The Ukrainian president is by turns annoying, infuriating, and downright counterproductive.
In November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky couldn’t ring alarm bells loudly enough. “There is a threat today that there will be war tomorrow. We are entirely prepared for an escalation,” he told the BBC.
But as of late, Zelenskyy is on a mission to project calm and tell his counterparts — namely President Joe Biden — that the standoff with Russia isn’t so dire. “I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” he told reporters in Kyiv today, adding the threat picture has been “constant” since Russia took the Crimean peninsula by force in 2014.
Zelenskyy’s change of tune, per multiple people close to him and his team, is borne partly out of a growing anger with the Biden administration. Officials in Ukraine, and some in Europe, say the U.S. allowing diplomats to leave Ukraine is premature and unnecessarily spooking locals as well as financial markets, driving up Kyiv’s borrowing costs.
What’s more, one person said that Zelenskyy fears the U.S. is purposefully hyping the threat from Russian President Vladimir Putin so it’ll have the political space to strike a deal with the Kremlin, such as giving Moscow greater control over the Donbas. The Biden administration has long denied anything like that is on the table.
“I can’t be like other politicians who are grateful to the United States just for being the United States,” Zelenskyy said today.
But the Ukrainian president’s biggest gripe is about something that seems literally lost in translation.
Per multiple people in the U.S. and Ukraine familiar with their Thursday call, Biden said Russia “could attack” at any time, citing the position of Russia’s 120,000 troops on the border. That echoes White House press secretaryJen Psaki‘s statement this week that an invasion “remains imminent.”
There’s no direct translation in Ukrainian for “imminent” — that word is Неминуче, which most closely corresponds to “no matter what” or “inevitable,” which are close synonyms. But it’s not quite the same, and we’re told there isn’t a single Ukrainian word that conveys the meaning as it does in English. (Seriously, we checked with native Ukrainian speakers.)
So when Biden’s team might genuinely mean “soon,” Zelenskyy hears U.S. officials effectively say “there will be an invasion regardless of what we do.”
For Zelenskyy, then, it’s important to project confidence that Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe can deter Putin from launching a renewed incursion. “Given that we are still in the diplomatic phase, Ukraine is trying to prevent this from boiling over into the military phase, both for Russia and for NATO,” Eugene Chausovsky, a fellow at the New Lines Institute in Washington, D.C., told NatSec Daily. It’s “politically useful for Zelenskyy to say when there is not a real threat of invasion, but it becomes more dangerous when that threat is now more acute.”
The former comedian’s antics have started to get on the Biden administration’s nerves.
“According to three sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill whom I’ve spoken to in the last couple months, the Ukrainian president is by turns annoying, infuriating, and downright counterproductive,” Puck’s Julia Joffe reported this week. It’s a sentiment NatSec Daily has heard repeatedly in our conversations with key players, and last night’s Biden-Zelenskyy call didn’t help.
Zelenskyy’s actions have also prompted questions — not many, but some — about why the U.S. is sending weaponry and cash to Ukraine if Kyiv isn’t overly concerned about a massive invasion.
Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken a version of this question Sunday: “Why does it look like America’s more concerned about Europe’s security than Europe?”
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Blinken replied.