Kyiv, Ukraine – Last week, Ihor Kovalenko had ill feelings towards Iranians, because their government launched an errant missile that downed a Ukrainian passenger plane with 176 people aboard.
This week, the stocky and bearded furniture salesman, 34, has empathy for them – because after top officials in Tehran admitted their guilt, average Iranians rallied against them and their lethal mistake.
Today, Kovalenko says he feels closer to Iranians than to Americans.
“After I saw how Iranian people protested on our behalf, it made me feel so close to them, much closer than to the Americans who are too preoccupied with their dominance, and whose president is a total imbecile,” Kovalenko told Al Jazeera.
“Our president should not be so subservient to Trump.”
As Ukraine mourns 11 of its nationals killed in the plane crash, politicians, analysts and public are polarised over their new, anti-establishment President Volodymyr Zelenskyy‘s response to the tragedy amid a de-escalation of Tehran’s confrontation with the West.
Observers agree that whatever Zelenskyy does these days, he has to look over his shoulder twice – at his unfriendly neighbour, Russia, and at US President Donald Trump, whose pressure on Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden led to his impeachment.
Zelenskyy, a comedian and political newcomer who won last April’s presidential race, demanded over the weekend a “full admission of guilt”, an open probe, and compensation from Iran after Tehran admitted it had mistakenly shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane with 176 people on board on January 8.
His stance coincided with the blowback from Western governments, including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
But for two days before Tehran took responsibility, despite evidence of a missile attack presented by Western governments, Zelenskyy refrained from lambasting the Islamic republic and joining the international chorus backing US President Donald Trump’s anti-Iranian sentiments.
The disaster was “not a topic for hype on social media, sensationalism or conspiracy theories”, Zelenskyy said on January 9 – while the US, Canadian and UK leaders were already quoting intelligence data proving that Iran did launch a Russian-made Tor M1 missile.
His foreign minister, Vadym Pristaiko, said Ukraine “didn’t have enough proof” of the attack.
“First, there was silence, then – harsh statements,” Kyiv-based political analyst, Aleksey Kushch, told Al Jazeera, referring to Zelenskyy.
“As a result, the tragedy of the Ukrainian plane [crash] is being used in geopolitical games.
“Ukraine [did] not respond properly to the attack on the plane that is seen as an attack on the Ukrainian state.
Kushch said Ukraine should have instead convened a United Nations security council to “access the entire cause-and-effect chain of events”.
But other experts saw Zelenskyy’s reluctance to jump to conclusions and criticise Iran as a sign of his newfound political self-reliance.
“It reflects his independence. The West wanted him to immediately pressure Iran, but he held on for two days,” Kyiv-based analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky told Al Jazeera, claiming that Western embassies in the Ukrainian capital sent multiple signals to Zelenskyy urging him to condemn Iran.
Standing up to Russia
Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko warned that the ex-Soviet nation of 43 million should not become a pawn in the US-Iran confrontation that inevitably affects Tehran’s old ally and Ukraine’s archenemy, Russia.
“We should restore justice while commemorating the memory of those lost, and to prevent Ukraine from being dragged into geopolitical conflicts,” he said in a tweet on January 10.
But it was under his presidency and government that Ukraine became a new battleground of Russia’s confrontation with the West.
Poroshenko, an oligarch and former foreign minister, was elected president months after popular protests toppled his pro-Moscow predecessor Viktor Yanukovich in 2014.
Russia responded by annexing Crimea and backing separatists in the Donbass region while Poroshenko’s government grappled with a dire economic meltdown that made Ukraine one of Europe’s poorest nations.
In the heat of the conflict, another plane was downed – the Malaysian MH17 flight fell in a separatist-controlled area, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. An investigation was complicated by ongoing hostilities that claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Only two years later, an international investigation presented “irrefutable evidence” that a mobile Buk surface-to-air missile system that arrived from Russia had been used to fire on the aircraft.
But the Kremlin fiercely denied any involvement.
In the latest incident, Russia sided with Iran.
“There is no proof for thunderous statements at this stage,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov reportedly said on January 10.
After Iran’s admission of guilt, military analyst Viktoria Baranets wrote in an opinion piece published by the Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s most popular dailies: The missile “could have [been] fired by an officer who does not share government policies, or an expert bribed by foreign intelligence”.
To many Ukrainians, it sounded very familiar.
“Just like in the case with the Malaysian plane, Russia’s leaders in their official statements not only try to support Iran as its strategic partner, but also misinform the international community by making up false versions of this horrible tragedy,” Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine’s former acting president and defence secretary wrote on Facebook on Sunday.
‘Abandoned’ by the West
Almost six years after the separatist conflict began, Ukrainians have often felt abandoned by the West – especially after Trump’s impeachment scandal unfolded.
It was centred on a July 25 phone call with Zelenskyy, in which Trump urged him to announce investigations into Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner, and his son, Hunter, who had served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company reportedly involved in corruption schemes.
The Trump administration also withheld nearly $400m in military assistance to Kyiv.
Ukrainian leaders and top brass said the aid that included Javelin anti-tank missiles, drones, counter-mortar radars and night-vision equipment, was essential, but not all Ukrainians fighting the separatists felt the same way.
“We never felt any use for it in the trenches, it was a drop in the ocean,” a war veteran told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, because he works for a security agency and is not authorised to talk to media.
The officer is opposed to many of Zelenskyy’s policies, but believes that he should be more self-reliant in decision-making.
“We have to be on our own, because Americans have let us down already, and they inevitably will do it again,” he said.