometimes even highly emotional.”

“He is too emotional when it comes to Ukraine,” Zelensky added.

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