Ahead of White House meeting, Ukraine’s Zelensky expresses frustration with Western allies
By Isabelle Khurshudyan. 19 August 2021
KYIV, Ukraine — Ahead of his meeting with President Biden at the end of this month, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky expressed frustration with Western allies’ hesitancy to greenlight Kyiv’s ascension to NATO and took issue with Biden’s comment that the country still has “to clean up corruption” before it can be considered for membership to 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 upcoming 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 thawing. 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.
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 there “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 “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 the president on his hit sitcom before he swept to a resounding victory in Ukraine’s presidential election two years ago. But while Zelensky ran on an anti-establishment and reformist message, pledging to break the grip powerful oligarchs have on the country, he’s made little headway.
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 former president defeated by Zelensky in the 2019 election, has also been the target of numerous corruption probes.
Meanwhile, recent polling has revealed 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 links Russian natural gas directly with Europe, via Germany. Because the pipeline circumvents Ukraine, a current transit partner with Moscow, 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 announced it decided against imposing sanctions on the company in charge of Nord Stream 2 in an effort to rebuild relations with Germany.
In exchange for an end to U.S. efforts to block Nord Stream 2, the countries agreed that Germany will invest in Ukraine’s green technology infrastructure, and Berlin and Washington will 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 Aug. 23 according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Zelensky said he will once again appeal to Biden to intervene during their meeting at the White House on Aug. 31.
Zelensky repeatedly stressed security concerns Wednesday for Ukraine once Nord Stream 2 becomes operational because Moscow could become more aggressive in its dealings with Kyiv once it no longer serves as 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.
By Isabelle KhurshudyanIsabelle Khurshudyan is a foreign correspondent based in Moscow. A University of South Carolina graduate, she has worked at The Washington Post since 2014, previously as a sports reporter covering the Washington Capitals, high school sports and local colleges.