Ukraine’s president doesn’t need a phone call from the president of the United States to remind him how important US military aid is to his country. The hundreds of millions of dollars the US gives Ukraine to push back against Russian aggression is already the subtext to conversations between the two countries.
So when Donald Trump asks Ukraine for a “favor,” the leverage is already front of mind.
Lost in the back-and-forth over the transcript of a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is what underpins any call between a US president and a Ukrainian one — the words and conditions that go unsaid, that feed a quid pro quo even if Trump did not come out and explicitly say “Find this information for me or I will withhold your aid.”
Trump and his allies had a unified message on the call transcript, released by the White House on Wednesday under mounting pressure from Congress over Trump pressuring Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son: that the call was “perfect” and “entirely proper” and, above all, they said, “there was no quid pro quo.”
They were overwhelmed by a chorus of Democrats, one day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would move forward with an impeachment inquiry. She alternately called Trump’s behavior on the call a “classic mafia-like shakedown,” an “abuse of power,” and “premeditated criminal behavior.”
The US has been sending foreign aid to Ukraine for decades. Under former president Barack Obama, the military component of the assistance was defensive; under Trump, it is defensive but also lethal — the latter often presented as a sign that despite Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin, his administration is carrying out certain policies that are even tougher on Russia than his predecessor's.
Ukraine has been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country since 2014 in a brutal war launched after Moscow seized Crimea, a land grab that heralded a new stage in the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy. As global crises mount, the war has largely faded from public attention — but some 13,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands more injured, and Ukraine lives each day under the specter of Russian aggression.
That has been true, at different times and in different ways, since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has witnessed two revolutions to cast off Russian-aligned leaders — the Orange Revolution of 2004 and then the protests of 2014, which prompted Viktor Yanukovych to flee and created the conditions of instability that Russia is so adept at exploiting. Putin has famously referred to Ukraine as “not even a country,” and considers it to be his backyard.
Many countries understandably bristle at the image of being caught between two powers, and that rings true for those that were embroiled in the Cold War. But the fact is that US support — in the form of aid, most notably — is key to Ukraine both in a practical sense and because it sends a signal to Russia.
Trump is obsessed with the fact that Russia terrorized Ukraine under Obama’s administration, and it is true that Russia made its move as the US was retreating from its “global policeman” role. Russia’s seizure of Crimea came just months after Obama flip-flopped on responding to a chemical attack in Syria, something he had previous called a red line not to be crossed.
"The military aid is a clear sign of support from the US," said Sviatoslav Yurash, a lawmaker from Zelensky's Servant of the People party. "Whether it's fundamental to our war efforts is another question."
Maryna Bardina, another lawmaker from Zelensky's party, said Zelensky's aim “is to make our country strong, and to even strengthen our position. The [US military] aid is meant to help us do this.” At the same time, she said, “Zelensky doesn’t want to be seen as needing to beg for anything.”
The transcript released Wednesday did not show Zelensky begging — but it did show him cozying up to Trump in ways that could be read as savvy. He began by crediting Trump with his own recent electoral win, saying, “I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you” and calling him “a great teacher.” He used Trump’s own words to buoy that — saying he hoped to “drain the swamp here in our own country” and that he was surrounding himself with “the best and most experienced people.”
It all came off as cloying — a sign either of the political novice’s true feelings or, more likely, his need to fight for US support. When Zelensky thanked Trump “for your great support in the area of defense,” and Trump followed that with “I would like you to do us a favor though,” the power dynamic is clear.
According to the Washington Post, Trump told his acting chief of staff to hold back the current round of aid — $250 million from the Pentagon and $141 million from the State Department — at least one week before the phone call.
“I don’t think it really matters ... whether the president explicitly told the Ukrainians that they wouldn’t get their security aid if they didn’t interfere in the 2020 elections,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who was in Kiev earlier this month, told the paper at the time. “There is an implicit threat in every demand that a United States president makes of a foreign power. ... That foreign country knows that if they don’t do it, there are likely to be consequences.”
Until the release of the transcript — and his subsequent press conference with Trump at the United Nations General Assembly — Zelensky had remained almost totally silent on the issue, undoubtedly aware of the fragility of wading into a US political mess. But on the call, according to the transcript, he gives in to Trump pretty easily. The two men are talking about Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s time on the board of the gas company Burisma, and Zelensky promises that the next prosecutor general “will be 100% my person, my candidate”: “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company you mentioned in this issue,” he says, though it is unclear if he is referring here to the request on Biden or an earlier request related to the 2016 election.
Ukraine has long been struggling, under various administrations, to get a handle on corruption, and it has been plagued by a justice system that can be politicized on a whim. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trump trotted out another conspiratorial talking point; he cited a May 2018 letter written by three Democratic US senators urging Ukraine’s then–prosecutor general to take seriously the Mueller probe and its investigations into Paul Manafort, who spent years consulting there.
Because Trump sees things in terms of personal gain and grievance, he presented the letter as an attempted quid pro quo on the part of the senators. But what the letter called for, according to CNN, was a “commitment more broadly to support justice and the rule of law." That — versus calling for more information on the endless 2016 election or a specific investigation into a potential 2020 rival — is something the US has long wanted to see in Ukraine. Zelensky's pledge to Trump, coming on the back of an electoral campaign that promised a fresh start and a crackdown on corruption, shows the country might still have a long way to go.
Miriam Elder reported from Washington, DC. Christopher Miller reported from Kiev.