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Zelenskiy's Delicate Diplomatic Dance

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukraine's President Zelenskiy has performed a delicate dance with the Trump administration throughout the entire investigation of the affair that led to the president's impeachment in the House of Representatives. And this week, Ukraine announced it will investigate if Marie Yovanovitch was under surveillance in Kyiv when she was U.S. ambassador there.

We turn now to Matthew Kupfer, editor of the Kyiv Post. He joins us from there. Thanks very much for being with us.

MATTHEW KUPFER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's start with the investigation into the surveillance of the ambassador. For months and under great pressure, President Zelenskiy resisted an announcement about investigating the Bidens. What might be different now about this investigation?

KUPFER: Well, I think there's a couple things. We're not entirely sure whether this surveillance actually took place or whether it was some nonsense that was being texted to Lev Parnas, the Giuliani associate. So I think there's a big question. First of all, is there anything really there to investigate?

Why do I think they're opening this investigation? Well, first, let's say that opening an investigation can be a formality. In other words, many investigations are open, and they go nowhere. It also - if it deals with an ambassador being surveilled and there being someone inside the embassy who was giving information to a third party, that's a very worrying thing.

And also, let's remember that in the text messages between Lev Parnas and this man who claimed to be getting information about Ambassador Yovanovitch's whereabouts, there was a reference to working with the local security agencies to have her removed as an ambassador. So when you look at it that way, in some ways, they may be opening this because they need to demonstrate that they're serious about this and that they wouldn't be cooperating with someone like that against a sitting U.S. ambassador.

SIMON: Help us understand the finesse that has taken President Zelenskiy, who, after all, has never been in government before, to handle calls, pressure and, for that matter, the downing of the Ukrainian airliner recently.

KUPFER: Well, I think one of the big questions when Zelenskiy became president was how competent he would be as a leader. And we can see he's obviously very cautious, and he's made some good moves here.

In terms of handling impeachment, they were faced with a very difficult choice. They could either open this investigation into the Bidens and potential Ukraine interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and harm their relationship with the Democrats, or they could not and lose military aid and potentially harm their relationship with the Republicans. And, of course, Ukraine, as a subject in U.S. politics, has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. In other words, both parties supported Ukraine and its struggle against Russian aggression. So it was very clear they didn't stand to gain anything from this. And either way, they would lose something. And it looks like they made the right choice by delaying.

And then, eventually, the news of the aid freeze broke in the U.S., provoking a scandal. Before that, there was the whistleblower complaint. And, ultimately, the aid was unfrozen, and there was no longer any need for them to make an announcement of this investigation.

So there obviously is some political skill here that they knew that this was not good for Ukraine. Zelenskiy and his team knew that. But at the same time, they kind of got lucky by being cautious and then letting the situation play out in the U.S.

SIMON: Are the political instincts you note President Zelenskiy's or the people that he has around him?

KUPFER: I think it's a mix. It's clear he has some competent people around him. But I think it's also clear that he has some political instincts that are at least solid. If we look at the Iran crash, for example, they did some things wrong. I think Zelenskiy should've responded to the news coming out quicker. But at the same time, they were smart by not making any declarations the moment they realized the plane had been shot down by Iran because that allowed Iran, it looks like, to kind of come to the position where it would admit its guilt on its own.

Ukraine had experts on the ground, trying to work with the Iranian investigation of the crash. And rather than, say, trying to score some political points by announcing their first suspicions, they instead restrained themselves and worked to get the most they could out of that investigation. And I think that was a smart move.

SIMON: Matthew Kupfer, editor of the Kyiv Post, thanks so much for being with us.

KUPFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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