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Two years after his infamous phone call with Trump, Zelensky is going to Washington

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the German Chancellor (not pictured) give statements ahead of talks at the Chancellery on 12 July 2021 in Berlin , Germany. (Getty Images)

More than two years after he was party to one of the most infamous phone calls in American political history, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is coming to the White House to meet with the man Donald Trump pressed him to target with sham investigations in hopes of upending the 2020 election.

Mr Zelensky, who has served as Ukraine’s head of state since 20 May 2019, arrived in Washington on Monday and spent most of Tuesday engaged in what a senior administration official described as meetings with Cabinet-level officials on matters relating to the US-Ukraine strategic partnership.

The meetings, the official said, would result in “new agreements on security, energy, and climate cooperation” and “set the stage” for Wednesday’s meeting with President Joe Biden.

The official said Mr Biden is “prepared to discuss the full spectrum of policy issues that underline the bilateral relationship” between Ukraine and the United States, a relationship in which the president has played a key role dating back to his time as vice president during the Obama administration.

It was actually Mr Biden’s predecessor with whom Mr Zelensky hoped to meet when he picked up the phone on 25 July 2019. Ukraine has been fighting a shooting war with Russia since 2014, when Russian soldiers invaded the country’s Crimea region and began backing anti-government separatists in the Donbas, and Mr Zelensky, who had been sworn in as his country’s president just two months before, was seeking the visible commitment of support embodied by an invitation to the White House.

But Mr Trump had other ideas. His personal attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and then-US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, had been pressuring Mr Zelensky’s aides to have the new president announce investigations into a baseless conspiracy theory that alleged Ukraine – not Russia – interfered in the 2016 election, as well as Mr Biden and his son Hunter, an attorney who had served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

According to the whistleblower complaint that led to Mr Trump’s first impeachment by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, Mr Giuliani – who was operating as an unsanctioned back channel at Mr Trump’s behest – conditioned a possible White House visit by Mr Zelensky on the latter’s announcement of the sham investigations. Mr Sondland later told the House Intelligence Committee that there was an explicit “quid pro quo” on the table.

While speaking with Mr Trump by phone, Mr Zelensky raised the issue of Ukraine’s purchase of Javelin anti-tank missiles (a key weapon in his country’s fight against Russian forces). Mr Trump then replied, “I would like you to do us a favour though,” and asked him to look into a baseless 2016 election conspiracy theory before advising Mr Zelensky to speak with Mr Giuliani and then-Attorney General William Barr about his potential 2020 election opponent.

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Mr Trump said, referring to another baseless conspiracy theory which posited that Mr Biden directed Mr Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, to remove then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin to stymie investigations into his son if he wanted the country to benefit from $1b in US loan guarantees. While Mr Biden did ask Mr Poroshenko to fire Mr Shokin, he did so at the behest of the Obama administration and a significant number of US allies.

Giuliani became one of Trump’s strongest backers despite his initial reservations (Reuters)

Unsatisfied by Mr Zelensky’s response, Mr Trump ordered the Office of Management and Budget to withhold $391 million in military assistance funds meant to aid Ukraine’s defence against Russia shortly after the call ended, and Mr Zelensky never got that White House invitation.

By contrast, his successor’s relationship with Mr Zelensky has been relatively uncomplicated. In the Biden administration’s view, relations with Kyiv have been the subject of “a lot of high-level attention”, with the two leaders speaking twice by phone since Mr Biden’s inauguration: once in April, and again in June, notably before his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also travelled to Kyiv in May to meet with Mr Zelensky, one of his first bilateral meetings with a foreign leader, and Energy Secretary Jenifer Granholm visited the Ukrainian capital last week as the Biden administration’s representative at the Crimea Platform Conference.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on Wednesday’s agenda said Mr Zelensky’s visit to the White House will further those effort to demonstrate support for his government and will “build on and amplify the sustained engagement of President Biden and the administration over the last eight months or so of the administration”.

Among the matters Mr Biden and Mr Zelensky will discuss are their countries’ efforts to “bolster collaboration on shared energy and climate goals, including through a reinvigorated Strategic Energy and Climate Dialogue” meant “to advance energy security objectives, enhance economic ties, and achieve ambitious climate targets,” as well as “expanding economic collaboration and … combatting the Covid-19 pandemic and other shared priorities”.

The two leaders will also announce plans to “reinvigorate and revitalise” the US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission, which has not met since late 2018.

On the matter that Mr Trump attempted to weaponise during his infamous call with Mr Zelensky – security cooperation and US security assistance – the official said they “expect President Biden to convey his ironclad commitment to Ukraine’s security, sovereignty, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” and that Mr Biden is “looking forward to having a more fulsome update from President Zelensky on the current security situation”.

And while there will be at least one elephant in the room in the form of Zelensky Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, who was Mr Giuliani’s main point of contact during Trumpworld’s push to strong-arm Mr Zelensky into sandbagging Mr Biden’s eventually successful campaign against Mr Trump, the Biden administration isn’t keen on revisiting the past.

Asked about Mr Yermak’s presence at Wednesday’s meeting, the official declined to address the question directly but responded diplomatically, telling reporters: “We very much look forward to working with Zelensky’s team”.

But if Mr Zelensky should feel the need to ask for more Javelin anti-tank missiles, it’s likely that he’ll be more than satisfied by Mr Biden’s response than that of his predecessor.

Not only will Pentagon officials be signing on to a new US-Ukraine defence framework that White House officials say “will enhance our cooperation across a range of pressing issues, including Black Sea security, cyber and intelligence sharing, as well as continued support for Ukraine as it faces continuing Russian aggression”, but even more help is on the way to Kyiv from Washington.

Last week, the White House notified Congress that the Biden administration intends to supplement the $400m in security assistance provided to Kyiv this year with an additional $60m aid package that Mr Biden will announce his approval of on Wednesday alongside Mr Zelensky.

Javelins are included.