New York Times: Ukraine seeks new ways to get closer to Trump administration

The Ukrainian President still needs American support, so he offers a new ambassador and reflects on hiring lobbyists to build a better relationship.

Seeking to restore the encumbered relations of their country with Washington, the allies of President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky met with lobbyists who have close ties in the Donald Trump administration. So the Ukrainian side wants to find a way to create new channels of communication. After more than two months of troubling anticipation, Zelensky finally seems to have received White House support in appointing a new candidate for the post of Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, writes the New York Times. In addition, the Ukrainian president, who still needs American help, gave a clear signal that neither he nor his officials would help the process of impeachment against Trump. Kiev, in particular, is silent about the fact that he knew about the decision of the American president to freeze aid for the Ukrainian army by almost 400 million dollars a week before it became publicly known.

Almost every leader in the world is looking for a way to do business with Trump. But hardly any of them have to deal with more pressure and difficulties than Zelensky. Knowing more now about Washington and its realities, the Ukrainian president, along with his team, are carefully trying to restore their status as an important ally with a substantial agenda that deserves the attention and support of Washington. There’s an insurmountable amount of work to do. Zelensky’s team was discouraged by Trump’s lack of support for Ukraine before negotiations with Russia last week. In addition, the promised meeting at the White House of the Presidents of Ukraine and the USA did not take place. Although the American administration quietly makes it clear that this can happen in the second half of January.

Zelensky’s team also did not like Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last Tuesday. And when the personal lawyer of the American president, Rudolf Giuliani, unexpectedly visited Kiev recently, looking for dirt on the political opponents of his client, not a single Ukrainian official met him. When asked what the Zelensky administration wants from Washington, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Dmitry Kuleba answered at the German Marshall Fund:

“All that we ask our colleagues in the USA for is a proper attitude. We don’t want to be ashamed and blamed”.

Continued Ukrainian attempts to overcome Trump’s negative attitude towards Ukraine indicate that the Zelensky administration is preparing for the failure of the impeachment procedure in the Senate. They are almost certain that they need to work with the current White House for at least a year, and maybe the next five years, depending on the election results. Zelensky’s desire to find a common language with the Trump administration is unlikely to go unnoticed in Kiev. Even if the visit to the White House takes place, there is a risk that it will be considered not so much a victory for the Ukrainian president as a bow to Trump, who can once again emphasize that he did not connect such a meeting or American military assistance for Ukraine with personal political benefits.

“In Kiev, we have to rely on the current government in Washington”, – said Nikolai Kapitonenko, professor at the Institute of International Relations.

But he added that rapprochement with the republican administration also contains its risks. However, the Ukrainian president “understands that it is dangerous to take sides”. Over the past few weeks, it has been clearly visible how important American support is for Kiev and that he wants to get more from Trump. The American diplomat went to Kiev to express support for the Ukrainian side before Zelensky first met face to face with Vladimir Putin in Paris. But Trump administration officials, in private conversations, told their Ukrainian counterparts that the US president himself would announce Ukraine’s support either via Twitter or by officially inviting Zelensky to visit the White House next month. But even though Trump posted over 100 Twitter posts on Sunday, none of them related to Ukraine or expressed support for it in the negotiations.

Trump administration also resisted imposition of sanctions against the Russian Nord Stream-2 gas pipe, which will transport gas bypassing Ukraine. The White House was trying to undermine Congress efforts to block the construction of the Russian gas transportation system, which added sanctions items to the military budget of $ 738 billion, supported by the House of Representatives on Wednesday. And the military assistance that Trump blocked was still not fully transferred to Ukraine. All these problems can explain why the Ukrainian side is considering using lobbying services in Washington, despite the potential political and financial cost. During his election campaign, Zelensky announced that he did not need lobbyists like the government of his predecessor.

“I have never met a single lobbyist. I do not need it. I didn’t pay a dime and I won’t”, – Zelensky said.

However, a few weeks before his election in June, his advisers quietly worked with the Washington-based Signal Group to arrange a meeting in Washington with the Trump administration, as well as with Congressional agencies that deal with the US-Ukrainian relations. Zelensky distanced himself from this, although Signal Group registered as a foreign agent, reporting that it received $ 70,000 from Zelensky’s party through a lawyer named Marcus Cohen. The latter claimed that this money was his own, and not from the Ukrainian party. The National Security Division of the Department of Justice requested Cohen to clarify all arrangements, and then encouraged him to register as a foreign agent. 

“Zelensky could decide that at least until confidence was restored, it would be better to imagine yourself so that no one else would interpret his words”, – said Heather Conley, who was the deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia. Now she leads the European program of the Center for Strategic and International Relations.

Representatives of this organization also met with Zelensky’s advisers in April with the assistance of Signal Group and Cohen. The publication writes that not everyone in the team of the Ukrainian president likes the idea of ​​hiring lobbyists in Washington. There is fear that working with a firm that has close ties to Trump could undermine Democratic support. However, collaboration with two lobbying companies affiliated with Paul Manafort, who was the head of Trump’s election headquarters, is currently under consideration. This publication was reported by three sources. One of them is Mercury Public Affairs. A company representative who had previously worked with Manafort in his Ukrainian business met last month in Kiev with one of Zelensky’s assistants. The name of the lobbyist is Bayan Lanza. He has connections with the White House. His meeting with Ukrainian officials was organized by a lawyer named Andrew Mack, who himself registered with the Department of Justice as Zelensky’s lobbyist, who is not paid. Mack, who actually lives between Washington and Kiev, was appointed Zelensky last month as an adviser responsible for developing support for the Ukrainian diaspora.

Another lobbying firm called Prime Policy Group is also associated with Manafort. Although this connection is more outdated. The company was founded by Charlie Black, who was a business partner of Manafort in the 80-90s. His company represents the interests of other Ukrainian clients, in particular Sergey Tigipko, a billionaire who was an official in the government of Viktor Yanukovych. Black commented on the publication that he did not discuss cooperation with the Zelensky team, but would not be against it. This month, Mack met with former House of Representatives, a Democrat who had fled to the Republican camp, Bill Tauzin. He is also a lobbyist now. Sources told the publication that his candidacy for work in the interests of Ukraine has not yet been considered. However, he has communications that may be helpful. His congressional office once included Dan Browlitt, who now became US Secretary of Energy. And Kiev may need his help in energy supplies.