Dec 13, 2019

Ukraine still seeking White House meeting for Zelensky

Trump and Zelensky at the UN in September. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters in Washington on Friday that Ukraine is still working to schedule a White House meeting for President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Why it matters: Kuleba emphasized that Ukraine needs strong support from the U.S. despite the current "turmoil" — a reference to impeachment proceedings. His status as the first member of Zelensky's government to visit Washington underlines the fact that Zelensky's own visit — which U.S. officials linked to Zelensky announcing investigations sought by President Trump — still has not happened.

  • Kuleba noted that Trump had invited Zelensky to Washington "in the immediate aftermath of the elections," and said "everything has to be worked out through diplomatic channels."

Background: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did have an Oval Office meeting with Trump this week, directly after negotiations in France on the war in Eastern Ukraine. Critics said it sent the wrong message about U.S. support for Ukraine.

  • The "Normandy Format" negotiations have provoked backlash against Zelensky from Ukrainians who believe he is about to negotiate away their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  • Kuleba said Zelensky was "ready to take risks to get Russia out of Donbas," but would not cross any of Ukraine's red lines. “In Russia it’s simple, if you want to solve something you have to talk to Putin," he said.
  • Kuleba, speaking at the German Marshall Fund think tank, thanked the U.S. for its "consistent" support of Ukraine up to now, but said "enough is never enough" and more is needed.

Between the lines: Zelensky lamented recently that Trump's repeated descriptions of Ukraine as corrupt are undercutting his efforts to project a new image of his country and gain support and investment.

Zoom in: Kuleba's agenda in Washington includes meetings on Capitol Hill and with members of the National Security Council and State Department.

  • He said none of the administration officials he met with asked about Rudy Giuliani, Joe Biden or impeachment. "As you can imagine, nor did I mention it," he added.
  • Kuleba joked that since the officials he'd met had been quite positive toward Ukraine, "maybe I was meeting with the wrong people."

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Ukraine aid frozen soon after Trump's call with Zelensky, emails show

Ukrainian President Zelensky and President Trump during a September meeting in New York. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Office of Management and Budget is pushing back on suggestions that an email requesting the Pentagon withhold military aid to Ukraine 91 minutes after President Trump's phone call with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky was anything other than procedural.

Why it matters: Allegations that Trump froze nearly $400 million of congressionally approved military aid in order to pressure Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 rival are central to the impeachment case against the president. But an OMB spokeswoman said, "It’s reckless to tie the hold of funds to the phone call. As has been established and publicly reported, the hold was announced in an interagency meeting on July 18." 

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In six months, a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president escalated into a full-blown crisis that is culminating in Trump's impeachment.

What's next: Assuming the House approves articles of impeachment later tonight, Trump will face a trial in the Senate next month — which is likely to end in his acquittal, since Senate Republicans have already been openly dismissive about the merits of the case against him.

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Ukraine, Russian-backed rebels swap prisoners in step toward ending war

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The Ukrainian government and pro-Russia separatists exchanged dozens of prisoners on Sunday, a small step toward ending a six-year conflict in the eastern Donbass region that has claimed the lives of at least 13,000 soldiers and civilians, the AP reports.

The big picture: The exchange comes weeks after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held preliminary peace talks in Paris with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of France and Germany. Ukraine's government released around 87 separatist detainees at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine in exchange for an estimated 55 prisoners from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

Go deeper: Ukraine's Zelensky says Trump should not have blocked aid: "We're at war"

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