A Precarious Position: Ukraine Journal, Part III

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky attends a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia, November 26, 2019. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)
Zelensky, Trump, Putin, CrowdStrike, Apple, and more

Editor’s Note: For Parts I and II of this journal, go here and here.

Volodymyr Zelensky is the president of Ukraine. He was born in 1978, making him 41. He was a television entertainer. In fact, he played an ordinary Joe who found himself elected president. In real life, the people elected Zelensky with nearly 75 percent of the vote. This was last April. Zelensky is a populist par excellence.

Here in Kyiv, I talk to people who are pro-Zelensky and anti-. But they are all sympathetic to him, to a degree. Why? Because he is in a very, very precarious position. The job of president of Ukraine is hard enough. But now there is the curious, gaudy problem of America.

One analyst puts it this way: “He refuses to say he’ll investigate the Bidens, the Republicans are mad at him. He says he will, the Democrats are mad at him.” Zelensky needs the support of the United States at large.

I think of a phrase: “monkey in the middle.” Later, I see a Time magazine cover: “The Man in the Middle.” That’s how the magazine describes Zelensky. He is “caught between Putin and Trump,” Time says.

Oh, yes: That too.

Some people here joke that Zelensky is “Monica” — the unfortunate figure in an American impeachment drama.

In any case, Zelensky is very keen not to be ensnared in the American drama, as is Ukraine itself. Every time Zelensky opens his mouth, on the subject of America, he risks offending someone.

“Trump applied no pressure,” he might say (as he has). Then the Democrats will be ticked, except for the understanding ones. “Trump applied pressure,” he might admit. Then the Republicans will be ticked.

Can’t win.

Zelensky did talk — and frankly — to Time and three European publications (in the same session). Find the Time write-up here.

He said he was loath to see Ukraine a pawn — “a piece on the map, on the chess board of big global players.” He also said that President Trump was hurting Ukraine by labeling it a corrupt country.

There are many corrupt countries in the world, and Ukraine has suffered from corruption for a long time. Yet the American president does not speak of corruption in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or elsewhere. He speaks of it in Ukraine.

“I held back the money from Ukraine,” Trump tweeted last month, “because it is considered a corrupt country.”

To Time and the other publications, Zelensky said,

The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone. When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that is the hardest of signals. It might seem like an easy thing to say, that combination of words: Ukraine is a corrupt country. Just to say it and that’s it. But it doesn’t end there. Everyone hears that signal. Investments, banks, stakeholders, companies, American, European, companies that have international capital in Ukraine, it’s a signal to them that says, “Be careful, don’t invest.” Or, “Get out of there.” This is a hard signal. For me it’s very important for the United States, with all they can do for us, for them really to understand that we are a different country, that we are different people. It’s not that those things don’t exist. They do. All branches of government were corrupted over many years, and we are working to clean that up. But that signal from them is very important.

I don’t envy Zelensky. Do you? Whatever you may think of him — and I doubt many of us non-Ukrainians have enough information to have a solid opinion of the man — I don’t think anyone can envy him. He is in a daunting position indeed.

• The subject of corruption in Ukraine is an interesting and multifaceted one, written about at length. I will not spend long on it. I recommend this article, in Foreign Policy, by Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander J. Motyl. The former is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a onetime president of Freedom House, and the latter is a political-science professor at Rutgers.

Bottom line: Ukraine has made headway against corruption in recent years, and gratifying headway. Efforts to paint it as a “corrupt failed state” are corrupt themselves — dishonest and dishonorable.

• In my experience, people either make too much of Putin and the machinations of the Kremlin or too little of them. I have a feeling that the second error may be the more common one.

One prominent lady in Kyiv tells me that Westerners are hopelessly, dismayingly “naïve” about Putin and the Kremlin. They are especially naïve about the money that Russia spreads around. It buys a lot.

Another prominent lady makes an impassioned statement — full of fury, of righteous indignation: “People in America buy the Putin narrative and repeat it — starting with your president. ‘Ukraine is just a shithole country, a corrupt country, not a real country.’ They say we basically speak Russian and really belong to Russia. It’s all a pack of lies, coming straight from the Kremlin, and you guys believe it. Disgusting.”

(In 2018, word got out that Trump had spoken of “shithole countries” in the context of immigration to America. Many around the world are aware of the phrase.)

I will have more to say about all this in due course . . .

• There is a perception in America, and perhaps elsewhere, that everyone who lives in the former Soviet Union and the former Soviet bloc is basically Russian, somehow. I have a dear Czech friend — Czech-American — who fled to America as a teenager. I sometimes tease her by saying things like “you and other Russians.” (She knows I know better, trust me.)

• On a staircase, there is an old beggar woman, a picture of abjection. I say hello to her. She looks up and smiles — a sweet smile. I bet she was pretty. She still is, in a way.

• I meet a number of people — an unusual number of people — who have relatives in Canada.

• Many women — young women — dye their hair blonde, or whitish. I think they would look so much better au naturel (so to speak). But who am I to say? Moreover, they don’t ask me . . .

• Um . . .

• Is this kind of like “I, Pencil”?

• I hear a rap pouring out of a store or eatery, with the word “niggas” filling the Kyiv air. Sort of disconcerting.

• This museum, I don’t go into. I have never seen another one like it. But I hear it doesn’t have much of a spine.

• You know that restaurant, at which Ambassador Gordon Sondland received a call, or made a call, to President Trump, which was overheard? It is called “SHO” and there is a bit of a buzz about it. People know Sondland’s exact table and request it.

I can’t explain the capital letters. But I believe that “Sho?” is how Ukrainians say “What?”

• Have a glance at Taras Shevchenko Park. A wonderful place to pass the time — or walk a child or kiss a lover or play your guitar or whatever.

• You can have a ride on this little fellow, if you wish — I mean, if you’re small enough:

• I ask around about CrowdStrike. People are utterly bewildered.

CrowdStrike is an American cybersecurity company, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. It is at the heart of a Trumpian conspiracy theory. Trump is the chief spreader of it.

The theory goes like this: Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee. CrowdStrike tried to pin the hacking on Russia. There is a server, hidden somewhere in Ukraine. CrowdStrike is owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.

And so on and so forth.

As Tom Bossert, Trump’s first homeland-security adviser, has said, this theory has been “completely debunked.” But it persists, with backers in high places.

CrowdStrike was founded in 2011 by three Americans: George Kurtz, Dmitri Alperovitch, and Gregg Marston. The second of those, true, was born in Russia — the Soviet Union, actually (Moscow, 1980). He came to America when he was a teen. The family lived in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dmitri went Georgia Tech.

In an interview with Forbes last year, he said, “This country has been incredibly good to me. I’m a citizen and proud to contribute to the economic and national security of the country. I’m very happy my parents made the decision for our family to immigrate to America.”

Want to know something interesting? CrowdStrike is employed by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Apparently, it is the cybersecurity company of choice.

• On November 20, Vladimir Putin sounded a triumphant, satisfied note: “Thank God, no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.” Yes, they are, some of them.

But not Fiona Hill. She is a Russianist, a onetime student of Richard Pipes at Harvard. She is the co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Until recently, she was on the U.S. National Security Council staff.

On November 21, she testified before congressmen: “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

She continued, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016. These fictions are harmful even if they’re deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”

• Did you happen to see this story? It has not gone unnoticed in Ukraine. I have linked to a report from Reuters, from which I will paste three excerpts.

“Apple Inc is ‘taking a deeper look at how we handle disputed borders’ after it referred to the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula as part of Russia in its Maps and Weather apps for Russian users, a company spokeswoman told Reuters on Friday.”

“Apple appeared to have changed the way it displays locations in Crimea in its software, in a nod to Russian politicians who have demanded the peninsula be referred to as part of Russia.”

“Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that Apple did not ‘give a damn’ about the country’s pain.”

The rule of law is terribly important. Everyone knows this, but maybe in a vague way. The older you get and the more you learn, the more you realize how terribly important it is. It is practically the whole ballgame.

I love something that David Luhnow, the Latin America bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, told me a few years ago. Ernesto Zedillo, who was president of Mexico in the 1990s, was once asked to name the three things his country most needed. He replied, “The rule of law. The rule of law. The rule of law.”

I will conclude this journal tomorrow, with some meaty material (and maybe a little froth). Thanks for coming along, y’all.

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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.