Jan 31, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Ukraine's Zelensky calls riots "strong blow" to U.S. democracy

KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tells "Axios on HBO" that he was "shocked" by the pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol, saying he never imagined this could happen in America and that it harms U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad.

Why it matters: Zelensky's comments show how the Jan. 6 riots have echoed beyond America's borders, unsettling allies and emerging democracies that look to the U.S. for security and inspiration.

  • In the interview, Zelensky also talks more openly than ever about his 2019 call with then-President Trump, which helped pave the way for Trump's first impeachment.
  • Zelensky is hoping to reset the U.S.-Ukraine relationship under the new administration and with President Biden — whom he has yet to meet.

The big picture: The spectacle of the siege on the Capitol left a deep impression on Zelensky and has caused him to rethink his assumptions about America. "I believe this was a strong blow to democracy of the United States," he said, speaking through an interpreter in an interview at his presidential office.

  • "We are used to believing that the United States has the ideal democratic institutions, where power is transferred calmly. ... In Ukraine, we lived through two revolutions ... we understood such things can happen in the world.
  • "But that it could happen in the United States? No one expected that ... I was very worried … I did not want you to have a coup.
  • "After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy."

Between the lines: Zelensky finds himself in a difficult situation — caught between a hostile invader in Russia and allies in Europe and the U.S., which talks a good game when it comes to defending Ukraine but is often absent when it really counts.

  • The emptiness of American rhetoric was starkly revealed in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing Crimea and the eastern territories.
  • Then-President Obama spoke out forcefully against the invasion, as did his point person on Ukraine — then-Vice President Biden. But the Obama administration wouldn't send weapons to the Ukrainians to defend themselves against their invaders.

The backstory: In the years since, Zelensky has had to deal with other American betrayals. As a newly elected president in 2019, he hoped to have a productive relationship with Trump. But in their infamous early phone call, Trump wasn't interested in helping Ukraine.

  • Trump was fixated on bullying Zelensky into announcing an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of his political rival. Trump briefly held up hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Zelensky into announcing these investigations.
  • Trump ended up releasing the aid after members of Congress sounded alarms about his scheme, but after that, he never bothered himself with Ukraine again and gave Zelensky the cold shoulder.
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