I was standing less than two feet away from President Volodymyr Zelensky, when, in response to his request to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles, Donald Trump asked to “do us a favor though.” As the President of the United States continued with his now-infamous demand to investigate his political rival, I picked up a pencil and wrote one word on a piece of paper for Zelensky to see: “Rudy!”
I still have that piece of paper and to this day it serves as a solemn reminder of my encounters with a once well-respected man, whose pressure campaign against a neophyte government helped start a tragic series of events, the outcome of which we now measure daily in human lives. As Ukraine enters the second year of a brutal war, the damage done, and the time lost have now become visible to the naked eye.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was as much of a symbol as he is now, albeit of a different kind. As a newcomer in Ukraine’s political “swamp” (a term we had purposely tried to use as an icebreaker on a call with Trump) Zelensky offered a chance to break the cycle that had been slowly eroding the country’s ability to withstand the gravitational pull from its imperialist neighbor, Russia.
Zelensky’s vision, which resonated with a vast majority of the Ukrainian people, was elegant in its simplicity: Ukraine desperately needed peace and reforms. Despite what some perceived to be the young President’s naivety, Zelensky knew full well that neither of his objectives were in line with Russia’s ongoing quest to destabilize and weaken Ukraine, and hence in order to move forward, he needed to build a healthy relationship with the White House, and fast. That task that would later prove to be an impossible one, all because of a man in the middle.
Rudy Giuliani has now become synonymous with a disastrous July 25, 2019 phone call that had led to the impeachment of the 45th President of the United States, in part because he delivered the same message, even more bluntly, three days earlier. However, what most people don’t realize is that Trump’s initial failed attempt to coerce Ukraine into playing ball did nothing to stop America’s mayor from trying again. In fact, the temporary hold placed on the military aid to Ukraine as part of the first attempt at a quid pro quo now seems by far the least damaging outcome of Giuliani’s efforts on behalf of Donald Trump.
First came the attack against the reformists. Unsurprisingly for a man who surrounded himself with characters like Andriy Derkach (later designated as a Russian agent by the United States and charged for treason in Ukraine) and Andriy Artemenko (an associate of Erik Prince’s, who was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and accused of treason), Giuliani did not shy away from trying to meddle with Zelensky’s appointments. During the July 22, 2019 phone call, he told Andriy Yermak, then a top aide to Zelensky, “So… What I wanted to tell the President (Zelensky) is: be careful… be careful of the people around you, because… they can very easily get you in to trouble!”
The trouble, of course, was Trump. Among those whom Rudy Giuliani targeted were in fact the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and the ordinary reformists on a mission to eradicate corruption that had been plaguing Ukraine for years. In retrospect, the recall of Yovanovitch and the continuous lack of support for Zelensky’s anti-corruption agenda from the Trump administration by 2020 would become the straw that broke the camel’s back, forcing the President to reshuffle his team, replacing most of the reformists with the bureaucrats, a move the consequences of which Ukraine is feeling now, as it is now forced to fight corruption in the middle of a ruthless war against Russia.
However, the worst blow against Ukraine came right before Zelensky’s first and only face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin. Going into the Normandy summit in Paris, Ukraine was desperately in need of U.S. backing or at the very least a show of support for its young President. Using all the available channels, including Trump’s much preferred back channels, a message was relayed to the White House, asking for a tweet from the President. The answer came from one of the former mayor’s associates: Trump’s tweet would only happen if Zelensky were to agree to meet with Giuliani, during his upcoming trip to Ukraine (all while Donald Trump was being impeached). This was unacceptable and to this day we are left in the dark, whether Trump’s twitter spree that coincided with the Normandy summit in Paris was simply a coincidence. All we know is that the much-needed tweet of support for Ukraine never came.
As someone who worked for Zelensky, I recognize the look he’s got. He takes responsibility for every single life and every single death in this country, and I can count on one hand the number of people who can carry a weight like that. His heroism is real. So is his pain. Ukraine’s scars of missed opportunities now bleed more than ever. The price we pay is beyond any comprehension. Did it have to be this high? I don’t know. But although history doesn’t like the subjunctive mood, I cannot help but wonder, what could have been, if it weren’t for a man, whose name I had written on that piece of paper in a sumptuous, stuffy room of the presidential office on July 25, 2019.
For more on Rudy Giuliani, watch When Truth Isn’t Truth: The Rudy Giuliani Story, a new four-part series from TIME Studios that explores the former prosecutor’s rise to power, his fall from grace, and how little he changed in between. The third part in the series airs at 10pm ET Sun. Mar. 3 on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock TV.
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