Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Picture: REUTERS/VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Picture: REUTERS/VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI

US President Donald Trump complained on his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July that the US was providing more assistance to Ukraine than Europe. That’s not quite true — and yet Zelensky didn’t contradict Trump, even when the US president said, “Germany does almost nothing for you — all they do is talk.” He had good reasons for that, beyond simply trying to be nice to a powerful conversation partner who is known to like flattery.

A linear comparison of the US and European support efforts for Ukraine is impossible because of the chaotic way in which US and EU sources release data on it. But the available sources do provide some insights. According to the US Agency for International Development, all departments of the US federal government have provided about $2.1bn in direct financial assistance to Ukraine in fiscal years 2014 through to 2019 — that is, since Ukrainian resident Viktor Yanukovych was deposed. (The agency, however, doesn’t have complete data for 2018 and 2019.)

Data from other sources — the government website ForeignAssistance.gov and the Washington-based Centre for International Policy’s security assistance monitor — add up to about $2.7bn for the same period. No matter how one counts, direct US assistance to Ukraine since its “revolution of dignity” has amounted to between $2bn and $3bn. Washington has also provided $3bn in loan guarantees.

This doesn’t come close to what the EU says it has provided to Ukraine: €15bn in grants and loans. But most of that aid came in the form of debt. When the EU first designed the Ukraine package in 2014, it amounted to €12.8bn, and only €879m of that was supposed to be grants. So when it comes to money Ukraine doesn’t have to repay, the US is a bigger donor.

The Ukrainian economics ministry does its own monitoring of technical assistance by foreign countries. According to its data, the US provides more funding than the EU and all its countries and institutions combined.

This, presumably, is one reason Zelensky told Trump that “the EU should be our biggest partner but technically the US is a much bigger one”. But it’s about more than the numbers.

Even if the EU provides, on aggregate, more aid, the US contribution to Ukraine’s campaign to assert its independence includes a uniformly tough stance on Russia

Zelensky told Trump in July that he was especially grateful for the US support for Ukraine’s defence. Indeed, there’s a much bigger security component in the US assistance than in the European package. Europe is more concerned with things such as governance and the rule of law — and it has done well by Zelensky on that front. (It may help that his pick for prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, was formerly head of the Better Regulation Delivery Office, an EU-funded institution-building project.)

While this kind of assistance is valuable, and helps maintain Ukraine’s hope of joining the EU someday, the US focus on helping Ukraine stand up to Russian military pressure is at least equally important.

Zelensky also mentioned during the call with Trump that he appreciates the US willingness to keep cranking up sanctions against Russia. Europe is softer on Russia, which remains a key trade partner for the EU. Since the content of the call became publicly known, Zelensky has explained that he was concerned about the Council of Europe’s decision to restore Russia’s membership and the lack of European resistance to Nord Stream II, a Russian natural gas pipeline project meant to slash Ukraine’s revenues from gas transit. The US is the pipeline’s staunch opponent.

In other words, even if the EU provides, on aggregate, more aid, the US contribution to Ukraine’s campaign to assert its independence includes a uniformly tough stance on Russia. This stance strengthens Zelensky’s position in any talks with Russia about ending the war in eastern Ukraine. The US is not a party to those talks — they are mediated by Germany and France — but Zelensky fears that if Washington doesn’t have his back, the Europeans might push him to make unacceptable compromises.

Thus it makes perfect sense that Zelensky went out of his way to thank Trump for US assistance, which, depending on whose data you trust, either has risen considerably during his presidency or at least hasn’t shrunk. It also explains why Zelensky went out of his way to humour Trump when he asked that Ukraine investigate a couple of his pet conspiracy theories.

With Trump facing impeachment because of the conversation, I doubt Zelensky will get the support he wants. Anything Trump does for him now will arouse suspicions of a quid pro quo. The Ukrainian president will need to work more diligently on his relationship with the European leaders. And he may have to start with an apology for agreeing with Trump about the lack of European commitment to Ukraine.

• Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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