It was early September and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, faced an agonizing choice: whether to capitulate to U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands to publicly announce investigations against his political enemies or to refuse, and lose desperately needed military aid.
Only Mr. Trump could unlock the aid, he had been told by two U.S. senators, and time was running out. If the money, nearly US$400-million, were not unblocked by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, it could be lost in its entirety.
In a flurry of WhatsApp messages and meetings in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, over several days, senior aides debated the point. Avoiding partisan politics in the United States had always been the first rule of Ukrainian foreign policy, but the military aid was vital to the war against Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives since it began in 2014.
By then, however, Mr. Zelensky’s staffers were already conceding to what seemed to be the inevitable, and making plans for a public announcement about the investigations. It was a fateful decision for a fledgling president elected on an anti-corruption platform that included putting an end to politically motivated investigations.
Elements of this internal Ukrainian debate have appeared in the Ukrainian news media and seeped into congressional testimony in the United States, as part of an impeachment inquiry undertaken after accusations of Mr. Trump’s demands surfaced.
But interviews in Kyiv with government officials, lawmakers and others close to Mr. Zelensky’s government have revealed new details of how high-level Ukrainian officials ultimately decided to acquiesce to Mr. Trump’s request – and, by a stroke of luck, never had to follow through.
Aides were arguing in favour of “bowing to what was demanded,” said Petro Burkovskiy, a senior fellow at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation who has close ties to the Ukrainian government. They were willing to do so, he said, despite the risk of losing bipartisan support in the United States by appearing to assist Mr. Trump’s re-election bid. “The cost was high.”
As Mr. Trump’s principal envoy to Ukraine, Gordon Sondland, admitted Tuesday in congressional testimony, the Trump administration had withheld the military aid to pressure Mr. Zelensky to make a public statement on the two investigations: one into whether former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden had pressed for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a natural gas company where his son served on the board; the other into unproven accusations that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in the 2016 election to promote the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
In the July 25 phone call that provoked a whistleblower complaint and touched off the impeachment inquiry, Mr. Zelensky offered private assurances that his government would look into those matters.
But a public statement that raised doubts about Russian meddling and Mr. Biden, who the President regarded as the greatest threat to his re-election, would be far more useful politically to Mr. Trump. Not only would it smear Mr. Biden, it could also appear to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian electoral interference by pinning some blame on Ukraine.
A tug of war ensued between a senior aide to Mr. Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, and another of Mr. Trump’s envoys to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, over the wording of the proposed public statement. Mr. Volker went so far as to draft a statement for Mr. Zelensky that mentioned both investigations.
Mr. Yermak pushed back, suggesting language that mentioned investigations but in general terms, so as not to antagonize the Democrats. Late in the negotiations, the American diplomats consented to dropping mention of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Even as Mr. Yermak negotiated the wording in August, the stakes were clear. While rumours had been swirling for months about a possible hold on military aid, by early August high-level Ukrainian officials had confirmed the freeze.
The trade soon became explicit. They were approached in September by Mr. Sondland, a major donor to Mr. Trump’s inauguration who had been appointed ambassador to the European Union despite having no diplomatic experience. At that point, he explained in blunt terms to Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Yermak, there was little chance the aid would be forthcoming until they made the public statement on the investigations.
“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr. Sondland said in sworn testimony released Tuesday by the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry.
Mr. Trump wanted the Ukrainian President to speak on CNN, William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified.
Nearly all of Mr. Zelensky’s top advisers favoured his making the public statement, said one of the officials who participated in the debate. U.S. military aid, they agreed, as well as diplomatic backing for impending peace talks to end the war outweighed the risks of appearing to take sides in U.S. politics.
But there was a lone holdout – Alexander Danyliuk, director of the national security council. Mr. Danyliuk, who resigned in late September, told the Ukrainian news media that the Zelensky administration would now need to “correct the mistakes” in relations with the United States and “in particular their own.”
Finally bending to the White House request, Mr. Zelensky’s staff planned for him to make an announcement in an interview Sept. 13 with Fareed Zakaria, host of a weekly news show on CNN.
Though plans were in motion to give the White House the public statement it had sought, events in Washington saved the Ukrainian government from any final decision and eliminated the need to make the statement.
But word of the freeze in military aid had leaked out, and Congress was in an uproar. Two days before the scheduled interview, the Trump administration released the assistance, and Mr. Zelensky’s office quickly cancelled the interview.
Since then, Trump administration officials, including the White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, have tried to argue that the security assistance could not have been conditioned on the public statement because the aid was released without it.
That stand has crumbled as a succession of U.S. diplomats, capped by Mr. Sondland on Tuesday, have testified in the impeachment inquiry that the freeze on aid was part of a quid pro quo designed to coerce Mr. Zelensky into making the public statement.