(Bloomberg) -- Ukraine’s novice leader may have thought Vladimir Putin would pose his biggest diplomatic challenge. Five months after being elected, it’s Donald Trump who’s giving him a crash course in the perils of international politics.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is being pulled into the storm surrounding the 2020 U.S. election over a July phone call during which media allege Trump repeatedly asked him to investigate the son of the Democratic hopeful Joe Biden.
It’s an awkward predicament: the U.S. has been a major donor since Ukrainians booted out their Kremlin backed leader back in 2014, providing financial aid and military assistance. And the timing is far from ideal, with Zelenskiy traveling this week to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he’s scheduled to meet Trump.
Ukraine, already the source of the worst tensions between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, is becoming a focus of next year’s re-election bid by Trump, who’s trailing in polls. He appeared to acknowledge Sunday that he’d discussed Biden with Zelenskiy, though said he was just concerned about corruption.
Zelenskiy, who scored a shock election victory in April, must tread carefully.
“Ukraine needs to hold neutral ground, and that requires flexibility and resourcefulness,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kyiv, said by phone. “He can’t quarrel with Trump, but at the same time it’s not in his or Ukraine’s best interest to become part of the internal political scuffles in the U.S.”
The controversy concerns Hunter Biden’s role on the board of one of Ukraine’s biggest gas companies, which featured in a corruption investigation. Trump’s allies say a push by President Barack Obama’s administration to remove then General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin in 2016 was aimed at closing down any probe.
In May, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son. Vitaliy Kasko, a prosecutor who pursued a case against the gas company’s owner, told Bloomberg in May that there was no U.S. pressure to close the case. Many world leaders and the European Union were demanding Shokin’s dismissal. Shokin denied accusations of wrongdoing.
A whistle-blower from the U.S. intelligence community, who hasn’t been publicly identified, raised concerns about Trump’s interactions with a foreign leader, subsequently believed to be Zelenskiy during the July call.
Zelenskiy had been off to a flying start at home. His market-friendly policies helped turn the hryvnia into this year’s best-performing currency. He sealed a prisoner swap with Putin and has top diplomats talking about the improved chance of peace between the longtime foes. He’s riding high in polls.
But the past week has seen Zelenskiy’s job become trickier. First, ties with a billionaire whose TV channel use to air Zelenskiy’s shows have come under the microscope once again. Then, a champion reformer under the previous administration said her house had been burned down in an arson attack in Kyiv.
The scandal over Trump could be his biggest challenge yet because of the extreme partisan nature of U.S. politics.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Sunday of “a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.”
--With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska.
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