Advice for President Zelenskyy as he Prepares to Meet President Trump

steven pifer 0

This article originally appeared in the Ukrainian journal Novoye Vremya.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may meet President Donald Trump this weekend in Warsaw and is expected to travel to the United States later in the fall.  This gives Mr. Zelenskyy the opportunity to reinforce Kyiv’s relationship with the United States.  It also offers the opportunity to try to establish a connection to Mr. Trump, something that has proven elusive for most foreign leaders.  Here are a few suggestions for Mr. Zelenskyy on dealing with the American president.

Mr. Zelenskyy should bear in mind that Mr. Trump lacks a strong grasp of the U.S. interest in and what is at stake with regard to Ukraine and the conflict that Russia wages against it.  His administration has pursued sensible policies in supporting Kyiv, strengthening NATO and sustaining sanctions on Moscow.  By all appearances, however, Mr. Trump does not instinctively agree with the necessity of his administration’s own policies.  Witness his recent suggestion about inviting Vladimir Putin to join with other G7 leaders when he hosts the G7 summit next year.

Mr. Trump is not detail-oriented.  He reportedly reads little, leading White House staff to resort to graphs and pictures to capture his attention.  The smart way to approach Mr. Trump is to avoid detail, sticking instead with a few clear and easily understood themes.

Flattering the American president would not hurt.  North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to have mastered that.  North Korea has reduced none of its nuclear or ballistic missile capabilities—in fact, they have increased—but Mr. Trump swoons over Mr. Kim’s letters and professes not to be bothered by Pyongyang’s shorter range ballistic missile tests.

That said, keep expectations for flattery modest.  No European leader invested more heavily in flattering Mr. Trump than former British Prime Minister Theresa May.  She gave him a state visit in June with all the bells and whistles.  Yet Mr. Trump could not resist sending a series of tweets denigrating her handling of the Brexit conundrum and all but welcoming her replacement.

This underscores the point that, in many foreign policy relationships, Mr. Trump is transactional.  He will be asking what can America get, or what can he get.

Mr. Zelenskyy thus should consider whether there is a topic on which he could offer Mr. Trump a win-win.  Progress toward resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donbas could provide such an issue.  Real movement toward peace would be a major win for Kyiv, but it could offer Mr. Trump a win as well.  He has repeatedly made clear his desire for improved U.S.-Russia relations, and a genuine settlement in Donbas could lift the biggest obstacle to his goal.

The question is how to shape a proposal to accomplish this.  Bringing Mr. Trump into the current Normandy negotiating format in a way that made it appear as if Mr. Trump sparked a breakthrough would appeal to the Nobel Prize-hungry American president.

However, the key to peace in Donbas lies in Moscow.  The Kremlin seems interested in sustaining a simmering conflict as a means to pressure the government in Kyiv.  Still, aligning interests with Mr. Trump on pressing for peace would be a plus for Mr. Zelenskyy.

While in the United States, the Ukrainian president should not neglect the Congressional leadership.  Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill support Ukraine and display considerable skepticism toward Russia.  Congress could serve as a check on Mr. Trump should he choose to pursue his less well-thought-out ideas on Russia.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s American interlocutors in Congress want Ukraine to succeed, with success measured by its progress in becoming a normal democratic, market-oriented and prosperous European state.  In the past, developments in Ukraine have disappointed both Ukrainians and the country’s friends in the West.  To the extent that Mr. Zelenskyy can make a persuasive case that this time it is different—that he and the new parliament will take the tough steps to achieve success—he will return home having forged a stronger basis for the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship.  He can bolster his case by coming to Washington with one or two signature reforms under his belt, such as an end to the moratorium on sales of private agricultural land.

One last piece of advice.  Mr. Zelenskyy and his team should be wary of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to drag Ukraine into U.S. domestic politics.  That would risk making Ukraine a partisan political issue in America, which could undermine the bipartisan support that Ukraine has enjoyed since regaining independence in 1991.

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Steven Pifer is a William Perry fellow at Stanford University and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.