In this week’s impeachment hearings, government officials have been detailing the Trump administration’s alleged attempts to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally approved aid for Ukraine’s defensive war with Russia unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced investigations into President Trump’s political rival.
And yet, as some Republican members of Congress have noted, in his televised Sept. 25 meeting with Trump, when asked about the now-infamous July 25 phone call in which Trump asked for a favor, Zelensky said “nobody pushed me.”
Why would Zelensky claim that “nobody pushed” if military aid was indeed on the line? As I’ll explain below, understanding that requires understanding what Ukrainians mean by “pressure.”
In Ukraine, ‘pressure’ implies a done deal
Although Trump is known for speaking in generalities, Zelensky is known for his verbal precision. Zelensky was a showman before he became president. As a comedian and an actor, he was famous for his laser focus on the foibles of Ukrainian politicians. Zelensky chooses his words carefully. When he met with Trump, Zelensky knew that Ukrainians would be listening carefully, too.
Zelensky ran for the presidency on an anti-corruption platform, and won in a landslide. Admitting to giving in to pressure — or admitting to pressuring independent members of his government to conduct investigations — would mean not only losing bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress but also destroying his credibility among Ukrainians.
After the Sept. 25 meeting with Trump, Zelensky met with Ukrainian journalists, who immediately asked him for clarification. He said that for him, it was simple: He didn’t want his words to be interpreted to mean that Ukraine would interfere in another country’s elections. Still speaking Ukrainian, he added: “That’s why I said, ‘No one can pressure me. And no one will pressure me.’ ”
In both colloquial Ukrainian and in colloquial Russian, “he pressured me” does not mean merely “I felt pressured.” Instead, it implies you’ve actually been compelled to do something. In Ukrainian politics, “pressure” (tysk) means not just applying pressure; it usually means that the person being pressured cooperated. In Zelensky’s statement to Ukrainian journalists that “no one can pressure me,” he was not commenting on Trump’s action; he was clarifying his own response.
If Zelensky had wanted to convey that there truly was no pressure involved, he could have said, “No one tried to pressure me.”
Ukrainians endured “pressure” at the ballot box
“Pressure” is a word Ukrainians use a lot in their politics, commonly in the weeks and months before elections. It was especially used during both President Leonid Kuchma’s second term (2000-2005) and when Viktor Yanukovych was president (2010-2014) — the years in which Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort worked for Yanukovych. Both of those terms ended with revolution: Thousands of Ukrainians frustrated with corruption and “pressure” took to the streets to demand fair elections and Yanukovych’s ouster. Continuing popular frustration resulted, in 2019, in Zelenky’s election as president in a landslide.
In Ukrainian elections, “pressure” refers to the executive branch using its power to compel other entities — public and private institutions, companies, and organizations — to deliver votes and public demonstrations of support for a sitting president. In other former Soviet countries, people use the term “administrative resource” to describe this process. Russian officials use a similar system to keep incumbents in power.
“Pressure” is not the same as corruption: The end game is political power, not private wealth. The United States has the 1939 Hatch Act to help prevent such abuses of power. But in Ukraine, there is no equivalent constraint. In those years, each election season, word would come down from the presidential administration by telephone, instructing workplace supervisors and local officials to deliver votes. Universities, hospitals and prisons have been favorite targets.
“Pressure” meant people would hear their workplace supervisors and local officials tell them: If you support the president, you get to keep your government job. If you support the president, your business won’t be shut down. If you support the president, your kid keeps his place in kindergarten; your university professor gives you a passing grade; your village gets a line that will deliver natural gas to your street.
Supervisors would also deliver “pressure” through a system of hints, nods and winks known as “understandings.” A university student might hear: “Vova, I know you need your scholarship. The president needs our help in the election. I know you’ll do the right thing.” The use of “understandings” under Kuchma and then Yanukovych became so widely known by the time of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution that they were explicitly mentioned in its sung and chanted mantra: “No to falsification! No to machination! No to understandings! No to lies!”
In recent years, people would have to bring their cellphones into the voting booth and take a photo of their paper ballot to prove they’d voted correctly. Then they’d have to send the photo to their boss. This was such a common practice that people shared inventive ways to get around this requirement. They posted instructions on the Internet that described how to use a thin piece of black thread on their paper ballot, for example, to make it look like they’d voted for the “right” person — before actually voting for someone else.
Zelensky insisted on Ukraine’s sovereignty
In Ukraine, tysk is applied through administrative hierarchies. Bosses can pressure subordinates. Professors can pressure students. Hospital heads can pressure doctors and nurses. Even though heads of state may try to pressure one other all the time, a head of state cannot use tysk on another head of state — unless one of those states is controlled by the other. For Zelensky to say there’d been “pressure” would be to say that Trump is his boss and that Ukraine is a U.S. client state. That latter accusation happens to be one of the Kremlin’s favorite tropes about Ukraine.
For Zelensky to acknowledge “pressure” would have meant admitting defeat. He’d be saying that even Ukraine’s president, like the people he serves, can be forced to act against his will — even by Ukraine’s most important ally and friend. In Ukraine, “pressure” usually happens in a context where people have no real choice but to agree. Zelensky’s claim that no one can pressure him communicated, despite it all, an insistence on sovereignty, autonomy and Zelensky’s other main goal as president: a free Ukraine.
Jessica Pisano is an associate professor of politics at the New School for Social Research in New York. She is writing a book about economic pressure in Ukrainian and Russian elections.