“What do Ukrainians think about the Trump-Zelensky call?” “Do they support Trump’s impeachment?” These are the kinds of questions I’m asked almost daily since returning from the eastern Ukrainian cities of Berdyansk and Zaporizhia, where I spent three weeks recently teaching American criminal law.
Unfortunately, it took news of U.S. President Donald Trump’s requesting a “favor” from President Volodymyr Zelensky to put Ukraine on the map for most Americans. But we should have been paying close attention since February 2014, when students and other citizens swarmed the streets of Kyiv, the capital, to protest the pro-Russian policies of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in what is now known as the “Revolution of Dignity.”
Mr. Yanukovych had rejected a trade agreement with the European Union and instead looked longingly toward Moscow. Desiring closer ties with the West and tired of government corruption, Ukrainian protesters forced Mr. Yanukovych to give up power and flee the country.
Russia characterized the Revolution of Dignity as a putsch organized by American intelligence agents. Pro-Russian politicians in the Crimea, in southern Ukraine, rejected the revolution and decided to stop sending tax payments to Kyiv. Russian special forces descended into the region, seized key installations and later presided over a fraudulent referendum in which Crimean voters chose to become part of the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine created the People’s Republic of Luhansk and People’s Republic of Donetsk. Backed by Moscow, the two “republics” have merged and are now fighting the Ukrainian army with Russian weapons and, often, Russian soldiers. The front stretches for several hundred miles and is covered with a network of trenches reminiscent of World War I. An estimated 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled their homes and another 13,000 have been killed in the conflict.
With the war dragging on and corruption rampant in Kyiv, desperate Ukrainian voters earlier this year gave political novice Zelensky, a former comedian, an overwhelming (73 percent) mandate in the presidential election, hoping he can turn things around.
Most Ukrainians I talked with were more offended by Mr. Zelensky’s apparent kowtowing to President Trump than to President Trump’s request for a “favor” regarding presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son. Indeed, several of my students referred to him as “Monica Zelensky,” a reference to former President Bill Clinton’s intern and paramour.
The typical Ukrainian would not quibble with Mr. Trump’s boast that he’s done much to help Ukraine, nor his complaint that the countries of Western Europe have failed to assist their neighbor. Indeed, the Trump administration has provided Ukraine with sophisticated weaponry, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, while the Obama administration sent only rations and less advanced equipment.
The Europeans have been pressing Mr. Zelensky to make peace with Russia by, in essence, accepting the loss of significant territory. Mr. Zelensky recently landed in hot water when he announced acceptance of the “Steinmeier Formula” for ending hostilities. Named for German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and advocated by France and Germany, the plan calls for local elections in the occupied territories and recognition of the disputed land as a “special autonomous region.” Mr. Zelensky asserts that elections will be held only after Russian troops withdraw from the occupied territories, an unlikely proposition at this juncture.
Ukrainians fear Mr. Zelensky is selling them out by agreeing to the plan, which has not been formalized on paper so the people can see what the arrangement really involves. I had several students originally from Donetsk, an industrial area in eastern Ukraine now occupied by Russians, lament that Mr. Zelensky and the Europe Union were writing them off.
In addition to the Russian occupation, Ukraine continues to be plagued by corruption. Lawyers I met with complained that the key to a successful legal practice has little to do with legal acumen and more to do with knowing who to bribe. Judges I interviewed were glum about the matter, suggesting that corruption is so systemic it will take years to defeat.
Ukrainians are certainly aware of the goings on in Washington, the impeachment proceedings and their country’s place in the American political spotlight. But they’re focused on more important issues, such as the occupation of their territory by an aggressive neighbor, the economic distress caused by the war, and the cancer of corruption threatening the rule of law. The propriety of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky is a distraction.
Given our own problems, perhaps we should focus on other issues as well.
This article was also published in The Washington Times Wed. October 30, 2019