Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian who turned to politics and unexpectedly won Ukraine’s presidential race, marked his inauguration with the announcement of a snap parliamentary poll. But it is the coming election in the US in which his troubled country is set to play the most fractious and controversial role.
The Ukrainian connection was a combustible seam running through the investigations into whether Donald Trump was the Muscovian candidate for the White House. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted and jailed over millions he earned from a former boss, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian leader who had to flee to Russia following the revolution six years ago.
The Manafort affair was just one of many ties that bound the Trump campaign with Ukraine and Russia. Others include Trump declaring during the race that he would accept Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea if he got into the White House, and the case of Ukrainian MP Andrii Artemenko, accused of treason by the Kiev government over an alleged deal with Moscow that drew in Michael Cohen – Trump’s former personal lawyer jailed in the Mueller inquiry – and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who was also convicted by the special counsel.
But now it is the Trump team on the counter-offensive, focusing on supposed transgressions in Ukraine in the belief that it will help in the re-election of their man. And the pressure exerted in doing so, as I discovered on a visit to Ukraine, is sustained and unrelenting.
There are a number of targets. The drive to open an inquiry into claims that the previous government, of Petro Poroshenko, secretly helped the Hillary Clinton campaign. Then there are claims that material incriminating Manafort, a set of documents known as the “black ledger”, were forged. And then there are the allegations that would potentially be the most explosive in the US elections. The team around Trump are targeting Joe Biden, who could emerge as the Democratic nominee, and are tying him to the Ukraine’s web of endemic corruption and misgovernment through his son Hunter Biden, and an energy company.
Meanwhile the Trump administration has also been cleansing personnel in Kiev deemed to be insufficiently loyal. The ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, had been subjected to a barrage of criticism from a coterie including Donald Trump Junior, and has now been recalled from her post – a decision described as a “political hit job” by Democrat members of congress Eliot Engel and Steny Hoyer, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and House majority leader.
Leading the charge is Rudy Giuliani and the strategy fits in very well with the one pursued by the Trump team of “reverse investigating” the US president’s opponents, as the attorney general William Barr is seeking to do in the US with the inquiry into the origins of “Russiagate”.
Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, has also sent a warning, barely bothering to hide its intimidating nature, to Zelensky when he cancelled a planned trip to Ukraine because felt he would be “walking into a group of people that are the enemies of our president… in some cases the enemies of the United States.”
Giuliani had indicated that he was going to ask Zelensky to look into the Mueller investigation and Biden’s son. The Ukrainian president had demurred, letting it be known that he did not want to be drawn into American election feuding, to the chagrin of Trump’s attorney.
But Giuliani has already won a victory – a sudden announcement by Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, that an investigation will take place into Ukraine’s supposed attempt to influence the US polls in 2016, with a focus on claims that the then head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (Nabu) Artem Sytnyk attempted to help Clinton.
The allegations of conspiracy had come from a Ukrainian MP who claimed to have secured a secret recording of Sytnyk discussing his wrongdoing. Lutsenko, speaking to the broadcasting arm of the Washington DC publication The Hill, had said “according to this member of parliament of Ukraine, he got the court decision that the Nabu official conducted an illegal intrusion into the American election campaign”.
“It means that we think Mr Sytnyk, the Nabu director… stressed that in such a way, he wanted to assist the campaign of Ms Clinton.”
Sytnyk had denied the claim and the authenticity of the recording has been questioned. Giuliani had also demanded an investigation into Serhiy Leshchenko, an MP who revealed parts of the “black ledger” and is due to be an adviser to the Zelensky organisation. But some of the Manafort documents were, in fact, produced by an Ukrainian government organisation, not Leshchenko, and had been checked out by Mueller’s investigators and their provenance accepted.
There are other issues that confuse matters. The decision to open the investigation into the Clinton allegations came at Kiev’s District Administrative Court. But there is a problem. Mykhailo Zhernakov, one of the country’s leading reformist lawyers pointed out: “There is no crime in Ukrainian law of interference in foreign elections. This is a fact. So what will the investigation be based on?”
As Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden had been among the western politicians who had criticised the Ukrainian government for doing nothing like enough to tackle corruption, after the country had pledged to do more in return for massive amounts of aid from Europe, the US and international organisations.
In March 2016, Biden warned that a $1bn in loan guarantees would be withheld unless Kiev addressed the issue of graft and replaced Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor general. Shokin, it has been claimed, started an inquiry into Burisma where Hunter Biden is a board member. The accusation is that his sacking was the vice president protecting his son.
Shokin, in a recent interview with a Ukrainian website, has claimed that he was carrying out an active inquiry when he was removed. But is there evidence to support the claim?
It is disputed by Ukrainian prosecutors I and others have spoken to, who deny that the Burisma inquiry, part of a wider investigation into companies owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, a former minister, was even active when the prosecutor general was fired. Vitaliy Kasko, Shokin’s deputy, has produced documents which appear to show that the probe was, in fact, dormant.
Was Joe Biden instrumental in getting Shokin fired? There had, in reality, been strong criticism of the prosecutor from a number of national and international figures. Anders Aslund, the eminent Swedish economist and senior fellow at the think tank Atlantic Council, stressed that it was well known that Shokin had “failed to prosecute anybody of significance, protecting both the Yanukovych circle and the Poroshenko group”. Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Centre in Ukraine wanted to point out that Shokin was fired for failing to prosecute cases of corruption, not to block his crusading zeal for doing so.
Lutsenko, while announcing an inquiry into supposed Clinton conspiracy, stated that Hunter Biden and Burisma were not under investigation. After another salvo from the Trump camp he said he was, however, preparing to pass on details of payments made by Burisma to board members to attorney general William Barr, in case the US authorities wanted to check on whether Joe Biden paid adequate taxes on his income.
Volodymyr Zelensky, as he begins his term in office, is likely to find that the Ukrainian connection, with its twists and turns, accusations and recriminations, will be a bitter and contentious issue in one of the most important American elections in recent times.