Report: "Deep mistrust" has developed between White House and Zelensky

Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

An ominous detail buried in the same Tom Friedman column that Ed wrote about earlier. Almost as interesting as the news about the “deep mistrust” is the fact that Friedman is in a better position than most reporters to know what the White House is thinking. This is a guy who had lunch at the White House with Biden less than three months ago. It’s conceivable that his source is the president himself.

Which means there are two mysteries. What’s caused Biden’s team to lose trust in Zelensky? And why do they want that fact broadcast by Friedman in the pages of the New York Times now?

The timing [of Pelosi’s visit] could not be worse. Dear reader: The Ukraine war is not over. And privately, U.S. officials are a lot more concerned about Ukraine’s leadership than they are letting on. There is deep mistrust between the White House and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — considerably more than has been reported.

And there is funny business going on in Kyiv. On July 17, Zelensky fired his country’s prosecutor general and the leader of its domestic intelligence agency — the most significant shake-up in his government since the Russian invasion in February. It would be the equivalent of Biden firing Merrick Garland and Bill Burns on the same day. But I have still not seen any reporting that convincingly explains what that was all about. It is as if we don’t want to look too closely under the hood in Kyiv for fear of what corruption or antics we might see, when we have invested so much there. (More on the dangers of that another day.)

It was odd that Zelensky fired two high-ranking officials in the middle of a hot war, especially since one of them was a childhood friend of his. But his stated justification was superficially plausible: He claimed that the departments they oversaw were infested with collaborators. There have been reports since the start of the war that Russian intelligence spent years before the invasion quietly bribing Ukrainian officials at various levels of government to switch sides once the Kremlin finally made its move. They didn’t get much return on that investment — but they may have gotten some, as Kherson province in the south flipped quickly after the war began. It’s conceivable that some officials in Zelensky’s own government are on the take and that the Ukrainians have gotten wise to it only recently.

Of course, given the country’s history of corruption, it’s also conceivable that Zelensky is engaged in some sort of graft himself and the fired officials were onto it and preparing to expose it. Although that graft likely doesn’t involve selling out to Russia; if it does, he’s been exceptionally convincing in presenting himself as a resolute Ukrainian patriot.

Is he lining his pockets with U.S. financial aid that was supposed to go to the war effort? The Russian government, for instance, knows all about diverting military spending to more luxurious pursuits. Or does the “deep mistrust” have more to do with Zelensky’s goals for the war? Maybe he promised the White House early on as a condition to receiving weapons that he’d seek only to restore the pre-February status quo in the Donbas. If so, he lied: For the last several months, he’s talked about regaining all of Ukraine’s territory.

Jim Geraghty speculates shrewdly as to the motive behind the leak to Friedman. “Possibility one is that the Biden administration just wants the Ukraine-Russia war to end, and Zelensky isn’t playing ball, so the administration is getting ready to leave Zelensky hanging out to dry,” he writes. “Possibility two is that the administration foresees the Ukraine-Russia war going badly, and is preparing to use Zelensky as a scapegoat. They’re laying the groundwork to argue, ‘we did everything we could to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, but in the end, they were too incompetent, too corrupt, and too beset by infighting.'” I’d add possibility three, that Zelensky and his government really are corrupt and the White House is keeping that information under wraps so as not to destroy U.S. support for the war.

If Geraghty’s right that the White House is pessimistic about victory and/or eager for the conflict to end, though, then it’s awfully strange that they keep sending Ukraine HIMARS units, no? Less than two weeks ago the Pentagon announced that it would send four more of the coveted missile systems to Kiev, raising the country’s total arsenal to 16. HIMARS isn’t going to win the war singlehandedly for Ukraine but it has changed the game recently in the east and south, depleting Russian ammo stockpiles and cutting key supply lines from Crimea.

Had Biden wanted to cut bait on Zelensky and Ukraine and speed a negotiated settlement to the war, he had a ready point of leverage — simply come up with an excuse to deny the Ukrainians access to HIMARS and let Russia’s advance proceed apace. (“It’s too provocative, it would risk starting a conflict between Russia and NATO,” etc.) As it is, by damaging Russian supply lines, HIMARS has extended the war and improved Ukraine’s chances of winning by giving them an opportunity to launch a major counteroffensive in Kherson.

Maybe Biden feels boxed in by strong American support for Ukraine and has concluded it’s not the right time politically to start backing away, although he intends to do so soon. He’s going to give them a fair shot to prove they can win by retaking Kherson, perhaps, and if that doesn’t pan out then it’ll be time to ease off the gas and start inching away from Zelensky. Biden is sufficiently unpopular at home and Zelensky is sufficiently popular internationally that if the White House told Americans that the Ukrainian government had deceived them somehow, it’s anyone’s guess what share of the public would believe them rather than Zelensky’s denials.

In lieu of an exit question, read Timothy Snyder on how Putin’s grip on Russia is weakening. It remains an open question between Russia and Ukraine as to which country’s leader will last longer in power at this point.