Yes, Putin cares about Trump’s impeachment trial — but not for the reason you might imagine

Source: The Washington Post / / by Jessica Pisano /

Some puzzles buried in the House’s articles of impeachment may not be solved during the Senate trial. For instance, why did Trump ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served? Democrats have assumed Trump was targeting his political rival, former vice president Joseph Biden, trying to tar him with the implication of corruption.

putin conference
President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 19. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

But the Kremlin does not need assistance from Trump — much less from Rudolph Giuliani — to find or manufacture dirt in Ukraine about Trump’s political rivals. Russia has highly trained professionals for that: kompromat, or compromising material, and blackmail are key Kremlin tools.

Trump’s claim that he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine makes sense if it was aimed at tarnishing Zelensky’s reputation, not Biden’s. I’ll explain below.

Zelensky is worrying Russia
The House has been framing the president of Ukraine as a David to Putin’s Goliath. Witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry emphasized Ukraine’s need for U.S. help to defend its territory from Russia. Yet Ukraine is not powerless. Zelensky’s vision of politics and political leadership have the potential to help loosen Putin’s grip on power within Russia at the grass roots.

Even as Putin moved last week to change the Russian constitution to prolong his rule, Zelensky is attracting increasing interest from Russian people. Russians knew and loved Zelensky, who worked in television comedy and satire for two decades before he became president. Some Gen X and millennial Russians, who have known only Putin as leader all their lives, described Zelensky’s election as a thrilling shock.

For Russians, Zelensky’s internet-based messaging offers a positive alternative to Putinism. Zelensky uses clear, simple language to communicate with his audiences. A native Russian speaker from an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, Zelensky lacks the Moscow accent that grates on so many Russians who live outside the capital.

In mid-December, a major Russian television network aired the first three episodes of Zelensky’s sitcom “Servant of the People,” in which he played a history teacher suddenly elected president. Then the network abruptly canceled the series, calling its airing a “marketing ploy” — and implicitly acknowledging Russian viewers’ interest in the show.

Zelensky’s warm, sincere, and creative presidential New Year’s address broke the Russian Internet. It reached No. 7 on Russian YouTube and elicited tens of thousands of positive responses from within Russia, despite state surveillance of social media; in Russia, even a “like” in the wrong place can result in trouble. Since then, one of the many videos that have compared Zelensky’s greeting favorably with the formal, cookie-cutter greetings of the presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan received over a million views and thousands of supportive, personal comments from Russia.

Many Russians are fed up with the system
To understand why Zelensky interests Russians who are ready for a change, it’s necessary to understand why many Russians are tired of politics as usual.

Russian politicians rule their country using a combination of standard and back channels and patron-client networks. Russians call this approach to governance sistema. Ukrainian politicians also ruled their country in this way. When presidential candidate Zelensky vowed to “break this system,” Ukrainians elected him in a landslide.

Heading into the third decade of Putin’s rule, Russians face social problems many Americans would recognize. These include a postponed retirement and difficulty getting access to quality health care. A Russian joke cracks, “we live in a country where pizza arrives faster than the ambulance.”

But the way sistema works limits Russians’ vision of and ability to influence politics. Strict constraints on freedom of assembly and legal attacks on opposition figures like Alexei Navalny limit how Russians can air their disagreements. Protesters have looked for creative ways to express their discontent. When Russian showman Maksim Galkin satirized Putin, nearly 3 million people watched. Many Russians lauded his courage; Galkin compared himself with Zelensky.

Zelensky offers an alternative to Putinism
Zelensky’s election buoyed Russian liberals because his election represented a real choice. But he also appeals to Russians who do not see themselves as liberals. As a showman, Zelensky and his comedy troupe worked to influence Ukrainian society by telling the truth about everyday life. The late Czech playwright and president Vaclav Havel called such work “the living humus from which genuine political change usually springs.” As president, Zelensky offers an alternative vision of leadership that seems genuine and sincere.

For decades, politicians, journalists and academics in and beyond Ukraine categorized Ukrainians as pro-western or pro-Russian. In his New Year’s greeting, Zelensky challenged this paradigm, describing Ukrainians in terms of a full range of human experience. He asked, “Who convinced us that our differences matter? What if it’s not so? Just think about it: Is there really little that unites us?” He added, “This must become our national idea: to learn to live together with respect, for the future of your country.”

If compromised, Zelensky would lose his appeal
Ukrainians elected Zelensky to fight corruption. His anti-establishment political party, made up of people with few political entanglements, rose to power in parliament by invoking Zelensky’s brand. Zelensky’s reputation among Ukrainian voters now depends on his personal conduct. If impeachment evidence were to suggest any capitulation to Trump, Zelensky himself risks being seen as corrupt and losing public support.

Trump allegedly pressured Zelensky only to announce, not to conduct, an investigation of Burisma. Absent the media coverage prompted by the whistleblower’s report, Americans are unlikely to have paid much attention. But for Ukrainians, the announcement alone would have been enough to discredit Zelensky. And Putin would have been the main beneficiary of such an announcement.

If the impeachment trial, with or without new evidence or revelations, portrays Zelensky as having taken Trump’s bait, Trump’s actions toward Ukraine will have helped Putin by undermining Zelensky’s presidency, discrediting a man who offers an appealing alternative vision of politics.

But if Zelensky emerges from the U.S. impeachment with his reputation intact, his message to Russians fed up with politics as usual may retain its appeal. Eventually, Putin could face the very thing that more than a decade of Russian domestic and foreign policy was designed to avoid: a revolution from within. In the biblical story, David slew Goliath.

Jessica Pisano is associate professor of politics at the New School for Social Research in New York. She is the author of “The Post-Soviet Potemkin Village: Politics and Property Rights in the Black Earth” (Cambridge University Press, 2008).