Ukraine is getting itself into US election troubles

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, 20 May 2020, amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Zelensky answered questions of journalists about the results of the first year as he became President in 2019. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

Ukraine is losing friends: among other mistakes, by playing internal politics, the country’s President has taken sides in the US elections, which may be disastrous for the country in the future, writes Pavlo Fedykovych.

Pavlo Fedykovych is a College of Europe graduate and Ukrainian journalist published by CNN, BBC, The Irish Times, The Independent, The Guardian and other foreign media.

As the world battles coronavirus, the geopolitical games don’t stop. But if the European countries seem to have only one invisible infectious enemy to fight, Ukraine’s conflict with the Russia-backed separatists in the east is still ongoing.

And as usual, the country’s sad death stats apart from those lost to COVID-19 include those losing their lives daily on the frontlines of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Thus the Ukrainian situation is twice harder, the country has to deal with the pandemic on one hand and Russian aggression on the other.

“I don’t trust anyone at all.” This phrase that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Time interview illustrates well the country’s place in the world’s geopolitics today as well as his foreign policy approach.

Blatantly accused by Trump of being the “most corrupt country in Europe”, tucked into the recent impeachment proceedings against the latter, largely ignored in EU-Russia gas talks, Ukraine has every reason to feel betrayed. But it also needs friends to survive, as it has no resources to stay on its own.

Every misstep in the diplomatic arena may be dangerous. And there have been some issues in Ukraine’s foreign policy over the last few weeks, big and small.

On 20 May Zelenskiy held a press conference in a garden of Kyiv’s Mariyinsky Palace. The day before, during another press event, a marginal Ukrainian MP, Andriy Derkach, revealed the leaked phone conversation allegedly between Joe Biden and former Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko dating 13 May 2016.

And while the tapes didn’t add anything new to the issue, Zelenskiy mentioned them during his press conference saying that the leak “might be perceived, qualified as high treason” taking aim at Poroshenko. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office has launched a criminal proceeding against the former President under state treason accusations.

This has led to instant reactions both in Ukraine and in the US. The American press on both sides of the political spectrum has taken turns commenting on the issue. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted. There was a subpoena issued by the Republican-led US Senate committee in a Hunter Biden investigation.

Also, it signified a sudden switch of Zelenskiy’s American stance from neutrality to what can be seen as siding with Trump on throwing shade at Biden ahead of the election.

And while Zelenskiy’s primary goal of publicly supporting the criminal investigation was to take a blow at Poroshenko, a much-loathed political enemy, such an open interference in the American pre-election game may be disastrous for the country in the future.

With a chaotic response to the coronavirus crisis harming Trumps’ plans to get reelected, official Kyiv may find itself in an uneasy position if Biden wins.

Considering the essential role the US plays in countering Russia on the international arena as well as millions in aid given, this Ukrainian foreign policy vector can bring coolness in relations with Biden’s US. Moreover, the timing of such a move on behalf of Zelensky raises eyebrows.

Apart from transatlantic diplomacy tensions, Ukraine has managed to quarrel with usually supportive neighbours too. First came Georgia, a fellow sufferer from Russia’s military aggression. On May, 8 the country recalled its ambassador from Kyiv protesting against the appointment of Mikheil Saakashvili as a top adviser by Zelenskiy.

Georgia’s former president is accused of abuse of office and of misappropriating budgetary funds in his home country and official Tbilisi took action to tell Ukraine that they are not happy.

Quite a surprising issue came from the Balkans. On 21 May the Ukrainian Foreign Office clashed with Bulgaria over an administrative division of a district in the Odesa region with a Bulgarian minority.

While the matter was quickly resolved by diplomats of both sides, the bitter taste of open foreign interference in Ukraine’s internal issues stayed. And the Bulgarian Parliament’s decision to protest something done in Ukraine towards minorities has ringed another bell, the Hungarian one.

Budapest has long been playing a minority card in Zakarpattia, a westernmost multicultural region of Ukraine. The Right-wing government of Viktor Orbán went as far as blocking Ukraine-NATO council meetings under the pretext of defending minorities.

And while Hungary’s international policy has been accused of revisionism and playing along with Russian destabilization plans, the fact is that it’s hard to see this Ukraine’s neighbor as a friend. And the issue is improbable to be resolved any time soon.

This is the foreign policy reality of Ukraine just ahead of the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels on June, 18 which is unlikely to change anything security-wise.

Getting itself into American election troubles, repeatedly menaced by growing Russian aggression, fighting coronavirus and managing to get into spats with friends at the same time, let’s hope that Ukraine will be able to find the right way.

Because, in the long run, its security is also Europe’s security.

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