In Ukraine, leaders struggle to keep their heads down amid U.S. impeachment circus

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By Josh Lederman and Anna Schecter  with NBC News Politics
Image: Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a joint drill of departments of Interior Ministry at the International training Centre near the village of Stare in Kiev region, Ukraine on Sept. 30, 2019.   -   Copyright  Gleb Garanich Reuters

KYIV, Ukraine — With Washington consumed by a frenzied political circus fueled by impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, the Ukrainian government thrust into the middle of the scandal has a single, plaintive request: Please leave us out of it.

In the Ukrainian capital, the impeachment saga has emerged as a sword of Damocles for new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with each new wrinkle and disclosure before Congress threatening to pull his government further into the morass. For Ukrainian leaders, there is no upside but plenty of downside to becoming the latest cudgel in Washington's deeply polarized political battleground.

So even though the mayhem has become impossible to avoid, Ukrainians have settled on a simple message — "this isn't really about us" — while attempting to keep the focus at home concentrated on more immediate and local problems, like ongoing negotiations to end the war with Russia in the country's restive east.

As a horde of reporters stormed an economic conference this week in Mariupol, not far from the front lines with Russia, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko acknowledged it's been an "engaging" few months for Ukraine, faced with unprecedented levels of interest by the American media.

But asked by NBC News about the effect of the swirling scandals on his government's agenda, Prystaiko demurred.

"Scandals? Can you keep it somewhere back home?" Prystaiko said. "Thank you."

It was a similar rejoinder from Zelenskiy, the young Ukrainian president who was pressured by Trump's envoys Rudy Giuliani and Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland even before being inaugurated in May, as NBC News has reported. Asked about the situation in Washington, Zelenskiy rolled his eyes and said he could provide "many comments" — but only about the U.S. and its people in general.

"They're a great country, great people, but I don't know what's going on in the U.S.A.," Zelenskiy said. "I'm so sorry. I'm the president of Ukraine, so I know what's going on in our country."

Some 84 hours of testimony and counting before the U.S. Congress have illustrated a campaign directed by Trump to pressure Zelenskiy to commit to investigations into Trump's political rivals — and using U.S. military assistance and a coveted White House visit for Zelenskiy as leverage. House Democrats are moving toward impeachment articles centered on the notion that a quid pro quo set up by Trump constituted an egregious abuse of power.

"The U.S. scandal is like a minefield for Ukraine," said Volodymyr Fesenko, who runs the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies, speaking through a translator. "Some in Ukraine are afraid that Ukraine will become a toxic country for American politicians."

While the current impeachment activity is centered in Washington, many of the underlying events took place in Ukraine, where Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani wanted prosecutors and politicians to assist his efforts to investigate the 2016 election and the Biden family. Former Vice President Joe Biden is a leading candidate running to defeat Trump in 2020. Trump and Giuliani have lobbed unfounded corruption allegations at his son, Hunter Biden, who joined the board of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma while his father was still vice president.

Current and former U.S. officials have testified that in talks within the administration and with the Ukrainians, "Burisma" became synonymous with Giuliani's push to investigate the Bidens. The revelations have thrust the obscure Ukrainian energy company into an international spotlight.

Yet there were no outward signs of that spectacle during a visit by NBC News this week to Burisma's offices in Kyiv, in a non-descript office building with no signage in a blue-collar section of the Ukrainian capital. The five-story building adorned in gold and blue is situated next to a decrepit apartment building of fading green on a quiet street in which a few people pushed strollers or smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk on a chilly, fall day.

The exterior of the Ukraine offices of Burisma, the natural gas company whose board of directors Hunter Biden joined, is seen on Oct. 29, 2019.
The exterior of the Ukraine offices of Burisma, the natural gas company whose board of directors Hunter Biden joined, is seen on Oct. 29, 2019.Josh Lederman

Nobody from Burisma would agree to speak with NBC News, and official requests for an interview through the company's media office were not returned. Individuals streaming out of the building on their lunch break said they didn't know Hunter Biden.

In Kyiv, the impeachment saga has also created a vacuum in diplomatic engagement with the U.S., Ukraine's most important foreign partner. The top diplomats who would normally engage with Ukraine are all heavily embroiled in the controversy, making their status as effective interlocutors for the U.S. government deeply uncertain.

The former U.S. envoy for Ukraine talks, Kurt Volker, resigned last month as his role in Trump's campaign was coming to light. Two of Volker's former top aides, diplomats Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, are the latest to be deposed on Wednesday, offering details about Giuliani's campaign and Trump's directive that military aid to Ukraine be frozen.

And the current top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, gave damning testimony that Trump directed officials to link aid to Ukraine with demands that it investigate the Biden family and the 2016 election, undercutting Trump's denials and leading both the president and the White House to attack him.

In an interview, former Ambassador Dan Fried, who was the top U.S. diplomat for Europe in the Obama administration, said that during his visit to Kyiv this month, he met with Ukrainian officials who were aware of the gravity of the U.S. situation — and worried about it. He said with no reliable U.S. diplomatic partners to engage with on issues like red lines in the negotiations with Russia, they sought out his advice instead.

"We sound like their worst politicians — the ones they're trying to get rid of. I had Ukrainians say, 'You are the country we look up to. What is happening to you?'" Fried said. "We can get out of this, but for the moment we're frozen."

As Zelenskiy struggles to salvage a functional relationship with the U.S. government — an indispensable bulwark for Ukraine against Russian aggression — he's insisted he didn't feel untoward pressure from Trump in their July 25 phone call or otherwise, even as a U.S. senator who visited Zelenskiy last month, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, says that's obviously not the case.

Zelenskiy has also complained that when the White House released a memo reconstructing the phone call, he didn't realize that his side of the conversation would be made public, too.

As he sipped a grapefruit juice at a café in Kyiv's Independence Square, where the Maidan protests in 2014 brought about revolution, Fesenko, the Ukrainian political analyst, said that Zelenskiy had a delicate balancing act in attempting to stay neutral in domestic U.S. politics. He said most of Ukraine's political establishment — including former President Petro Poroshenko — had learned a hard lesson after showing preference for Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election.

"Zelenskiy doesn't want to make the same mistake," Fesenko said.