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Ukraine stuck in a tug-of-war between Russia and the West

After years of war with Russia and with a new president at the helm, Ukraine has played a crucial role in the struggles between Russia and the West, before it was drawn into U.S. politics and President Trump's impeachment. NewsHour Weekend looks back at our Ukraine coverage with Simon Ostrovsky, who's reported often from the region with Pulitzer Center support. He joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last spring, Ukrainians found themselves voting in a historic election that brought a political newcomer and former actor to Ukraine's presidency, Ronald Reagan-style. Popular television star Vladimir Zelenskiy became President Vladimir Zelenskiy, and now less than a year later finds himself maneuvering between the needs of his country, a political fight in the US and prospects of a peace plan with Russia to end the ongoing war. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky, with support from the Pulitzer Center, first introduced us to the celebrity candidate who was in a tight race as Ukrainians headed to the polls.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Could this man be Ukraine's next president? Meet Vladimir Zelensky, actor, comedian, and heading into tomorrow's election, the most popular candidate in the polls.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Here he is filming his hit TV show, Servant of the People, in which he plays, you guessed it, the president of Ukraine. Zelenskiy's character starts out as an ordinary history teacher. But he accidentally wins the presidential election after his angry rant about government corruption gets uploaded by a pupil and goes viral. Now, not only is he running to be the real thing, he's named his political party 'Servant of the People' as well. It's as if Martin Sheen ran for president and registered a party called 'The West Wing.'

    Like his character, Zelinsky is mostly waging his campaign online and avoiding debates with his opponents. It's a departure from the methods of the party bosses and oligarchs that have run this country since independence from the Soviet Union. A candidacy like Zelenskiy's would have been unimaginable just five years ago. Then, an anti-corruption protest turned into a revolution that led to the election of a former government minister and powerful oligarch Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko now faces corruption allegations of his own. To many, the prospect of a political novice in the presidency is no laughing matter.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    You're an actor with no political experience. Your country is at war with Russia. Vladimir Putin with 20 years at the helm. How are you going to deal with Vladimir Putin?

  • Volodymyr Zelenskiy:

    First of all, we will do everything to make sure that Vladimir Putin never ends up at the helm of our country. The main problem in our relationship with Russia is the war. No one has a real answer how to stop Putin. All we can do is continue talks to achieve a ceasefire.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Achieve a ceasefire and rely on assistance from Ukraine's allies in the West. Zelenskiy's character in Servant of the People faces a choice, just as he's about to take the oath of office. His choices are to rule either through trickery and deceit or take the path of honesty and decency. The campaign is banking on Ukraine's people believing the real Zelenskiy will choose option two.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Joining me now is Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky, who has brought us several stories from Ukraine in the last year. So, that story introduced us. Obviously we know he won. How is he doing?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Better than a lot of people expected, to be honest. I think the main criticism, of course, when he was running for president was that he's an actor whose only job until then had been playing the president on TV and not actually being a politician of any level whatsoever. And so, coming into the job, there was an expectation that, you know, he might just fumble the relationship with the Western world that is with, you know, with the European Union and the United States.

    But also more importantly, the conflict with Russia, which is run by a man who's been in charge for over two decades at this point. And, you know, you're setting him up against somebody who's got no experience whatsoever. And I think what we've found actually is that he's actually handled the situation as well as could be expected. People expected that his first challenge would come from Vladimir Putin, but actually it came from an ostensible ally, from the United States of America in the form of pressure to try to get Zelenskiy to announce an investigation into Donald Trump's political rival, Joe Biden.

    Zelenskiy, to his credit, never did announce that investigation, despite massive pressure from what we now know is a huge cast of characters who are trying to get him to do that. And at the same time, he managed to retain the aid from the United States that he needs in order for his country to continue to be able to defend itself against Moscow's aggression. So I think he's not doing too badly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That's walking a pretty fine line there between a couple of different superpowers. What is the sentiment on the street? What how do people there feel about him? Do they recognize these accomplishments? I mean, recently we had, it might be internal politics, but the prime minister saying saying something on an audio cassette, the shaking, you know, not having confidence in Zelenskiy. What's all that about?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So, you know, I think the country is divided in a certain way. Much in the same way as the United States is politically. Where as here, it's closer to 50/50, in Ukraine, it's more like 25, 75. So he's–.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Twenty five in favor of him?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Twenty five opposed to him and 75 in favor. He won the election with 73 percent of the vote in the second round. And so any move that he makes, of course, those who are in opposition to him, mostly supporters of the previous president, Poroshenko, they'll criticize every move that he has. But the wider public, they really do support him because Ukraine sort of was subject to this anti-elitist, anti-establishment wave that we're seeing sweep across the United States or sorry, in the entire world as well. And Zelenskiy is very much a phenomenon, part of that phenomenon. So people are giving him a lot of leeway.

    But having said that, he's actually not doing such a bad job as we've seen in recent days. We've been following the plane accident in Iran where a Ukrainian airliner was shot down, Iran has now admitted, by its anti-aircraft systems. And this was another showing of his, I suppose, talent for diplomacy. Because at the time when the United States, Canada, Britain were pointing the finger at Iran, playing the bad cop, I guess, in that situation, Zelenskiy was playing the good cop and thanking the Iranian authorities for cooperating with them on the investigation, even though at the time the Iranians were denying that they had had anything to do with the plane crash and saying that it was an engine failure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, did Ukrainian citizens want him to be livid at Iran about this?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    And so that was a very difficult position for him to be in, because, of course, you've got the United States, you've got Canada, Ukrainian allies saying blame Iran, it's their fault. And you have the president of Ukraine saying thank you to Iran's leader for allowing the investigation team to land there. A lot of people were very angry, especially online, especially on social media, which is very important for public opinion making in Ukraine, saying that he should have taken a harder line. But what did he get as a result? He eventually got the Iranians to take responsibility, to promise to investigate and to eventually pay compensation. And I think that's a huge achievement. If you compare what happened during the previous presidency under Petro Poroshenko when that Malaysian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine, dutch investigators say by a Russian anti-aircraft system. And Russia has yet to admit any culpability, any responsibility in that incident. And the families, primarily Dutch citizens, are still waiting to get any kind of peace of mind, let alone compensation in that tragedy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Speaking of Russia, there was kind of a big diplomatic test there. And you filed your second report for us right before that. Let's take a look.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This is how the battle lines in the war in Ukraine are being redrawn ahead of peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv tomorrow.

    These trenches are freshly dug and there's a reason for that. They're part of a set of confidence-building measures that both sides have been enacting ahead of the peace talks. It might sound strange that making new trenches is a confidence-building measure. But the idea is, is that both sides are abandoning old trenches, that we're very close to each other, and now they're moving further apart to de-escalate hostilities. These new fortifications are part of an effort championed by Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to tamp down hostilities in a conflict that's not only taken more than 13,000 lives, but has become the focus of a domestic American political fight.

    The background is this: in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine's Crimea peninsula without much resistance and declared it a part of Russia. Then, together with local separatist forces, it began to battle Ukrainian troops for control over a large chunk of eastern Ukraine. That fight continues in this area to this day.

    Since the start of the war, America has assisted Ukraine in its battle with its much more powerful neighbor. But this summer, as an array of American diplomats and Trump associates pressure on Ukraine to open an investigation into the son of Trump's political rival, Joe Biden, the White House considered withholding its military aid.

    The commander at this new position told NewsHour Weekend how he felt when he heard that his country's main military ally could withdraw its support.

    Ukrainian military commander [00:10:31] Our men were saddened by this. It's bad news, especially since we participated in joint exercises with Canadian and American instructors last spring. And there was this spirit of brotherhood with them.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So do you think it influences Zelenskiy's position in the negotiations with Putin, the fact that now the Russians know that American assistance isn't guaranteed 100 percent?

  • Ukrainian military commander:

    I'm no diplomat, so I can't say, but it certainly doesn't strengthen our hand.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Besides an end to hostilities, Ukrainian officials have said they want a prisoner exchange and crucially, their territories returned. But Ukraine's faltering relationship with the United States is making those goals harder to achieve, as several career U.S. diplomats pointed out during the impeachment hearings currently roiling Washington.

  • Ambassador William Taylor:

    If we withdraw or suspend or or threaten to withdraw our security systems, that's a message to the Ukrainians. But it's at least as important as your question indicates, Mr. Chairman, to the Russians, who are looking for any sign of weakness or any sign that we are withdrawing our support for Ukraine.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    On the other side of this bridge are areas occupied by Russia and its separatist proxies known as the Luhansk People's Republic. Like many Western journalists, I'm not allowed to go on the other side. But I've come to this crossing point today to speak with people living under the occupation to find out what their hopes are for the talks between Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin.

  • Local woman:

    We want to be back in Ukraine, what is there to say? Everyone wants peace and quiet. We are not enemies.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how did that meeting turn out?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    What we saw was the Ukrainians and the Russians agreeing to continue disengagement in small steps along the front line. So, so far, they've created two or three disengagement zones that are only two by two kilometers. And we're talking about a two hundred and fifty mile long frontline that stretches across eastern Ukraine. So that's a very small step.

    But the major achievement that we did see come out of that meeting in Paris was a prisoner exchange. So dozens upon dozens of people were exchanged by both sides. Those were happy moments for a lot of Ukrainian families who got to see their family members, some of whom who have been held incommunicado for over two, three years, to spend the New Year's holiday with them. So, you know, despite the fact that peace did not break out across eastern Ukraine and the conflict is definitely unresolved between Russia and Ukraine, there were some positive things that came out of that situation. But also, some painful concessions, because part of that deal was turning over some of the riot police that Ukraine had been holding, who were members of the former Ukrainian regime's police, who had been implicated in some of the killings that happened on the main square in Kyiv in 2014 when protesters rose up against the former pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.

    And it was a strange situation because this was a exchange about the war, and these were Ukrainian police officers being held by Ukraine. So why would Russia want them in the first place? I think it goes a long way to showing how opposed Russia has been to the pro-Western governments that have come into power since the fall of Yanukovych and how they see those people as their guys, even though they were just Ukrainian police officers potentially exceeding their authority.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But what is Vladimir Putin's position on Ukraine right now? Why is there still an active conflict along that border?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    I think that to understand what Russia wants from Ukraine, you need to look at not just the conflict in the east, and the annexation of Crimea, and get a picture for the Kremlin's desire to have influence all across Ukraine. And the one thing that, you know, I learned from my trip there for NewsHour Weekend was how attitudes have changed in eastern Ukraine from the early days when I was covering the war five years ago. And you spoke with people on the ground, there were actually quite a lot of pro-Russian attitudes among the local population. People hoped that that part of the country would join into Russia.

    Now, five, six years later, we see that Russia still hasn't integrated that area into its territory in the same way that they did with Crimea. That has left the people living there on the side that the Russians control in limbo without status, unrecognized, unable to continue their lives. And so they feel left behind by Moscow. Many of them just want things to go back to the way they were when Ukraine controlled all of that territory, so at least that they would have some some stability in their lives.

    Russia doesn't want that. Why? Because having the conflict on a low simmer in the east is a way of being able to continue to put pressure on the Ukrainian central authorities. Without the conflict, how can Russia convince the Ukrainians to do anything? You know, they can't take prisoners. They can't take hostages. They can't trade them. They can't, you know, direct policy in one way or the other.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there such a sovereign Ukrainian kind of independent notion that says, you know what, I am not Russian. This is a separate country. There's a reason that we are distinct?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Well, if you asked me that question five years ago, I would have had a much more difficult time answering it. But the war has gone a long way towards strengthening that Ukrainian identity and making people, even Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, feel more Ukrainian because they do feel that this was an aggression from the outside, they do feel that Russian forces are occupying parts of their territory and they do see themselves now opposed to Russian statehood.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Zelenskiy, for being a comedian and an actor, really got thrown into the deep end of the pool, I mean, really, his plan was that he was going to have to deal with Vladimir Putin. Didn't see this coming. At this point, he is literally in the middle– he is the reason, a phone call with the president, is one of the reasons that we have the impeachment of Donald Trump. He's on the world stage.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    You know, I think in a way, like all Ukrainians, he relishes that he and his country are in the international spotlight in a way. Because, you know, it's kind of inconceivable that this relatively small country, when you compare it to Russia or the United States, suddenly at the center of everything. And what about Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself? You know, last Christmas, he was just an actor thinking about maybe running for president. And now, he's this political figure who's at the center of everything. And his profile has skyrocketed. I mean, he's been on the cover of Time magazine. He's been on the pages of every major newspaper in every country. And so, you know, his profile has just gone up and up. And I think that he's handling the pressure that comes with that pretty well. It's hard to judge from the outside what's going on behind closed doors. But as I said before, Ukraine has got it, done a good job of, I think, balancing the whims of this White House with Ukraine's interests.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Simon Ostrovsky, thanks so much for joining us and for your reporting.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Appreciate it.

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