It was obvious since Wednesday morning that it was going to be a difficult day for the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. After landing in New York and before going to visit the Ukrainian community in the Big Apple and make his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations, the actor-turned-politician had a meeting scheduled with Donald Trump.
There was a lot of speculation about what they talked about, but when the two came out of the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, their lips were sealed. Or almost.
However, when pressed by reporters, the former actor couldn’t help stressing that his conversations with Trump are “private and confidential,” and he added that “no one pushed me”—referring to the scandal of the US President allegedly exerting pressure on him to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, one of his main challengers in the 2020 presidential elections. By the end of the day, he would come to deeply regret that offhand comment.
With an impeachment inquiry formally set in motion, and with the pressure from the Democrats reaching dangerous levels, around noon Mike Pompeo officially asked Zelensky for permission to declassify the now-infamous telephone conversation of July 25 between the two heads of state. Once the transcript of the call came out during the early afternoon, the conversation put the Kiev leader in a very embarrassing position, painting him as guilty of amateurishness and hypocrisy.
During the phone call, after a request by Trump—already made some months earlier through Rudy Giuliani—to reopen the investigation against a Ukrainian gas mogul in which Biden’s son was also allegedly involved, Zelensky went to great lengths to reassure the real estate tycoon that he would get what he wanted: “First of all, I understand and I’m knowledgeable about the situation. Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament, the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation, specifically [into] the company that you mentioned in this issue.”
This was, indeed, an explicit promise made to Trump in response to clear pressure—something Zelensky had denied on Wednesday morning—to reopen a case which had been closed for a long time, in order to give Trump an opportunity to orchestrate a campaign against his rival. The reader can only imagine, in such circumstances, the results that such an investigation would have been pushed to deliver.
However, even though this part of the conversation is important (since, when we’re talking about the leading world power, all its domestic issues are important), what caused Zelensky the greatest embarrassment was the part where he had rather impolitic words to say about the EU’s policy towards the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, particularly criticizing Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
During the phone call, when Trump accused the Europeans of inaction on Ukraine, singling out Angela Merkel and saying “all they do is talk,” Zelensky enthusiastically replied: “Yes you are absolutely right. Not only 100%, but actually 1000% and I can tell you the following; I did talk to Angela Merkel and I did meet with her I also met and talked with Macron and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions [against Russia]. They are not enforcing the sanctions. They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine.”
Then, Zelensky stressed the American role in Ukrainian defense, promising Trump that the country would purchase more Javelin missiles in the near future to strengthen its army, a country which—as he recounted in his speech at the UN on Wednesday, just a few hours after the publishing of the call transcript—has lost 15% of its GDP compared to 2014, and where the minimum wage is just €70 per month. The publication of the conversation between the two leaders is already having a major negative impact on all involved.
The published transcript confirms that Trump was trying to discredit his likely opponent in the presidential campaign by digging up dirt on his son—but it also threatens to derail the negotiations on the Donbass between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France (the “Normandy format”), which had managed to make crucial progress in recent weeks.
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