Ukraine's Zelenskiy avoids backlash at home over Trump call

"Zelenskiy is an inexperienced politician, but obviously a good psychologist. He figured out Mr. Trump's profile and his absolute egocentrism."

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By Taras Shumeyko and Linda Givetash

KYIV, Ukraine — President Donald Trump may be facing an impeachment inquiry over his July phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — but the Ukrainian leader has emerged largely unscathed in the minds of many of his fellow citizens.

The notes outlining the details of their call released Wednesday show the comedian-turned-president referring to Trump as "a great teacher" and saying he had stayed at the Trump International Hotel and Tower during his last visit to New York City.

While many of the Ukrainians whom NBC News spoke to Thursday didn't like their president's deferential tone, they said they understood Zelenskiy's reasons to turn on the charm.

"He definitely wants to curry favor with Trump," Gleb Zhavoronkov, 35, a journalist and civil activist from Odessa, said via Facebook Messenger. "I believe advisers consulted Zelenskiy on how to get sympathy from Trump, which is needed to fight Russia aggression with sanctions pressure at least."

Businessman Vitali Oplachko, 81, shared a similar perspective.

"Zelenskiy is an inexperienced politician, but obviously a good psychologist. He figured out Mr. Trump's profile and his absolute egocentrism," he said.

Zelenskiy was forced to withstand the glare of the international media — and not just the attention of his compatriots — Wednesday when he met Trump in person for the first time at a United Nations gathering in New York.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee released the declassified whistleblower complaint at the center of the formal impeachment inquiry.

For his part, Zelenskiy has defended himself, telling Ukrainian reporters Wednesday that "no one can pressure me and no one will pressure me," before adding that he thought the U.S. would only release Trump's side of their conversation.

In Ukraine, opinions varied. While some applauded Zelenskiy as a tactful diplomat, others criticized him for acting subservient to Trump.

"I did not like Zelenskiy’s speaking manner, it showed the weakness of his position," Andriy Poberezhniuk, 22, from Rozhyshche near Lutsk, said.

Still, he did not think there was anything untoward about the interaction.

"When Zelenskiy said he’d stayed at Trump’s hotel, I didn’t see anything corrupt or bad in this. This is just a friendly gesture," Poberezhniuk said.

Editor and translator Tetyana Kohanovska, 46, was scathing, however.

Zelenskiy seemed "pathetic, tactless and devoid" of diplomatic skills in his discussion with Trump, she told NBC News. "I really regret that the Ukrainian voters chose him."

However, the overriding concern for Ukrainians will be the U.S. role in their country's ongoing conflict with Russia, according to Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow specializing in Ukrainian politics at the London think-tank Chatham House.

"There isn't a lot of anger," she said.

Zelenskiy's "bigger challenge is going to be how he will deal with Russia," she said during a telephone interview from Kyiv.

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and conflict in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region over the past five years has also seen 13,000 people killed by Russian-backed forces. The U.S. has traditionally been seen as a vital ally in the struggle.

Bogdan Batsenko, 35, a computer designer from the city of Bucha near Kyiv, told NBC News that while the scandal has helped increase interest in his country among Americans, he worried it could have broader consequences.

"In the long-term perspective, the scandal may contribute to less tight relations, especially in view of Russian aggression and bloody conflict in the east of Ukraine," he said. "It could result in a stop of the military or financial support of the USA."

At the heart of the impeachment inquiry are claims that Trump may have withheld aid to Ukraine to pressure officials there to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival to Trump. A whistleblower complaint about the call between Trump and Zelenskiy was released Thursday.

Just days before the July phone call, Trump had instructed his chief of staff to place a hold on about $400 million in military aid to the country, The Washington Post and other news outlets reported earlier this week, and confirmed by NBC News.

Trump has already admitted to talking about Biden with Zelenskiy and, in discussing that conversation with reporters Monday, tied the military aid to the country's probing of corruption. Trump denied any quid pro quo in which he pledged to give Ukraine the money in exchange for further probing of the Bidens.

"I put no pressure on them whatsoever," Trump said. "I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been OK if I did. But I didn't."

CORRECTION (Sept. 27, 2019, 3:39 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated Andriy Poberezhniuk’s age. He is 22, not 25.

Taras Shumeyko reported from Kyiv, Linda Givetash and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

Yuliya Talmazan contributed.