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 for Zelensky, dragged into an international scandal just a few months after his election to the first political office he’s ever held.

It was hard not to feel sorry for Zelensky, dragged into an international scandal just a few months after his election to the first political office he’s ever held.

“I gave you antitank busters,” Trump told Zelensky. “Frankly, President Obama was sending you pillows and sheets.”

This was a gross misrepresentation, but the fact remains that only under Trump did the United States begin providing “lethal aid” to Ukraine. Despite pressure from John McCain and other hawks, and despite the Ukraine Freedom Support Act passed in 2014, President Obama decided not to authorize any government arms sales to Ukraine. Wary of unnecessarily antagonizing Russia, Obama decided instead to offer Ukraine more than $600 million in nonlethal aid such as vehicles, radars, and night vision goggles. His administration also allowed some direct commercial sales of lethal arms. Predictably, Obama was accused of being soft on Russia, of abandoning helpless Ukraine to Putin, and of falling short in his commitment to global freedom.

The Trump campaign excluded lethal aid to Ukraine from the 2016 GOP platform, to the indignation of McCain and many other Republicans. (A minor scandal ensued over the campaign’s denial of their role in the change to the platform.) Some saw the omission as possible evidence of Trump’s complicity with Putin, but Trump soon changed his antiwar tune. In 2018, the United States authorized the sale to Ukraine of $47 million in Javelin antitank missiles and launchers, which are manufactured by the American firm Raytheon in partnership with Lockheed Martin. At a cost of $80,000 a piece, the Javelin is a highly effective antitank weapon: designed to plunge down on its target from above, it can destroy virtually any tank from a range of up to three miles.

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president at the time, was jubilant, and included Javelins in the lavish military parade that marked Ukraine’s Independence Day that August. Representatives of the U.S. military, including NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Tod Wolters, cheered the decision. The Atlantic reported that Poroshenko, who understood Trump’s transactional mentality, had gone to great lengths to coax the American president into authorizing the sale. Prior to Trump’s change of heart, Poroshenko arranged to buy 700,000 tons of U.S. coal (the Ukrainian coal supply had been disrupted by the war in the mining areas of the east) and U.S. fuel for Ukraine’s nuclear plants, and Ukrainian Railways signed a $1 billion agreement for locomotives from G.E. As the Javelin deal was finalized, Ukraine’s then prosecutor general froze inquiries connected to the Mueller investigation.

Obama compromised by sending only nonlethal aid to Ukraine; the Trump administration’s authorization of the Javelin sale was another kind of compromise. The American weapons would be sold (paid for with U.S. aid), the United States would perform the role of Ukraine’s powerful supporter, Poroshenko would score points with Ukrainian voters, and Trump would get his deals—but the Javelins wouldn’t actually appear on the battlefield. The terms of the sale stipulated that the missiles had to be kept in western Ukraine, hundreds of miles from the line of contact. This precaution was reportedly meant to prevent the weapons from falling into the hands of the separatists and the Russians. It would ensure that Ukraine did not use the Javelins offensively and that they wouldn’t be captured if the separatists advanced. American soldiers were to check and count regularly, to make sure none of the missiles were missing. These cautionary measures were inspired in part by the separatist capture, in 2014, of parts of a short-range radar system that the United States had delivered to Ukraine.

A shipment of expensive high-tech weapons not intended for use was an odd way of advancing a diplomatic solution.

Some critics pointed out that storing the Javelins so far from the frontline sharply diminished their effectiveness—others, that counter-battery radars would be cheaper and more effective than the Javelins, which are not suitable for the kind of urban warfare that has characterized much of the eastern Ukrainian conflict. U.S. and Ukrainian officials stated explicitly that the purpose of the sale was to give Ukraine more leverage in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict. A shipment of expensive high-tech weapons not intended for use was an odd way of advancing a diplomatic solution.

All went according to plan: Foreign Policy reported that as of early October 2019, the missiles were not being used. And yet in the July 25 phone call, Zelensky told Trump that he wanted more. “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps,” Zelensky said. “Specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” He also mentioned, ingratiatingly, that Ukraine had already begun to buy American oil, and that he had stayed at Trump Tower during a visit to New York.

Buying American coal, locomotives, and oil and staying in Trump’s hotels are recognized ways of currying favor with the American president. Does purchasing arms from American weapons manufacturers—with their outsize influence in Washington and their lavish donations to politicians and think tanks, and with the presence in government of industry insiders, such as former Raytheon executive and current Defense Secretary Mark Esper—serve a similar purpose? In October, the U.S. State Department issued preliminary approval for a $39 million sale of another 150 Javelins to Ukraine, even though Trump had never gotten the Biden investigation he’d requested.

Trump’s reported “loathing” for Ukraine, which appears to have its roots in conspiracy theories about the 2016 election, has not reversed the course of U.S. policy toward the country. Despite Trump’s efforts to use Ukraine for his personal political gain, on the whole both Democrats and Republicans treat Ukraine as a natural U.S. ally whose role is to serve as a buffer between Russia and the more established democracies farther west—a natural recipient of military aid (more than $1.5 billion since 2014), and a legitimate recipient of U.S. arms intended to help repel Russian aggression. But this emphasis on Ukraine’s U.S.-backed existential struggle against Russia fits awkwardly into the pro-peace position that was the centerpiece of Zelensky’s election campaign.

In Ukraine, the American impeachment scandal has been overshadowed by Zelensky’s laudable efforts to move forward with a peace settlement for the eastern regions. So far, the search for a resolution has met with failure. In September 2014, Ukraine, Russia, and Ukrainian separatists signed the Minsk Protocol, after talks facilitated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The 12-step plan required an immediate cease-fire followed by self-governance for the regions that had been taken by separatists, with early elections. But neither side maintained the cease-fire, and there were major battles in subsequent months. In February 2015, Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany met again and agreed on Minsk II, which was very similar to the first agreement and equally unsuccessful. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s foreign minister, proposed a much simpler version of the Minsk agreements in 2016. According to the “Steinmeier formula,” once a cease-fire has been established, Ukraine and the OSCE will arrange and oversee free and fair elections in separatist-held territories, after which point the territories can attain self-governing status within Ukraine.

What Zelensky needs is not symbolic lethal aid, but thoughtful support for his dogged efforts to reach a peace agreement.

On October 1, Zelensky announced that he had signed on to the Steinmeier formula, explaining that Ukraine would hold elections in the east only after Russian forces had withdrawn and Ukraine had established control over its borders. There is precedent for special regional status within Ukraine. From 1992 until its illegal annexation by Russia in 2014, Crimea was an “autonomous republic,” a distinction established in recognition of Crimea’s ambiguous relation to Ukraine. (In 1954, Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a gift honoring Russian-Ukrainian friendship.) Crimeans were Ukrainian citizens, and Crimea was a part of Ukraine, but the peninsula had a measure of independence. If Russia truly withdrew from eastern Ukraine, and if genuinely free elections could be held there, with the participation of the many eastern Ukrainians who have fled from the conflict, autonomous eastern regions could conceivably be reintegrated into a peaceful, democratic Ukraine. There is much reason to doubt that all of these conditions will be met, but the alternatives are much worse: an endless war of attrition, or a frozen conflict in the manner of neighboring Moldova’s breakaway region Transnistria.

Though the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want an end to the war, Zelensky’s decision soon ignited protests from veterans, the ultranationalist far right, and supporters of ex-President Poroshenko, whose unsuccessful reelection campaign centered on nationalist and militarist themes. This coalition organized sizable rallies under the slogan “No Capitulation,” arguing that the Steinmeier formula would amount to losing the war and giving in to Russia. In response, on October 3, Zelensky released a video reassuring the public that there would be no immediate elections “at gunpoint” in the eastern regions, and that he had no plans to betray his country to Russia.

“Ahead of us, we have a long and winding road to the resolution of this problem, and we have to walk it together,” he concluded, stressing that the process of implementing the Steinmeier formula would be open and democratic. The withdrawal of troops has begun, though there have been repeated postponements due to difficulty sustaining cease-fires on the line of contact.

Ukraine’s war effort still enjoys bipartisan American support, which translates into military aid and arms sales. Yet a closer look at Ukraine suggests that what Zelensky needs is not symbolic lethal aid (let alone presidential offers he can’t refuse), but thoughtful support for his dogged efforts to reach a peace agreement. The hubbub of the U.S. impeachment process, the fervent anti-Russian rhetoric now prevalent in U.S. politics, and the continued U.S. emphasis on military aid to Ukraine will likely make Zelensky’s task even more difficult.

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  • SOPHIE PINKHAM is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. She recently received a Ph.D. in Slavic Studies from Columbia University.
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