Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted that he never discussed a quid pro quo with President Trump tying U.S. military aid to a request for political favors in a newly published interview. Nevertheless, he hit the Trump administration for the delay in that aid and for critical statements about his country.
Trump, ahead of both House Democrats' submission of their impeachment report and the launch of a new phase of hearings concerning that alleged quid pro quo, touted Zelensky's statement as further affirmation that he'd "done nothing wrong.
"If the Radical Left Democrats were sane, which they are not, it would be case over!" Trump tweeted.
Zelensky previously had said he felt no pressure from Trump to investigate the Bidens, a statement Trump has cited to insist there was no quid pro quo tying that request to military aid that was withheld at the time -- the matter at the heart of impeachment proceedings.
But as the Ukrainian leader is preparing for talks with Russia -- as he works to end the conflict, which included Russia's 2014 seizure of the Crimean peninsula -- he argued that withholding aid for any reason is not something an ally should do.
“If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us,” Zelensky said in an interview with TIME, France's Le Monde, Germany's Der Spiegel, and Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza. “I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about a quid pro quo.”
Trump and his allies have argued that he delayed the military aid because he wanted other countries to pay their fair share and that he was concerned about Ukrainian corruption. Zelensky, however, countered that Trump's position and critical language can send a harmful message.
“When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that is the hardest of signals," he said, in the interview published by TIME. "Everyone hears that signal. Investments, banks, stakeholders, companies, American, European, companies that have international capital in Ukraine, it’s a signal to them that says, ‘Be careful, don’t invest.’ Or, ‘Get out of there.’" He claimed that European nations may not stand with him if the U.S. does not maintain pressure for them to do so and that accusations of corruption do not serve that interest.
Zelensky did appear to lend credence to Trump's concerns, admitting that his country has had problems with corruption, but said he is working toward eliminating them.
"It’s not that those things don’t exist. They do. All branches of government were corrupted over many years, and we are working to clean that up," he said. "But that signal from them is very important."
When asked about a link between the military aid from the U.S. and investigations into Democrats or the Bidens, Zelensky said he and Trump never had any discussions about one being connected to the other.
"Look, I never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo," he insisted. "That’s not my thing. … I don’t want us to look like beggars."
Trump is currently facing an impeachment inquiry based on the suspicion that he tried to enlist Zelensky to help investigate his political opponents and that military aid was used as leverage. The Ukrainian leader has always maintained that Trump never pressured him, contrary to what House Democrats have asserted.
Zelensky did acknowledge what U.S. assistance means to Ukraine.
"Of course they help us, and I’m not just talking about technical help, military aid, financial aid," he said. "These are important things, very important things, especially right now, when we are in such a difficult position."
At the same time, he did not give the impression that he wants to rely on the U.S. or anyone else.
"I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, on the chessboard of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain," he said.
As he prepares for talks with Russia next week, Zelensky sees an opportunity for progress but remains cautious.
"I don’t trust anyone at all," he said.