Oliver Bullough, a frequent contributor to the Guardian, is the author of “Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats who Rule the World.”
Ukraine recently held a democratic election that ushered in a peaceful transfer of power; it is stubbornly resisting an onslaught by Russian-backed troops; it is making small but significant steps toward restraining corruption. With democracy on the retreat worldwide, Ukraine may be the closest thing the West has to a foreign policy win.
To cement that victory, Ukraine needs more of what it has received since its 2014 revolution: Western money, Western support and sustained Western insistence that its rulers keep their promises to clean up their country.
What it does not need is underinformed dinosaurs wading into its sensitive political ecosystem to make points for domestic American consumption. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is now happening — thanks to President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Almost as long as there have been questions over Trump’s Russian dealings, there have been rival questions about former vice president Joe Biden’s role in post-revolutionary Ukraine. To sort out the truth, it’s imperative to understand two things. The first is that Biden’s son Hunter took a job at a Ukrainian oligarch’s gas company, known as Burisma, shortly after the 2014 revolution, which was unwise, greedy and rightly criticized at the time.
The second is that Joe Biden was the White House’s Ukraine enforcer, and it was in this capacity that he forced Ukraine’s president to sack an at-best ineffectual prosecutor general as a condition for a billion dollars’ worth of loans. Biden has himself boasted of this episode, and most Ukrainians are perfectly content about it, since they saw prosecutor Viktor Shokin as incapable of the investigations needed to uncover the previous regime’s crimes.
The trouble began when right-wing bloggers sought to meld these two points into a single conspiracy in which Joe Biden had the prosecutor sacked to protect his son’s business interests. I may be an outsider to the bewildering mess that is Ukrainian politics, but, on this particular issue, I have a genuine insight into what happened, having written extensively about Hunter Biden’s ex-employer, Mykola Zlochevsky.
As a result, when journalists seek the fire behind the smoke in the Biden-Ukraine tale, they often call to ask my opinion. Many are eager to flesh out what seems a satisfyingly simple conspiracy, but I have to tell them: It isn’t true. The timeline doesn’t work. The investigation into Burisma, Hunter Biden’s employer, had ground to a halt long before the prosecutor was sacked. A subsequent probe into the company’s owner was opened because of a request from Ukrainian legislators, not because of prosecutorial initiative. There is, in short, no there there; the bloggers are putting two and two together — and coming up with 22.
Hunter Biden should not have taken the job; Joe Biden should probably not have boasted about bullying the president of another country. But those are judgment matters for them personally, not proof of conspiracy, and certainly not an affair worth destabilizing the fragile democracy of a new U.S. ally.
But that has not stopped Giuliani, who tweeted last week: “how deep and how high did the alleged Ukraine conspiracy go?” He was responding to a story in the New York Times (the Times apparently not “failing” on this occasion, since Trump retweeted the paper’s story), which analyzed the theories around the Bidens’ Ukraine connection. The article ticked all the journalistic boxes, giving father and son space to deny wrongdoing, but still raised a cloud of smoke for those shouting “fire.” If a major newspaper devotes 2,500 words to conflict-of-interest questions, then those questions presumably exist. How often do you beat your wife?
This non-scandal appears to have already wrecked the career of the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, a respected career diplomat who is leaving her post this month. That will inevitably affect the continuity of U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. It is also emboldening oligarchs opposed to the activists who have led the fight against corruption, because they also campaigned for Shokin to be sacked and risk being blackened by association.
President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky is assembling his team, and it is imperative that the West stay as firm with him as it was with his predecessor on fulfilling the conditions that went with its loans. One official he should consider jettisoning is current General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who has not only been as ineffective as Shokin at prosecuting the crooks of the past, but has also been feeding Giuliani the partial information that underpins his conspiracy.
We are all resigned to the fact that U.S. politicians will do their utmost to divide their nation still further over the next two years. But Giuliani must stop using Ukraine as a political piñata. It is a country of 44 million people who are defending their freedom at the cost of much blood. There was a time that all Americans would have applauded them for that, regardless of party. It is shameful that petty political considerations have blinded Trump’s allies to that truth.