From the Ukrainian side of the Atlantic, everything that’s happened since 2016 has to be confusing, humiliating, and downright infuriating. After years of facing United States challenges that the country wasn’t doing enough to fight against corruption, Ukraine did exactly that by digging into the crimes of the ousted pro-Russian regime and looking at the role oligarchs and plain-old bribery had played in the young republic. But that examination took Ukrainian officials head on into the large role that Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort played in everything from keeping Ukraine out of NATO to money laundering for Russia. Those investigations led to the official withdrawal of Manafort as the head of Trump’s campaign—and a deep-set hatred against Ukraine on the part of Donald Trump.
Of course, that wasn’t the only reason Trump was angry at Ukraine. He spent years trying to make real estate deals in Kyiv and Yalta. So he came into the situation pre-angry at Ukraine even before they helped put a spotlight on how real estate deals serve as the most common means of money laundering huge sums stolen from former Soviet territories.
Once Trump took office, Ukraine got the message. Investigators in Ukraine refused to cooperate with the special counsel’s office—which is exactly the kind of thing that used to generate issues. It was a refusal by a corrupt Ukrainian official to cooperate with U.K. investigators that actually generated Joe Biden’s call for that official’s removal. But exactly the opposite happened under Trump. Ukrainian prosecutors were pressured to not cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice in order to protect Manafort and Trump. By that time Rudy Giuliani was on the ground in Kyiv, making it clear that there were big rewards available to anyone who would make false claims about investigations connected to Joe Biden or the 2016 campaign.
In other words, after decades of being lectured by the United States to clean up their act on corruption, Trump’s team came to town insisting on corruption as the price of doing business with the United States. And Trump’s play to pay scheme put the incoming administration in an almost impossible position. To get U.S. military assistance, packages first had to pass a Congress still insisting that Ukraine play by the rules. But the gatekeeper on that assistance was Donald Trump, who made it clear that breaking the rules was his price for delivery.
As The New York Times reports, new president Volodymyr Zelensky was caught in a genuine dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s team—from Giuliani down to supposedly diplomatic figures like Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland—was telling him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to see his precious military aid, he would have to make claims about investigations into Biden and the 2016 election. On the other hand, making those false claims would make it clear that Zelensky was allowing Trump to use him as a club in the 2020 election. Zelensky feared that this would damage bipartisan support in Congress for future aid packages.
Ignore Trump’s demands, and the White House could sit on the current aid package until it expired. Give in, and Congress might be less enthusiastic about directing more funds to Kyiv. And all the while Russian forces were pounding away at Donbass.
Zelensky seems to have been extremely reluctant about giving Trump what he wanted by producing a series of stage-managed lies, out of fear that he was signing his nation’s death sentence in exchange for Trump merely handing over what was already due. But Zelensky’s aids, many of which were having frequent interactions with Giuliani, Volker, and Sondland, urged him to deliver the announcements that Trump wanted.
There was absolutely no doubt on the Ukrainian side that Trump was personally sitting on the release of military assistance until his demands were met. On the other hand, any ramifications of those demands were something that only might generate an issue for future bipartisan support. So the pressure only grew on Zelensky to give in—with Volker and Sondland both helpfully providing tips and even scripts for just what should be in his announcements.
By the start of September, there was no doubt about Trump holding back the funds, and every reason to believe that he might hold them past the September 30 expiration. Sondland seemed to be making that exact threat. In fact, just about the only thing holding back the announcement at that point was … Donald Trump. Not in the sense that Trump had said anything to suggest he didn’t want the announcement. But because Trump had been so confusing in his statements—attacking CNN, attacking newspapers, even attacking Fox for not saying exactly what he wanted—that Zelensky was concerned that making an announcement in the wrong place place would only increase Trump’s anger.
But, as the Times reports, an agreement was finally made. Zelensky would go live on September 13, announcing the investigations that Trump wanted, even though he knew there was no justification, because it was more important to secure the release of the existing funds than it was to worry about the effect on future support.
Then word leaked out. Congressmen who had been directing letters to the Pentagon asking why a package that had passed its final review on May 23 still hadn’t moved. And the whistleblower complaint, which was originally written on August 12 was already in the hands of the White House and William Barr’s DOJ, neither of which managed to stop the inspector general from letting Congress know that an “urgent” complaint had been received.
On September 12, a day before Zelensky was scheduled to buckle under and announce the investigations Trump had requested, the White House issued a letter through the State Department that the military financing for Ukraine would be released.
So Zelensky was saved from humiliating himself in a live broadcast made for Trump and scripted by Trump officials. But Ukraine did learn a valuable lesson—when it comes to corruption, the United States is king.