The fallout of the Trump-Zelenskyy phone call in Ukraine

Ukrainians have been having doubts about Western commitment to Ukrainian democracy; the recent scandal confirmed them.

Ukraine's President Zelenskyy listens during a meeting with US President Trump on the sidelines of the 74th UNGA in New York on September 25, 2019 [Reuters/Jonathan Ernst]

For days now international media has been dominated by a political earthquake triggered by a July phone call between US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It has not only wreaked havoc on the political scene in both countries but it is also likely to undermine the very idea of Western leadership in Eastern Europe.

President Trump is the most obvious casualty of this calamity, which is entirely of his very own making. His attempt to pressure the leader of a country currently in conflict with Russia in order to acquire compromising material on a political rival has outraged even members of his own party. It has also given ammunition to the opposition, the Democratic Party, to start an impeachment process against him. 

It would seem that Joe Biden, potentially Trump’s opponent in the upcoming 2020 elections, might be the main beneficiary of his self-inflicted misery, but he may not emerge unscathed from the scandal either. The media spotlight has shifted back to the Ukrainian stint of his son, Hunter Biden.

Burisma, the company Biden Jr worked for, belongs to businessman/politician Mykola Zlochevsky, who occupied various posts in the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014. With no experience in the region, he got his post at the time when Zlochevsky was fighting off a court case in the UK touted as a part of the British effort to prevent Yanukovych’s entourage from laundering embezzled cash in the West.

Hunter’s appointment on the board did feel a lot like a dogged oligarch buying himself an expensive political cover in the West.

Perhaps the least affected of the three main characters in the story is Zelenskyy. Yes, there are several embarrassing moments in the conversation, which the president of Ukraine certainly didn’t expect to be published. That includes his criticism of Germany and France for their lack of support to Ukraine. These and a few other statements in the transcript are unlikely to affect his sky-high rating at home, although they might come back to haunt him in future.

Apart from casting a shadow on Zelenskyy’s presidency in its first months, the scandal has disturbed Ukrainian politics in another, much more dramatic way. Ukrainians often complain about “Ukraine fatigue” in the West after five years of conflict with Russia and no resolution reached. That now there is renewed interest in Ukraine in Western media is hardly a welcome development given the circumstances.

What this latest American mess contributes to in Ukraine is “West fatigue” – a growing feeling among Ukrainians that the Western and specifically American policies towards their country are increasingly incoherent and are not motivated by a Western commitment to Ukraine’s democratic development.

When Trump cuts off military aid to put pressure on Zelenskyy, while at the same time his now fired national security adviser John Bolton urges Ukraine not to rush into a peace deal with Russia, the Ukrainians are right to perceive US policy as nothing short of schizophrenic.

Many in Ukraine have long felt that they are being used as pawns in the battle of superpowers over spheres of influence. Now it has become clear to them that they have also become pawns in America’s domestic political games. The roles that both Trump and Biden have played in the scandal are fuelling doubts that there would be significant change in US policy towards Ukraine, even if the latter were to win the US presidency in 2020.

The whistleblower’s complaint has also revealed that Ukrainian officials have learned to play the US political game and seek to curry favour with whoever is in power in Washington in order preserve their own positions and benefits. That is, American mismanagement of the Ukrainian file is inadvertently undermining Ukrainian institutions.

This “West fatigue” and the growing desire to see new leadership committed to serving Ukrainian interests were reflected in the choice Ukrainians made at the last presidential elections.

Zelenskyy won a landslide victory after promising a peace deal with Russia and distancing himself from ethnonationalist policies imposed on his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, by an aggressive political minority backed by the Ukrainian diaspora in North America and tacitly by the US and various European embassies. This is why in the phone call with Trump, Zelenskyy complained about the previous US ambassador working against him ahead of the election.

In practical terms, the “West fatigue” is sending Ukraine on the path Finland walked during the Cold War period, with which the country retained its sovereignty and liberal democracy in exchange for neutrality and some territory transferred to the Soviet Union.

This outcome is anathema to the massive hawkish anti-Russian community in the West and Ukraine itself because they perceive it as a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it would be a reprieve for most Ukrainians who just want to get on with their lives and who also understand their own society – distinctly different from Russia’s, but also tied to it by a myriad of family links – much better than political strategists in Western capitals and Moscow.

The “West fatigue” is also not unique to Ukraine. It has spread across Eastern Europe and in some countries, it has pushed governments towards Russian-style illiberalism and authoritarianism. It seemingly has also brought back the idea of seeking a regional alternative to Trans-Atlantic integration, with one particular idea, known as Intermarium, promoted by Polish President Andrzej Duda and others.

Thus while Eastern Europe said “Goodbye, Lenin” decisively back in 1989, today, 30 years later, it increasingly seems like it might be saying “Goodbye, West”. The question now is, will the West be able to get its act together and turn the tide?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.