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Impeachment: The View From Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy are scheduled to meet in Paris for the first time, a meeting observers hope will initiate some progress in resolving the bloody five-year-old conflict sparked by Russia's interventions in Eastern Ukraine. The meeting takes place at a delicate time for Ukraine, which has been at the center of the impeachment drama in Washington, D.C. It was Ukraine's president on the other end of that July 25 phone call with President Trump that set the impeachment inquiry in motion, and it was U.S. military aid to Ukraine that critics say Trump withheld to try and force the country to investigate a political rival.

And even apart from those facts, Ukraine has been the subject of competing narratives. Is it a struggling, emerging democracy that should remind Americans of themselves? Is it a den of corruption, or the hapless victim of Russian aggression? We wanted to dig a little deeper into how all this is playing out from a Ukrainian perspective, so we've called Lena Surzhko-Harned. She is a political scientist who studies Ukrainian politics at Penn State.

Professor, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LENA SURZHKO-HARNED: Yes. Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: We've also called Brian Bonner. He is the chief editor at the Kyiv Post. It's an English-language news organization in Ukraine's capital.

Brian Bonner, thank you so much for joining us as well.

BRIAN BONNER: I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: And so, Mr. Bonner, I'm going to start with you. How would you describe the mood in the country on the eve of this meeting in Paris? And I understand that that's a hard thing to sort of assess. But from your reporting, are people hopeful? Are they worried? What can you tell us?

BONNER: Well, there's a lot of anxiety. Russia's war against Ukraine has been going on for nearly six years now, 1,400 people killed. The Kremlin occupies and controls 7% of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea and eastern Donbas. I would say that most people that we've talked to, and the mood is not expecting a big breakthrough at all because there's still the feeling here that Vladimir Putin does not want peace, that he benefits by keeping the war going.

MARTIN: And what about impeachment? I mean, are Ukrainians following what's being said about their country here in Washington, D.C.?

BONNER: Yes, they're following - not as closely as in America. The overwhelming feeling among Ukrainians is that they are being swept up against their will into this U.S. domestic political dispute.

MARTIN: So, professor, let me bring you in here. What are you hearing from your contacts about the reaction to all this? I mean, are people - the people you talk to in Ukraine - are they concerned about how the impeachment inquiry in Washington, for example, is affecting their country's standing as the president, Zelenskiy, heads into this meeting?

SURZHKO-HARNED: I believe so, absolutely. That is a very good question, and I think that is something that has many Ukrainians concerned at all levels. The narrative that is being shaped by the inquiry really creates an image of Ukraine that is less than favorable. And many feel that Ukraine might be appearing as much weakened position going into this negotiation between Zelenskiy and Putin than it could have been.

MARTIN: Well, one of the points that - you know, you'll recall that a number of diplomats testified in the course of this inquiry, right? And one of the points that the diplomats nearly uniformly made is that Americans should identify with Ukraine as a country trying to redefine itself according to democratic norms - I mean, according to the rule of law. And one of the arguments that they made about the intention of Russian interference is that it's designed to undermine the confidence in a rule-based international order.

So, professor, I wanted to ask you, do you think in some way that that has succeeded? I mean, do you think that - do you have a sense that it's changed how Ukrainians feel about the United States, for example?

SURZHKO-HARNED: So my understanding of the situation from the public opinion polls and so on is that Ukrainians generally have felt that they need the support from the West. However, at the same time, they know very well that that support is conditional. So there is weariness about how much of the American side is supporting Ukraine in this negotiations, how much Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are committed in supporting Ukrainian position, right?

They are going to be discussing possibilities of peace, and Ukrainians generally are in favor of peace. However, the public opinion polls also show that Ukrainians are not in favor of peace on any kind of terms. And that is the worry - that here, the terms are going to be dictated by Vladimir Putin rather than Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

MARTIN: And, Brian, what about you? Do you have any sense - and I understand, as you said earlier, that Ukrainians are not watching this as closely as people in the United States are, to the degree that - you know, even Americans, there's some question about that. But do you think that what has unfolded in the course of the impeachment inquiry, the way that Ukraine has been described - do you think that that's changed Ukrainians' view of the U.S.?

BONNER: The faith that Ukrainians have in American policy is shaken by Trump's conditionalities, which appeared - which put personal interests above national interests and also above U.S. security interests. So Ukrainians are very sensitive to any changes in U.S. policy because they've enjoyed strong bipartisan support historically from both Republicans and Democrats, who recognize that this is an aspiring democracy.

Most Ukrainians want to be fully part of the European Union, part of the West, part of NATO and want to get rid of the baggage of Soviet imperialism, Russian imperialism. They fought two revolutions over this, and now they're fighting a war to have the right to choose their destiny. The U.S. is a key partner. Anything the U.S. does that softens it brings anxiety here.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, as you noted, Brian Bonner, in the past that Ukraine has had bipartisan support in the U.S. in its efforts to fend off, you know, Russian interference. Many Republicans who have spoken publicly about this in the course of the impeachment inquiry seem convinced that Ukrainians were biased against Donald Trump, that they were somehow, you know, tacitly supporting Hillary Clinton during the last campaign. What is the origin of that point of view? Why do they think that?

BONNER: Yes. Ukrainian officials and Ukrainians are very skeptical of Donald Trump, and they had a reason to be. And people publicly voiced criticism and doubts. Donald Trump - during the campaign, if you remember, he opened the possibility of recognizing Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea. He made false statements that the Crimeans would prefer to be part of Russia than to be part of Ukraine. In the Republican National Committee, there was a platform in there to give lethal - provide lethal weapons to Ukraine to help defend itself. That was taken out.

And Donald Trump, remember, hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager. Paul Manafort is one of the most detested people in Ukraine for his role in getting elected a Kremlin-backed president who was overthrown by the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. So there is plenty of reason for Ukrainians to be skeptical and actually to favor Hillary Clinton.

But that's completely different from interfering in the election, which Ukraine had no ability to do so. And that upends truth because all the evidence is that Russia not only interfered on behalf of Donald Trump - they also had the ability to do so.

MARTIN: So, professor, I'm going to give you the final word here. What are you hoping that Americans will think about as they consider the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine going forward? What elements do you think should be under consideration as Americans consider this?

SURZHKO-HARNED: So, moving forward, you know, the diplomatic relations between Ukraine and United States right now, to paraphrase one of the top diplomats of Ukraine, are in a vacuum. After the resignation of Kurt Volker, there hasn't been a new special envoy to Ukraine. There is a new acting ambassador, Bill Taylor. But nonetheless, there is sort of the shaking of the more established, traditional, deep relationship at the diplomatic level.

And what is more, there is no Ukrainian ambassador in United States still. So there - danger of this is that Ukrainian story, Ukrainian voice is not present in the narrative that has been unfolding in United States, and the representation of Ukraine is definitely skewed.

So, moving forward, I think it's important for Americans to remember that Ukraine is an independent country. Ukraine does have a very important role to play in the security of Europe. And Ukraine has suffered greatly in the hands of its neighbor. So we need to remember that. And it would be big mistake to give up on Ukraine and let Putin deal with Ukraine, as it were.

MARTIN: That was Lena Surzhko-Harned. She's an assistant teaching professor of political science at Penn State. She studies Ukrainian politics. We also heard from Brian Bonner, chief editor of the Kyiv Post. He's based in Kyiv. It's an English-language news outlet there.

Thank you both so much for talking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

SURZHKO-HARNED: Thank you.

BONNER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YBN CORDAE'S "THANKSGIVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.