In a 2015 episode of the Ukrainian television program Servant of the People, president-elect Vasyl Holoborodko practices for his inaugural meeting with Angela Merkel. Holoborodko is played by the comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky, who won Ukraine’s real-life presidential election in a landslide last May.
“Shake her hand gently,” Holoborodko’s adviser chides him. “She should dominate. The handshake decides how much aid Germany’s central bank will give us.” Ukraine’s dependence on German and EU goodwill is a given, as is the Ukrainian president’s duty to submit. Such is the lot of one of Europe’s poorest countries.
The real-life Zelensky’s deferential posture now features in an international scandal. In August, a whistleblower reported that President Trump threatened to withhold nearly $400 million in promised military aid until the Ukrainian president delivered dirt on Joe Biden’s supposed corrupt activities in Ukraine. Trump responded by releasing a rough, partial transcript of his call with Zelensky, who was recorded making laughably servile remarks such as, “You are absolutely right. Not only 100 percent, but actually 1000 percent.” He agreed with Trump’s assertion that Merkel had failed to help Ukraine; in fact, Ukraine has received an estimated $16.4 billion in grants and loans from the EU and from European financial institutions over the last five years, and Germany and France are still striving to help bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern regions, which were seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
At a press conference with Trump on September 25, Zelensky did his best to be charming and funny, joking about when Trump would pay him a visit. But the youthful Ukrainian president had dark circles under his eyes, and his smile soon gave way to a look of exasperation and anxiety. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved in democratic, open elections of U.S.A.,” he insisted, when asked about whether Trump had pressured him to investigate the Bidens. It was hard not to feel sorry
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