KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Thursday that Ukraine is compelled to investigate accusations that his country may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
While he does not have evidence to say whether or not Ukraine did interfere in the U.S. election, it was in his country’s best interest to do a thorough investigation on the issue, Zelenskiy said.
“Ukrainians themselves should investigate, because this is primarily our business,” he said in a news conference in Kyiv, the capital. His comment was in response to a question posed by a reporter on whether he planned to investigate allegations that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“It is very important for us, because we will never interfere in the elections of any country in the future,” he said.
Zelenskiy’s comments came during a marathon news conference in which he fielded questions from groups of Ukrainian and international journalists on subjects as diverse as his role in President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry and resolving the conflict with Russia-backed militias in eastern Ukraine.
The former comedic actor with no previous political experience took office in July after a landslide election victory in which he promised to combat corruption and end the war in the east.
Last month, Zelenskiy found himself in the center of a domestic U.S. political scandal after a phone call between him and the U.S. president became the basis for Trump’s impeachment trial.
Congress is investigating if Trump attempted to pressure Zelenskiy to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s dealings in Ukraine. Biden is a possible leading Democratic rival against Trump’s reelection bid for 2020.
Democrats accuse Trump of pressing Zelenskiy for a quid pro quo by asking for a “favor” that would open an investigation into Biden in exchange for releasing nearly $400 million slated to aid Ukraine’s fight against the Russia-backed militias in the east.
Ukraine has been battling the separatist militias since 2014 in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives. The U.S. along with the European Union and other nations has supported Kyiv’s fight to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for the eastern militia groups.
Zelenskiy repeated Thursday that he did not believe that Trump pressured Ukraine.
“There was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.,” he told a group of journalists.
“This call influenced only one thing. We needed to secure a meeting, that it was necessary to meet with the president. I wanted to show him our team, our young team. I wanted to get him into Ukraine,” he said.
Zelenskiy said he had no idea the military aid was held up at the time of the call. When he discovered that it was on hold, he raised it with Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting in Warsaw, he said.
“And after this meeting, the U.S. unlocked the aid and added $140 million. That’s why there was no blackmail,” he said.
At home in Ukraine, Zelenskiy has been criticized by journalists for being inaccessible to the media. On Thursday, his team sought to dispel that idea and show that he intended to be a different kind of president for a country that he been challenged by decades of corruption and governments run by politicians deeply entangled in the country’s oligarchy.
Zelenskiy’s team announced late on Wednesday that he would be holding what they called a “press marathon” that would start at 10 a.m. The chosen venue was the Kyiv Food Market, one of the capital’s hip new food halls. The modern venue recently opened in a renovated, centuries-old factory complex, Arsenal, which once produced weapons, among other things.
More than 300 journalists applied for accreditation to the event. The journalists were placed into groups of seven to 10 people and scheduled for 20- to 30-minute sit-down sessions with the president, where they sat at a long dining table on the food hall’s second-floor balcony.
The conference was broadcast live on social media and on several television channels. Questions were not taken in advance and there were no limits set on the line of questioning.
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The event was in stark contrast to Putin’s annual events, in which as many as 1,200 Russian and international journalists sit in an auditorium for sometimes four hours as Putin takes pre-approved questions from Kremlin-selected media.
Zelenskiy told reporters he was not afraid of meeting Putin either in direct talks or at a peace talks summit forum called the Normandy Format tentatively schedule with leaders of Russia, Germany and France at the end of the month.
Ukraine accuses Putin of conducting an aggressive campaign against it since the Maidan street revolution of 2014 led to the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president and firmly put the nation of 45 million on a path out of Moscow’s perceived sphere of influence. Moscow annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula Crimea months later and supported a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
(Ayres is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)
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