Maksym Eristavi is a Ukrainian journalist and research fellow at the Atlantic Council.
President Trump appears determined to forgive his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine. Unfortunately, the new Ukrainian leadership’s foreign policy failures aren’t helping.
Earlier this year, Ukrainians voted in President Volodymyr Zelensky on a wave of hope and optimism. Many abroad were cautiously optimistic as well: At a time when democracy doesn’t seem to be faring well in the world, a victory for a progressive anti-establishment movement in Ukraine was refreshing. Three months after his inauguration, the domestic enthusiasm is still there. But Zelensky’s attempt to reboot Ukrainian foreign policy has been a disaster — and it is helping Putin’s global push to rehabilitate himself.
First, Zelensky’s office became entangled in a campaign by pro-Trump political operatives, including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, to dig up opposition research on former vice president Joseph Biden, whose son Hunter pursued controversial investments in Ukraine. Zelensky’s team should have remained aloof from the controversy; instead, it got dragged into a series of exchanges between Zelensky’s people and Giuliani, achieving nothing but a public relations mess. Now the former New York mayor openly poses for pictures with Zelensky’s political adversaries, and the Ukrainian president’s office is having trouble persuading the Trump administration to schedule a date for Zelensky’s first visit to the White House.
The bad blood comes at a moment when Trump is pushing for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven, the club of leading industrial nations — even though Moscow has shown no sign of relinquishing control over the annexed Ukrainian province of Crimea, Russian troops are still occupying Ukrainian territory and more than 100 Ukrainian political prisoners are being held in Russia.
Nor has Zelensky had much luck in Western Europe. During a recent meeting with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron described the war in eastern Ukraine as an “irritant” — a strikingly offhand way of referring to a Russian military invasion that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. Macron’s rapprochement with Putin looks especially bad after months of a public bromance between the Ukrainian and French presidents. Zelensky’s personal diplomacy failed to make Macron an ally. Instead, the French president has been promising to “tie Russia and Europe back together” and recently discussed the fate of Ukraine with Putin without a single Ukrainian official present.
In another display of failed personal diplomacy, Zelensky’s first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in June failed to dissuade Germany from leading a push to invite Russia back into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a key European interparliamentary body. That move marked an important precedent: For the first time, Russia was readmitted to an international organization without making any concessions on its aggression against Ukraine. (The Germans have also ignored Ukraine’s pleas to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which the Ukrainians see as undermining their own bargaining position toward Moscow.)
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