Ukraine’s Zelenskiy ‘bombed’ first White House meeting with Biden, book says
In a development likely to cause consternation in Washington and Kyiv, an eagerly awaited new book says Volodymyr Zelenskiy “bombed” his first Oval Office meeting with Joe Biden.
The two men reportedly failed to establish a rapport as the Ukrainian leader’s demand to join Nato and “absurd analysis” of alliance dynamics left the US president “pissed off”.
“Even Zelenskiy’s most ardent sympathisers in the [Biden] administration agreed that he had bombed,” Franklin Foer, author of The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, writes of the meeting in September 2021.
“It suggested more difficult conversations to come.”
Foer also writes glowingly of Biden’s leadership of world support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February 2022, saying the US president proved “a man for his age”. But as the war in Ukraine drags on, with military and financial support for Kyiv a hot-button issue in Congress and in the Republican presidential primary, news of Foer’s portrayal of Biden and Zelenskiy’s floundering start may add to reported White House anxiety over the book.
NY Today News obtained a copy of The Last Politician, which will be published next week.
On Tuesday, a lengthy excerpt in the Atlantic, Foer’s employer, dealt with the withdrawal from Afghanistan in late summer 2021, the time of Zelenskiy’s first White House visit.
As in other sections of the book, Foer does not use direct quotes or cite sources when reporting the Biden-Zelenskiy meeting on 1 September. But his publisher, Penguin Random House, says the book is based on “unparalleled access to the tight inner circle of advisers who have surrounded Biden for decades”.
Elected in 2019 and under constant pressure from Russia, Zelenskiy had long sought a White House meeting. Donald Trump rebuffed him, because he refused to help dig up dirt on rivals including Biden – efforts which led to Trump’s first impeachment.
Foer claims Zelenskiy nursed “lingering resentments from the episode” and “at least subconsciously … seemed to blame” Biden, Trump’s successor in the Oval Office, “for the humiliation he suffered, for the political awkwardness he endured”.
The author also says Zelenskiy regarded Biden as weak, particularly over his decision earlier in 2021 to waive sanctions against a Russian company building Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline to Germany, a move Zelenskiy saw as undermining Ukrainian economic and security interests.
Biden granted Zelenskiy a meeting but “didn’t think much” of him, Foer reports, particularly over friendly relations the Ukrainian president had struck up with the hard-right Republican Texas senator Ted Cruz, over the Nord Stream decision.
In protest, Cruz blocked confirmation of state department nominees.
“Whether he understood this or not,” Foer writes, “Zelenskiy was complicit with this stunt. It reeked of what the administration considered amateurism. To be fair, Biden didn’t think much of his Ukrainian counterpart, either.”
Noting the role Biden played in US-Ukrainian relations under Barack Obama – which prompted Trump’s interest in Zelenskiy – Foer says the former vice-president had thus been “deeply involved in Ukrainian politics longer than Zelenskiy”.
Referring to Zelenskiy’s career before entering politics, Foer writes that he was a “slapstick comedian, when it was backslapping pols who tended to command Biden’s instant respect, since he could see himself in them”.
The official transcript of Biden and Zelenskiy’s remarks to reporters before their 1 September Oval Office meeting shows declarations of mutual respect and policy aims. But according to Foer, once the meeting began properly, Zelenskiy “seemed oblivious to Biden’s doubts” and “almost wilfully unaware of Biden’s moral code”.
Biden expected expressions of gratitude for US support, Foer writes. Zelenskiy “crammed his conversations with a long list of demands”. Chief among them: “He needed to join Nato.”
Biden was then 78 years old. Zelenskiy was 43. The older man “tried to pass along some wisdom that might temper the younger man’s zeal”, Foer says, including by noting that sufficient support did not then exist for Ukraine to join Nato.
Russia had been stoking fighting in Ukraine since 2014 and was widely thought to be preparing a full-scale invasion.
Foer writes: “Zelenskiy’s frustration occluded his capacity for logic. After begging to join Nato, he began to lecture that the organisation is, in fact, a historic relic, with waning significance. He told Biden that France and Germany were going to exit Nato.
“It was an absurd analysis – and a blatant contradiction. And it pissed Biden off.”