Entangled in US scandal, Ukraine’s leader speaks at the UN

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy holds a bullet as he addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Photo: AP)

Abruptly cast into the center of a political storm in the United States, Ukraine’s president steered clear of the controversy Wednesday as he made his debut speech on diplomacy’s biggest stage, focusing instead on the horrors of war and on his country’s ongoing conflict with Russia.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s address at the UN General Assembly came less than a day after a formal US House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was launched — a development that was sparked partly by a July 25 phone call between the two leaders.

Zelenskiy made no mention of the matter as he called for wide international support for his country, five years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Moscow threw its weight behind separatists fighting in the eastern part of his country.

He warned that in an interconnected world, “there is no more ‘somebody else’s war.’”

“Every leader bears his share of responsibility not only for the destiny of his own country but for the whole world,” said Zelenskiy, who at one point held up a bullet to decry violence and made references to the classic World War I novels “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “A Farewell to Arms.”

“Today, it depends on everyone here whether there will be life at all,” Zelenskiy said.

Barely 100 days into his tenure, Zelenskiy is in a delicate spot after the phone call with Trump, the leader of one of Ukraine’s most steadfast allies. The two presidents were due to meet on the sidelines of the assembly later Wednesday.

At issue is whether the Republican Trump abused his presidential powers and sought help from Ukraine to undermine a Democratic foe, former Vice President Joe Biden, and help his own re-election.

Trump repeatedly pressed Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, according to a rough transcript summarizing the call released Wednesday . The phone call came days after Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine, prompting speculation that he was holding up the money as leverage for information on Biden.

Trump has denied that the funds were blocked as leverage for information on the Biden and his son, Hunter, and says he did nothing wrong, calling the matter a “witch hunt.”

In a TV interview over the weekend, Ukraine’s foreign minister denied Zelenskiy was pressured to investigate Hunter Biden. Zelenskiy’s office, however, has declined to comment on the reports.

The United States has given Ukraine millions of dollars in aid since a pro-Western government took power in Kyiv in 2014.

Zelenskiy, a popular 41-year-old comedian with no political experience, unseated incumbent Petro Poroshenko in an election this year in the nation of 45 million people. Zelenskiy campaigned on promises to fight corruption and engage Russia in order to end their conflict. The fighting has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced 1 million.

Russia says it annexed Crimea and supported pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine at the behest of Russian-speaking populations in the areas.

In a signal of a fresh approach from the Ukrainian side, Zelenskiy called Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after taking office. Earlier this month, Russia and Ukraine held the largest prisoner exchange in years, releasing 70 people.

“Ending the war, recovering all occupied Ukrainian territories and restoring peace are my primary objectives,” Zelenskiy told the assembly Wednesday, “but not at the cost of the lives of our citizens, freedom and right of Ukraine to make its own choices.”