Both Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky are political novices who tapped public discontent to win presidential elections, arguably against all odds. They are also TV personalities with a knack for engaging their voters through social media and breaking political protocol.
So, when Volodymyr Zelensky meets with Donald Trump for the first time in Washington in the coming weeks, that common background could help Ukraine’s new president forge a bond with his U.S. counterpart and elevate the bilateral relationship, according to RFE/RL.
The evidence suggests that Zelensky may have a tougher time winning over Trump than he had winning the votes of Ukrainians in presidential elections, the publication notes. "Even as the United States has moved to punish Moscow for its interference in Ukraine, among other actions that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials have called 'malign activity,' Trump has repeatedly voiced hope for warmer ties with Russia and has cultivated a relationship with President Vladimir Putin – a target of animus for many in Ukraine.
Trump has said he has been “tougher” on Russia than other U.S. presidents – and Washington has increased support for Kyiv since Trump took office in January 2017, including authorizing the shipment of lethal weapons that his predecessor, Barack Obama, declined to send.
But analysts and former officials who are critical of Trump say that U.S. policy on Ukraine has run counter to the president’s own rhetoric, suggesting that key members of his administration have been imposing their views.
"Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t care about Ukraine -- that he is either deeply skeptical or simply doesn't think it's an issue that should concern the United States," says Andrew Weiss, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The most we can hope for [from the meeting] is that Trump is changed from an intense Ukraine skeptic to someone who is grudgingly willing" to maintain the current U.S. support for Kyiv.
The U.S. president has sought out meetings with Putin, and praised him, while giving less face time to Poroshenko, who – like Trump – was a wealthy businessman before coming to power.
The chances of a close relationship between Trump and Poroshenko may have been damaged from the start by reports that his government helped propagate damaging information about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now in prison, ahead of the 2016 election.
Zelensky, an outsider to politics and diplomacy until his election campaign, has no connection to that baggage. That gives him a potential leg up, analysts say.
"If Zelensky’s charm is as real in person as it is on the TV screen, he may be able to break through with this president in a way that his predecessor could not,” says Andrij Dobriansky, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
Another development that could alter U.S. ties with Ukraine is the appointment of a new ambassador to Kyiv in the wake of the departure in May of Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat and Obama appointee who had been targeted by Ukraine’s prosecutor-general in public attacks that were amplified by conservative U.S. media outlets.
But a potential roadblock to close cooperation between Zelensky and the White House will be efforts to undermine Joe Biden, who is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in 2020.
A date for Zelensky's visit has not been announced, but it appears likely to take place by summer’s end.
Trump and Zelensky are expected to discuss greater U.S. military assistance to Kyiv -- such as possible deliveries of special-forces boats to the Sea of Azov.
Like Poroshenko before him, Zelensky may seek to play to Trump’s desire to announce sales for American goods or services abroad, former officials and analysts say.
Shortly after Poroshenko visited the new U.S. president at the White House in June 2017, Ukraine announced it would buy coal for the first time from Pennsylvania, a state that Trump won in 2016 and that could be crucial to his 2020 reelection bid.
Early in July, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv announced that Ukraine had requested for the first time to buy military equipment from the United States. The size of the deal was not announced and a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, John Herbst, said the agreement had been in the works for some time and is not tied to Zelensky's meeting with Trump.