The whistleblower complaint over a phone call between President Donald Trump and the president of Ukraine has all but upended U.S. politics. But how does Ukraine feel about all this? Today, I’ll speak with our foreign correspondent Nolan Peterson, who is based in Ukraine. I’ll ask him what regular Ukrainians think about this controversy and what Ukraine as a whole has to lose.
Plus: Transgender athletes are wreaking havoc on women’s rugby, and no one’s allowed to speak up. We’ll discuss.
We also cover the following stories:
- President Donald Trump suggests arresting Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., for “treason.”
- Hong Kong protesters taunt Beijing ahead of China’s national holiday.
- Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., resigns amid insider trader scandal.
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Daniel Davis: Joining us now by phone is Nolan Peterson. He is our foreign correspondent stationed in Ukraine, where he provides in-depth coverage on geopolitical affairs in that country, all available at dailysignal.com.
Nolan, thanks for calling in.
Nolan Peterson: Thanks for having me on.
Davis: Ukraine has been plastered all over the news here in the United States for the last couple of weeks. Last week, of course, we saw the whistleblower complaint, which alleges that the president tried to use military aid money to essentially twist Ukraine’s arm and get them to investigate Joe Biden’s son.
We’ve also seen the transcript of the phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It’s not clear from that call that there was an explicit quid pro quo, and the Ukrainian president denies that there was any pressure put on him by Trump. Of course, this is a raging partisan controversy here in the United States over the president’s use of power.
But, Nolan, I want to ask you about things in Ukraine. How are the people that you’ve talked to responding to this story?
Peterson: I think the view from the Ukrainian government is that they’re worried that what has typically been an issue of bipartisan consensus in the United States, which is the need to support Ukraine in it’s ongoing struggle to resist Russian aggression, that bipartisan issue is suddenly at risk of becoming sort of a partisan dividing line in Washington now.
So I think that within Kyiv’s government halls, they’re really nervous about making a decision which could irritate either the Republicans or the Democrats, not knowing, obviously, at some point in the future there will be another Democrat president. Whether that’s in four years, eight years, 12 years, who knows? But the fact is Ukraine wants to bank on having U.S. support in the long run.
They’re nervous that what they do now could have long-term repercussions, potentially painting Ukraine in sort of a negative light for one of America’s political parties.
Davis: Yeah. President Zelenskyy has been very quiet after this. Is he taking any domestic flack from people, or is this something that they’re blaming on Democrats or the media here in the United States?
Peterson: Zelenskyy is the most historically popular president that Ukraine has ever had. So far, right for the moment, it looks like his popularity is undamaged by this issue.
Ukraine, in the last generation, they’ve been through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the chaos of the 1990s, the revolutions in the 2000s, and the war with Russia. So they’re used to chaos, especially political chaos.
Also, the country has been fighting against corruption for decades. So I think here the notion of the sort of allegations being tossed about and this political scandal is not necessarily anything unknown to Ukrainians.
I think most people on the street, I would argue, would probably just sort of shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s politics.”
But I think when it comes to people in government and people in the military, there is a very strong sense of concern that this could potentially drive a wedge between Ukraine and the United States.
As for Zelenskyy, for now, it looks like he’s coming out of this relatively undamaged. But then again, we haven’t seen any real fallout as far as any reduction in U.S. aid or any reduction in sort of U.S. support for Ukraine. If that were to happen, I think that Zelenskyy would probably see some sort of dip in his popularity.
Davis: In your recent reporting at The Daily Signal, you’ve noted that Zelenskyy has been in talks with Russia for a peace deal after several years of war in eastern Ukraine.
Could this new episode throw a wrench into things? Is there a concern that that peace deal can now be thrown into doubt?
Peterson: That was the first question that came to my mind when this happened, when the Trump-Biden controversy first came to the fore, was does this scandal, if you want to call it that, does that reduce Ukraine’s negotiating leverage with Russia?
Just for some context, there’s a four-way negotiating framework called the Normandy format that comprises Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. That’s sort of been to go-to a negotiating avenue or architecture to try and resolve the war in Ukraine since 2014.
So when Zelenskyy came into office, he came into office on a perceived mandate that he was going to end the war. Among Ukrainians, polling shows that the war is their top concern right now.
So most of Ukrainians want to see an end of the war, and Zelenskyy has really sort of added energy into rejuvenating that Normandy format process to find his political solution to the war.
Right now, it looks like sometime in mid-October in Paris, those four countries are going to meet to try and negotiate some sort of way forward to reach a peace deal. Of course, this whole political controversy involving the Trump-Zelenskyy phone call, it’s going to change the dynamic.
I think that among the Ukrainian politicians, experts, and military members with whom I’ve spoken, their biggest concern wasn’t necessarily that Russia will see this as a sign of weakness on Ukraine’s part. But if there is any sign that Ukraine is losing the backing of the United States, that could embolden Russia to try to negotiate harder terms.
Right now, like I said, it doesn’t look like the Ukraine-U.S. relationship has frayed necessarily over this. There hasn’t been any tangible reduction in U.S. support or pledged support for Ukraine. But I think the risk for Ukraine is if it seems like it’s lost the backing of the United States, that could sort of provoke Russia to seek harsher terms in the negotiated peace settlement.
Davis: Of course, an interesting piece of this is that the president did put a temporary hold on military aid money to Ukraine during the period where he made that phone call and then released those funds weeks later.
The president gave a couple of reasons for that. He said one of those reasons was that European nations haven’t done much of anything to pitch in and help Ukraine counter Russian aggression. Is that accurate?
Peterson: Yeah. Well, I think definitely when it comes to military aid, the U.S. is way out in front of Europe. The EU has given Ukraine billions of euros worth of loans. In fact, the EU has given more loans to Ukraine than any other nation ever outside of the bloc, the EU.
So the EU has done things to help Ukraine’s economy rebound from the revolution. But when it comes to military aid, the U.S. stands alone. But you know, U.S. aid to Ukraine is really a pittance compared to say U.S. aid to Israel. So I think Ukraine is grasping at straws a little bit as far as getting military aid from any country.
That being said, Ukraine is the world’s 12th-largest weapons exporter. So Ukraine doesn’t necessarily need, as far as quantitatively, American weapons to fight this war.
I think one comment I’ve seen from particularly a lot of Democratic lawmakers is that there would be Russian tanks rolling through Kyiv if it weren’t for U.S. military aid, making it seem like somehow Ukraine was teetering on disaster without that U.S. support. That’s certainly not accurate.
Ukraine fought back the Russian invasion in 2014 successfully because of the bravery of its soldiers who fought with limited means and limited technology very briefly to propel that invasion.
U.S. military aid certainly gives Ukraine a technological edge on the battlefield. Most importantly, it sends a really strong message to Ukraine’s soldiers and civilians that they have the backing of the world’s most powerful military, that of the United States.
But the notion that Ukraine is some somehow incapable of defending itself without U.S. military aid is not accurate.
But I think yes, Trump cited corruption as a reason for withholding the aid. There are concerns, of course, about where some of these U.S. materials may go, but Ukraine has so far, I think, demonstrated it’s been a responsible recipient of U.S. military aid, particularly with the lethal weapons, including the Javelins.
Davis: Can you talk a little more about corruption? Is this just a massive problem in Ukraine in the government that’s been there for a long time? Are there signs that Zelenskyy is cracking down on it? Because in his phone call with the president, in the transcript, it said that he talked about draining the swamp in Kyiv. Is that happening?
Peterson: Yeah, I think one problem for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government has been the fact that there are remnants of the old regime of former President Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former Ukrainian president who was ousted during the 2014 revolution, his old political allies, many of whom remained in government after the revolution.
So Yanukovych left, the head of the snake was cut off, but the body in many ways still remained. So since 2014, it’s been an uphill struggle for Ukraine to root out that sort of endemic corruption.
The country has made measurable progress. I think that there’s a long road ahead, but I’ve lived in Ukraine for more than five years and I can tell you it’s a totally different country than it was in 2014. So there has been a lot of positive progress made on fighting corruption.
I think, if anything, Ukraine should be rewarded for what it’s done. Obviously, the United States and the EU would do well to sort of keep holding Ukraine accountable to that positive progression.
But I think Ukraine, at this point, is a success story. And that sends, in my opinion, a strong message to the Russian people that if you choose a pro-democratic, pro-Western future, you can get good things, too.
Ukrainians now can travel throughout the European Union without a visa. Russians can’t. Ukraine’s economy is slowly rebounding from the revolution, and basic democratic values and freedoms are on the rise in the country.
So I think that the mood in Ukraine is one of advancement toward a more democratic future. In contrast with that of Russia, which the recent protests this week show that, I think, the Russian people are generally discontent with their political lot.
In Ukraine, corruption is still an issue, but without a doubt, the dynamic is moving in a positive direction. So I think it would be a shame to sweep the rug out from beneath [their] feet at this moment, right when they’re at the cusp of striking a peace deal with Russia, right as they’re starting to get the ball rolling with fighting corruption. Now is the time where, I think, America’s consistent and durable support is more important than ever.
Davis: And of course, Zelenskyy kind of represents the wave of the future, being a young, charismatic leader in juxtaposition to the old Vladimir Putin, who is more evocative of the KGB.
Talk a little bit about how Zelenskyy rose to power in Ukraine and the establishment that came before him. What led to his rise?
Peterson: Just from my personal opinion and observation, I think that many Ukrainians were a bit jaded by the slow progress of reforms after the revolution.
There has been a lot of progress made, and Ukraine has made some real leaps and bounds. They have religious freedom, for example, from the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time centuries, which is a huge step. I mentioned the fact that Ukrainians can travel without a visa throughout the EU now.
Ukraine has done a lot to decentralize power from the central government and giving local towns and other cities control over their own budgets in a way that they’ve never had in either the post-Soviet or Soviet era. So you’re starting to see infrastructure improvements in cities that you’ve never seen in living memory.
So I think that there was measurable progress, but I think people wanted things faster, they wanted the things now, particularly the younger generations who are constantly exposed to Western lifestyles, Western expectations of economic opportunity than the older generation. …
I don’t have any data off-hand to justify this, but just from sort of the street-level perception of living Ukraine, it seems like many young people were excited by Zelenskyy because he offered that fresh face. He’s a young president, and he is going to kind of give new life to that dream of the revolution, which was a pro-Western future, that I think maybe some of the young people felt like former President Petro Poroshenko didn’t deliver on.
To Poroshenko’s credit, however, he walked into the Ukrainian presidency in the wake of revolution in which Ukraine lost Crimea, had lost it’s Donbas territory, its economy took a huge hit.
Also, Ukraine [has been] embroiled in a trench war now for more than five years against Russia’s invasion forces in the Donbas. So I think the war certainly sucked a lot of energy out of those post-revolutionary reforms.
I think now with the war, with sort of a light on the horizon of potentially some sort of solution, I think there is sort of a re-energized feeling in Ukraine that there can be some follow through on some of this post-revolutionary changes that weren’t realized in the past five years.
Davis: Very interesting.
Nolan, I really appreciate you calling in from Ukraine, and thank you for all your coverage on the ground there. You can follow Nolan’s coverage at dailysignal.com. Appreciate your time, Nolan.
Peterson: Thank you so much.