Starting mid-August 2019, a whistleblower complaint about a phone call between the President of the United States and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky became a trending topic for media outlets. According to the report of the whistleblower, the US President tried to persuade his Ukrainian counterpart in starting investigations against one of his competitors in the upcoming Presidential election in 2020, Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. The news triggered an impeachment inquiry against President Trump and from the other side, the newly elected Ukrainian President suffered a major blow and raised doubts whether he would be able to live up to the expectations he created initially.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian with no political experience, became Ukraine’s new President on 22 April 2019. His election victory was seen as a symbol of distrust against the already established political system in the country. During his election campaign, Zelensky repeated his intentions to challenge the country’s traditional problems such as corruption and oligarchy. Some of his opponents have questioned his ties with Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, as his TV programs aired on Kolomoisky’s channel. Like the character he was playing before his election, he was depicting an idealist, and sometimes, a populist man who challenged the system. However, this ambitious inception by Zelensky was soon interrupted by the above-mentioned notorious whistleblower complaint and people started to question his capability in ruling a country and maintaining balance among experienced world leaders.
The reports about the 25th July phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky showed the US President’s call to his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former US Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. According to the reports, during the call, Trump urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, who are alleged to have a role in the removal of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin who had investigated a company related to Hunter Biden. The talk about the Bidens’ corruption allegations took a new twist after another report suggested that Donald Trump’s Ukraine military aid suspension timeline may be related to the Trump-Zelensky phone call.
Another shock for Zelensky occurred when the White House released the transcript of the call without informing Ukraine and without concealing Zelensky’s parts of the talk. After the publishing of the transcript, Zelensky expressed his disappointment through these words: “Prior to the Presidency I was never a diplomat, but I think I have had many such conversations in my life and will have many more… There are certain nuances and things which I think it would be incorrect, even, to publish.”
Another hearing in October alleged that a series of Whatsapp messages by some key US diplomats such as the US Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland and former US Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, were suggesting that a possible White House invitation for Zelensky may be realized only if he formally started the public inquiry against Bidens. Despite the reports, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky strongly denied being forced by Donald Trump and said “I think it was a good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things, and I – so I think and you read it that nobody pushed me.”
President Zelesnky is not only facing allegations over meddling in the US election but his other foreign relations are also at stake after the release of the reports. Zelensky’s words about his European partners was another key issue for the newly elected President. Despite pushing for a pro-European vision, according to the transcripts, Zelensky agreed with Trump’s criticism on Europe’s lack of aid to Ukraine, he even added that Washington is a bigger partner of Kiev than Brussels. If Ukraine loses both of its key partners, the United States and the European Union, this may leave Zelensky’s country alone to deal with their arch-nemesis, Russia. Moreover, Kiev may remain alone in its efforts to have a dialogue with Moscow.
It is fair to say that President Zelensky’s populist approach and innovative persona has witnessed the cold face of the international arena. The Ukrainian President is perhaps risking his political career more than his US counterpart due to his lack of experience. Speaking about the publication of transcripts, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he is always paying attention to his phone calls as they may be published in the future; sending a clear message to his Ukrainian counterpart. Zelensky may not be the most controversial figure in this scandal which is making global headlines, but he is slowly becoming a scapegoat in the exploitation of Ukraine’s corruption and he may already be losing his Don Quixot-esque war due to unexpected external manipulations.