While I was in Ukraine this spring covering the country’s presidential election, I initially doubted that Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no formal political experience, could become the next president of Ukraine. The moment I realized he was likely not only to win, but to win big wasn’t after a speech outlining his policies. He never gave one. Nor was it when he debated incumbent Petro Poroshenko in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, a spectacle in which both candidates behaved more like showmen than statesmen. Rather, it was in a concert hall in March outside of the capital, where he and his comedy troupe performed a variety show before a national campaign-free “quiet period” prior to the first round of voting.
My Ukrainian friends told me they found Zelensky’s brand of humor crude and embarrassing—in one of his skits, he “plays piano” with his penis—but in that final performance he displayed a more refined sensibility. He and his troupe still made sex jokes and told one-liners about his height (he’s quite short), but they also served up quick-witted riffs on the nature of the modern news cycle, the quagmires of Ukrainian politics, and a pun-filled song about patriotism in a country that never quite seemed to fulfill its promises.
Though many commentators label Zelensky a Ukrainian Donald Trump because of his lack of political experience and background in entertainment, Zelensky is in fact an adept political actor—including during high-stakes phone calls with the leader of the free world.
Zelensky is a performer at heart, and he isn’t ashamed to put those skills to use as a politician. They were on display in his July 25 phone call with President Trump, the summary of which was released Wednesday. “We wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,” Zelensky says, using one of Trump’s catchphrases. Then he joins the U.S. president in lambasting foreign partners and a former U.S. diplomat, and he makes sure to squeeze in a mention of a trip to New York, where he stayed at Trump Tower, of course. At times the flattery is cringe-inducing, but Zelensky is hardly a clueless, boot-licking stooge. He surely knew he had to play the role of flatterer in chief to have any chance at obtaining what his country needs: continued aid and a powerful friend.
President Zelensky has made ending the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region—which was instigated and is sustained by Russia and has claimed 13,000 lives and counting—his administration’s top priority. He has made some progress toward that goal, overseeing a historic prisoner swap with Russia that saw one of Ukraine’s most respected filmmakers as well as 24 sailors captured last November returned home. According to information from the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, fewer civilians have been killed in the conflict this year than any year previously. A July cease-fire at the contact line seems to be holding firmer than its previous incarnations.
For Zelensky, Trump could be the key to ending the war in the Donbas. The American president has made his admiration for and cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin no secret. Likewise, Trump’s views about Ukraine—ambivalence about the status of Crimea, which Russia illegally seized in 2014, and support for ending the sanctions placed on Russia in response to its activities in Ukraine—make Ukrainians nervous. A cordial relationship between Trump and Zelensky could give Trump insight into Ukraine’s perspective and give Ukraine leverage it did not enjoy under former President Petro Poroshenko, who struggled to connect with the U.S. leader.
Ukraine does not have the luxury to pick and choose its international partners, something I learned when I served as an adviser to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in 2016 and 2017 under the auspices of a Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship. Ukraine relies on its larger, richer allies as it attempts to shed its post-Soviet legacy. The United States—its largest and richest ally—provides not only for the now-famous military aid package, but hundreds of millions of dollars in civilian aid, supporting projects in just about every sector. The containment of the Chernobyl nuclear site, fighting HIV/AIDS, building cybersecurity capabilities, and creating government bodies that are more responsive to citizens are just a few of the projects that U.S assistance makes possible. Continued reform, including the pursuit of energy independence from Russia and the cleanup of the court system, the biggest obstacle to Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts, would be imperiled without this assistance. The United States also plays a key role in corralling European partners to uphold their own sanctions on Russia and to continue to support Ukraine as it walks the long and often bumpy road of democratic reform.
There are reasons to believe Zelensky’s slippery answers to President Trump’s repeated requests that he investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter were deliberate. According to congressional staff who recently visited Ukraine and spoke with senior Ukrainian officials, the Zelensky administration was upset at feeling that it was being used and didn’t want to be a pawn in America’s domestic political machinations. In the phone call and at the meeting of the two presidents Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly, Zelensky was careful not to let the name Biden cross his lips. Instead, Zelensky says he will “look into the situation” related to Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, more generally. At the U.N., Zelensky also mentioned a few of the other important cases he hoped his new prosecutor would investigate in addition to Burisma, and maintained that he didn’t want to be dragged into American politics.
It’s unfortunate for Zelensky and Ukraine that his telephone conversation with Trump has become the linchpin of an impeachment investigation. The circumstances now dictate that the two leaders are unlikely to “talk on the phone more often,” a dream that Zelensky pined for at the beginning of the call. Knowing the discussion would be made public, perhaps he would have played a less contrite, stronger character. Maybe he would have eased up on the Trump catchphrases. But he had to play this role to play Trump, and it’s one he probably plays better than many other leaders who are forced to do the same.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine