MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has struggled to maintain a poker face in the weeks since a whistleblower row erupted over President Trump’s telephone call to Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mr. Putin has kept his comments to a bare minimum. In his most expansive remarks last week, he said he saw nothing wrong with Mr. Trump’s apparent bid to persuade Mr. Zelensky to revive an investigation into the Ukrainian business dealings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a Democratic Party contender to challenge Mr. Trump in 2020, and his son Hunter.
“I don’t see anything compromising here. Trump turned to [Mr. Zelensky] with a request to investigate a possibly corrupt deal by former members of the [Obama] administration,” Mr. Putin blandly remarked.
The Russian president, a onetime KGB agent with a deep expertise in spy tradecraft, said the transcript of the July 25 telephone call contained no proof at all that Mr. Trump “demanded compromising material at any price or threatened Zelensky that he would withhold assistance to Ukraine.”
“This doesn’t concern us,” he said, insisting he was not interested in discussing how Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian who came to power in May, might handle the complex political situation.
But political analysts aren’t buying Mr. Putin’s comments or the idea that Mr. Zelensky’s ordeal is something the Kremlin will not seek to exploit.
Kyiv has had bipartisan congressional support in Washington for its 5-year-old battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in its eastern Donbas region. More than 13,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million displaced since fighting began in 2014.
But Russian strategists calculate that cross-party support for Ukraine’s military in Washington is now at risk. If Mr. Zelensky agrees to investigate the Bidens, then he will alienate Democrats. A refusal to get involved, however, would likely infuriate the U.S. president and his political supporters, many of whom blame Ukraine for the political and ethical scandals that have dogged Mr. Trump since even before he took office in 2017.
“Any problems at all for Zelensky please the Kremlin, although there’s absolutely no obligation [for Mr. Putin] to speak about this aloud,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political consultant. “I don’t know if this was part of Trump’s plan, but he has presented Putin with another excellent gift.”
Molly K. McKew, a lecturer on Russia and former adviser to the governments of Georgia and Moldova, wrote recently for Politico.com: “Trump is bargaining away U.S. security for conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the Bidens that he hopes will not only strengthen his position for his reelection, but will also erase the evidence that Kremlin intervention helped to elect him president. It’s actually hard to know which part of all this makes the Kremlin most happy.”
Mr. Putin “is loving this,” Alex Crowther, who teaches at the National Defense University, said in an analysis for Foreign Policy.com.
“It makes the Americans look unreliable and strengthens the hand of the Russians and the pro-Russians in [Ukraine’s] east. By withholding aid, you are injecting instability into an already unstable situation and strengthening the Russians,” he wrote.
Savoring Volker’s fall
Mr. Putin has other reasons to feel content with the unfolding political dramas in Kyiv and Washington, said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the political analysis firm R.Politik and a specialist on the Kremlin.
Not least of these is the downfall of Kurt Volker, the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine, who has long been vilified by the Kremlin. Mr. Volker resigned last month as envoy just hours after it was announced that he would be summoned to testify at Congress’ impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He spent some nine hours behind closed doors last week on Capitol Hill answering questions, as the Ukraine scandal threatened to become the centerpiece of a push to impeach Mr. Trump.
In the wake of Mr. Volker’s resignation, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president until May, said the envoy had made a vitally important contribution to Ukraine’s “strategic partnership” with the United States and made great efforts to “oppose Russian aggression.” That made Mr. Volker a particular figure of enmity in the Kremlin.
Russian state TV gloated over Mr. Volker’s unexpected departure. Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, called him an “evil demon.” State TV presenters accused him of taking a cut from Washington’s multimillion-dollar sales of U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine for the fight in eastern Ukraine.
“For the Kremlin, Volker was a thorn in the side,” said Ms. Stanovaya. “He seemed less like a moderator than a participant in the conflict on the side of Poroshenko.”
The Ukraine affair has also allowed Russian state TV to press claims that Kyiv’s leaders are paying the price for their decision to make a strategic pivot to the West — especially to the U.S. A report aired by Russia-24 news channel said Mr. Zelensky had been embroiled in “another Democratic spectacle called ‘impeach Trump.’”
A political neophyte, Mr. Zelensky swept to power after promising to stamp out corruption and end the war in the Donbas, but his reputation took a hit as a result of the release of the transcript of his telephone conversation with Mr. Trump. Although some analysts in Ukraine have suggested that Mr. Zelensky may have been attempting to play to Mr. Trump’s ego, the Ukrainian leader comes across to critics as subservient and fawning.
Mr. Zelensky on the phone call also criticized Ukraine’s allies in Europe, in particular France and Germany. “They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine,” he told Mr. Trump.
The comments were particularly ill-timed with an upcoming peace summit in France on the Ukrainian conflict that will be hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and attended by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Mr. Putin is also expected to take part.
Mr. Zelensky expressed irritation after the transcript of the call with Mr. Trump was released. He said he did not expect his side of the conversation to be made public.
“The European Union would be within its rights to take offense [at Mr. Zelensky’s words],” Denis Denisov, the head of the Moscow-based Institute for Peace Initiatives and Conflict Studies, told Russian media. “This can be compared to someone discussing relatives behind their backs. No one likes this, and it will almost certainly reflect on the personal dynamics between the leaders of the countries.”
But Mr. Zelensky’s problems aren’t all good news for the Kremlin. Ms. Stanovaya said Mr. Putin will now be concerned that the transcripts of his conversations with Mr. Trump, a possible target for Democratic lawmakers in the upcoming impeachment inquiry, could also be published.
Mr. Putin has held 11 phone calls with Mr. Trump since he entered the White House. The two leaders have met in person several times, often with only a translator present. The Kremlin insisted last week that Moscow would have to give its permission for the transcripts of the conversations to be released.
“Putin feels psychological discomfort about the fact that one day his conversations [with Mr. Trump] could be published,” said Ms. Stanovaya. “If you are always thinking that everything you say could be made public, then you are limited in your opportunities to influence your counterpart.”