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All-in game: What is behind Trump-Zelensky scandal?

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

The press-conference of presidents Volodymyr Zelensky and Donald Trump at the UN General Assembly session, as well as the transcript of their telephone conversation in July are still the object of discussion. U.S. Democrats accuse the American president of pressure on Zelensky to help him find dirt on Biden. It is unlikely that the details of the conversations between Trump and Zelensky will ever become known. Part of the information could be seen in the transcript. Some get the impression that two presidents concluded a situational gentlemen's agreement. Maybe they decided to play all-in for the sake of resolving pressing political issues.
14:23, 2 October 2019

Meeting between two presidents
South China Morning Post

Gentleman's agreement

There is a practice of so-called gentleman's agreements in diplomacy and business, when decision-makers can verbally agree on the fulfillment of any obligations and not bear legal responsibility to each other, except for the risk of losing trust or authority. This is how Trump has been building relations with Zelensky since the latter took office as president of Ukraine. The American president talks a lot about the need to bring Biden and his son to justice, to find evidence of their involvement in corruption in Ukraine. Trump technically avoided Zelensky’s attempts to start a conversation about the prospect of further US military assistance to Ukraine in confrontation with Russia, and attracting US investment in the Ukrainian economy.

To be re-elected for a second term, Trump needs compromising evidence on Biden, whom 62% of Democratic Party voters consider a candidate capable of winning the election (Senator Elizabeth Warren has the same ratings). Biden has a reputation as the most qualified candidate for the presidency of the United States, has deep knowledge in the field of international relations and foreign policy, extensive contacts in the Middle East and Europe. US Vice President Michael Pence occasionally consults with Biden on foreign policy issues. There is an opinion that even the leaders of foreign countries who do not know how to find an approach to the Trump’s administration are listening to Biden's opinion. Biden is a tough nut that creates unwanted competition for Trump.

There are certain clues in Ukraine. According to unofficial information, as Vice President, Biden was blackmailing ex-President Petro Poroshenko. According to The Atlantic, Joe Biden warned Poroshenko that the US would not give Ukraine a billion dollars if he didn’t remove Prosecutor  General Viktor Shokin. He was investigating the oligarch and former Minister of Ecology Mykola Zlochevsky, as well as Burisma Group Ukrainian oil and gas company, where Hunter Biden worked (he was a member of the board of directors from 2014 to 2019). Shokin suspected this company of money laundering. Each month, Burisma Group transferred $ 160 thousand to the accounts of Rosemont Seneca Partners, a company associated with Hunter Biden. Joe Biden could use his official position to protect his son from justice.

Related: American support for impeaching Trump rises to 45% amid Ukraine matter


After the resignation of Shokin, the case was closed. By January 2017, all procedural and judicial actions in relation to Zlochevsky and the companies included in the Burisma Group were closed. Politicians failed to prove a violation of US law by Hunter Biden. Trump decided to stir up the troubled past of the Biden family and find out what really happened at Burisma Group. The vast thing for the American president is to prove Biden’s abuse of power, his son’s involvement in economic crimes. This will allow burying the political career of the former deputy prime minister and denigrating the image of the Democratic Party. It is not surprising why the Democrats made a fuss with impeachment to Trump in the House of Representatives in order to prevent such events. Zelensky agreed to help Trump. In July, they agreed that US Attorney General William Barr and a private individual, Trump's lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, will maintain contact with the Ukrainian president.

One good turn deserves another

It is difficult to judge whether the gentleman’s agreement between Trump and Zelensky can grow into a deeper political and economic alliance. At a press conference, Trump directly told Zelensky that the main problem of Ukraine that needs to be addressed is corruption. Most likely, the American president perceives Ukraine as a country with wild capitalism and short-sighted officials. Trump did not forget how Poroshenko openly supported his opponent, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and now Zelensky wants to atone for the "sins" of his predecessor.

It is no coincidence that Trump has postponed the allocation of material assistance to Ukraine for the needs of the defense sector and is in no hurry to discuss investment cooperation with Zelensky. Trump made it clear that he will build relations with Ukraine on the principle of "one good turn deserves another ": if there is dirt on Biden, then Ukraine will receive American investment and military assistance. The owner of the Oval Office deliberately unveiled the transcript of their July conversation to remind our leader of the gentlemen's agreement.

Lesser evil

For some reason, Zelensky’s press conference with Trump gave rise to unjustified malice, mockery and ridicule among part of Ukrainian society. Of course, a certain flattery for Trump slipped in the rhetoric of the Ukrainian president. However, do not forget that Zelensky is an experienced actor who knows how to build the image, attract the attention of the audience, and therefore knows how to find an individual approach to different people. Trump and Zelensky are eccentric, have lack of deep knowledge in the field of politics and public administration and are pros in their vocation - Trump as a businessman, and Zelensky as an actor. The Ukrainian president did his best to get along with Trump in order to capitalize on this. The gentlemen's agreement is no less interesting to Zelensky than Trump.

To some extent, Zelensky borrows the experience of Poroshenko in relations with the Americans, with the difference that he draws closer to the Republicans and not the Democrats on the eve of the US presidential election. Of the two evils, Kyiv decided to choose the lesser – I meanTrump. In the current geopolitical environment, the rise of Joe Biden to power in the United States carries more risks for Ukraine than the re-election of Trump for a second term. Biden was the second on the team of ex-President Barack Obama, who maintained a relatively restrained stance towards Russia, limited himself to personal sanctions against certain individuals and legal entities, and did not support the initiatives of the U.S. Congress to tighten restrictive measures and provide Ukraine with lethal weapons.

Back in 2009, Obama, Biden and Clinton moved away from the policy of containing Russia and initiated a policy of reloading relations, which was perceived by Putin as the surrender of America in competition for influence in the post-Soviet space. Biden is not interested in unpopular questions about the activities of his son in the company of Zlochevsky. In addition, he was quite critical of the Ukrainian authorities at the end of Obama’s reign, was disappointed in the ability of former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and ex-president Petro Poroshenko to carry out reforms and fight corruption.

Related: Zelensky states he talked with Trump in Ukrainian


With all the disagreements of Trump and the US Congress over relations with Russia, NATO allies and Iran, Donald did not prevent the introduction of new packages of anti-Russian sanctions, and he provided Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank systems. Zelensky provides Trump with services because being in power of the Republican Party has proven to be more fruitful for Ukraine than the Democratic Party. With all the minuses of Trump, today the Republicans could not find an alternative candidate. If during the investigation Biden’s violation of the laws of the United States and Ukraine is proved, Zelensky will be able to earn the reputation of an international anti-corruption fighter, presenting this as an achievement for his team.

All-in game

Trump and Zelensky started a very risky all-in game, the success of which will depend on the results of the investigation of Biden’s activities in Ukraine and the results of the US presidential election in 2020. Zelensky can get political dividends if Trump wins the fight with Biden. At the same time, he risks losing credibility in the US if Trump loses. Zelensky’s relationship with the Biden administration will be even worse than Poroshenko’s with the Trump administration. Democrats may blame the Ukrainian authorities for trying to influence political processes in the United States in the interests of Trump. Ukraine will not get a penny from Washington. It is not known how the position of the Democrats regarding the policy of anti-Russian sanctions will change. Today, both Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress support the continuation of the anti-Russian sanctions policy.

The political moves of Trump and Zelensky can negatively affect Ukraine’s relations with the European Union on the eve of Normandy format meeting. In a transcript of the July conversation, Trump bluntly stated that Germany did not do enough to support Ukraine in confrontation with Russia, and Zelensky agreed with him and added that he spoke about this personally with Merkel and Macron. European leaders could perceive Zelensky’s rhetoric as a spit in the face. Not only the US provides Ukraine with financial assistance. At the end of 2018, the European Commission decided to allocate $ 500 million to Ukraine. The total amount of EU macro-financial assistance allocated to Ukraine since 2014 can reach 3.3 billion euros.

Not the USA, but France and Germany act as mediators in the peaceful settlement of Donbas conflict. Judging by Trump's statements at the press conference, he is not eager to act as an intermediary, and told Zelensky that if he agrees with Putin, then this will be a "great achievement." Now the European Union can perceive Kyiv as a satellite of Washington. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron has talked about the advisability of intensifying cooperation with Russia in the field of economy and security in order to build Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok as a counterweight to the United States. With his rhetoric, Trump once again created an occasion to reconsider EU relations with the Russian Federation to the detriment of the interests of Ukraine.

Trump should not advertise informal agreements with Zelensky, but investigate Biden’s activities in Ukraine secretly from the public in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts with the House of Representatives, where Democrats dominate, and not discredit Kyiv in the eyes of Brussels. However, Trump chose to play openly, which could entail negative consequences for Ukraine.

Related: Trump has disqualified himself from running in 2020

 

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