Thursday

20th Feb 2020

Ukrainian president burns bridges in Europe

  • The 41-year old Volodymyr Zelenskiy (l) first made his name as a TV comic (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Ukraine's new president gleefully joined US leader Donald Trump in denigrating the EU back in July, a White House transcript of their phone call has shown.

"Germany does almost nothing for you. All they do is talk," Trump told Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskiy on 25 July.

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"[German chancellor] Angela Merkel ... talks Ukraine, but she doesn't do anything. A lot of European countries are the same way," he added.

"Yes. You are absolutely right. Not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent," Zelenskiy replied.

"I did talk to Angela Merkel ... I also met and talked with [French president] Emmanuel Macron and I told them they are not doing quite as much as they need to be on the issues with the sanctions [on Russia]. They are not enforcing the sanctions," he said.

"The European Union should be our biggest partner, but technically the United States is a much bigger partner," he added.

The White House declassified the transcript on Wednesday (25 September) amid a row in Washington over next year's US election.

Trump, in the same phone call, asked Zelenskiy for help in digging up dirt on his election rival, Joe Biden, whose son had business interests in Ukraine.

He did it a few days after temporarily freezing $250m [€228m] in US military assistance to Kiev in what looked like blackmail.

And the fiasco has prompted the United States House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the US Congress, to launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump's behaviour.

The US has provided about $1.9bn of economic and military aid to Ukraine and imposed economic sanctions on Russia since it invaded its pro-Western neighbour in 2014.

Ukrainian commanders highly value the US help, such as modern anti-tank weapons called Javelins.

"As soon as they [Russia] knew we had Javelins, the number of tank attacks significantly went down," a Ukrainian colonel, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver on the front line in east Ukraine in January.

The EU has declined to send arms.

But it has agreed to pump in some €15bn in economic aid between 2014 and 2020, most of it from the EU budget, to which France and Germany contribute heavily.

It has imposed sanctions on Russia, with whom it trades a lot more than the US does, and signed a free-trade pact with Ukraine.

British, German, and Polish soldiers have also helped to train Ukrainian ones in the field.

Trump's attack on Merkel was the latest in a long line, following previous jibes that Germany sells too many cars to America and does not spend enough on Nato.

Meanwhile, Zelenskiy's claim that France and Germany were not enforcing EU sanctions lacked substance.

Macron, later in September, did speak of relaxing sanctions, but only if Russia withdrew its forces from east Ukraine.

Germany is to build a new gas pipeline with Russia, but the project is not covered by the EU or US sanctions regime.

Siemens, a German engineering firm, was caught breaking EU sanctions by producing electricity turbines for Russia-occupied Crimea.

But that case aside, Merkel is credited with getting Russia sanctions renewed year after year despite protests by Russia-friendly EU capitals, such as Budapest, Nicosia, or Rome.

Russian champagne

French and German officials have so far declined to comment on Zelenskiy's accusations.

But Wednesday's revelation could harm his ties with EU powers, playing into Russia's hands.

It could also damage his authority at home, where the 41-year old former TV comic has faced criticism that he is unqualified for his post.

His anti-Macron and Merkel comments were made in what was "a difficult period" for Ukraine, Zelenskiy said on Wednesday after meeting Trump at a UN assembly in New York.

"I don't want to say anything bad about anyone ... We thank everyone who helps us," he said, according to the Reuters news agency.

"I personally think that sometimes such calls between presidents of independent countries should not be published. I just thought that they would publish their part," the novice president added.

But despite his apologies, the furore risks making Ukraine a toxic word in transatlantic politics.

"They [Russian authorities] are definitely [thinking]: 'Open the champagne' ... the Russians should be crazy happy about it," Ukraine's former foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, told the CNN broadcaster on Wednesday.

And in the meantime, the fighting on the front line, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives in the past five years, went on uninterrupted.

There were almost 900 ceasefire violations recorded by international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in their last report on Wednesday - the same as the daily average for 2018.

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