Ian Bateson is a journalist covering Ukraine and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).
The documentary of that trip has now been released, and it tells a truly fantastic tale, as presented by OAN correspondent Chanel Rion. As she and Giuliani tried to uncover the truth, Rion claimed, 1,000 Ukrainian troops were deployed in Kyiv as part of an effort to find them. Once they were found, they raced to the airport, where Jewish Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk and Jewish businessman and philanthropist George Soros were waiting for them with “human Dobermans in little black Mercedes.”
For journalists like me who have lived and worked in Ukraine for years, these claims were comical. Kyiv’s main international airport is about as much of a hub for intrigue as La Guardia. There is no evidence of a mobilization of Ukrainian troops in Kyiv while Giuliani and Co. were there. Soros does not live in Ukraine and hasn’t visited since 2016, and no one else has reported Pinchuk lurking at the airport. (Rion later tried to hedge her claim about Pinchuk and Soros, if only halfheartedly.)
The inaccuracies are perhaps not surprising given that, before working as OAN’s Washington correspondent, Rion was an amateur political cartoonist trading in right-wing conspiracy theories as well as a self-described author of young adult mystery novels “for girls who want to Make America Great Again.”
On cable news shows and Twitter, Giuliani has been echoing the same outlandish claims made by the documentary. He stated that one former Ukrainian prosecutor they spoke to who had proof of a Biden conspiracy had been poisoned with mercury, died twice and been revived. With Trump putting on pressure, the Senate Judiciary Committee has agreed to hear Giuliani and his evidence. In short, Giuliani’s claims about information coming from Ukraine look like they are going to become ammunition for Trump’s eventual impeachment trial in the Senate.
Giuliani’s three main sources in the documentary are former Ukrainian prosecutor generals Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko and Ukrainian member of parliament Andriy Derkach. Shokin is the former prosecutor who allegedly died twice without anyone in Ukraine noticing. For anyone who was reporting on Ukraine when Shokin was prosecutor general, Giuliani’s claim that Shokin was an anti-corruption crusader is ridiculous. Civil society groups tried for months to have him removed because of his failure to go after corrupt officials. Then-President Petro Poroshenko fought to keep him because in Ukraine prosecution is politicized, and you want a loyal prosecutor who can bring charges against your enemies that you can use as leverage in political negotiations. What finally stopped the deadlock was Biden threatening to block aid.
The second prosecutor is Yuriy Lutsenko, known as Ukraine’s first prosecutor general without a law degree. He has a record of making baseless statements to grab headlines and attention; if the backlash in response to his provocative statements starts to get too big, he then rolls them back. This is exactly what happened when he falsely claimed that former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave him a “do not prosecute” list. Now in the documentary he is making the same claim again.
Derkach is a member of parliament formerly of the party of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who is now in exile in Russia after losing power in a popular uprising five years ago. Derkach, a graduate of the KGB academy in Moscow, is known for peddling conspiracy theories.
In short, none of these people are credible.
And what about all those statements and legal documents Giuliani has been collecting? I’ve seen a lot of others like them during my nearly six years in Ukraine, handed out by corrupt officials trying to dismiss allegations against them. There are rarely any repercussions for even the most outlandish of statements, and an official government letter denying or alleging wrongdoing can be either forged or obtained from a prosecutor who has nothing to do with the case.
Few Americans are aware of this context. Commentators and journalists tend to assume that all Ukrainian officials and institutions are equal and give them the same weight as American officials and institutions. That lack of knowledge makes it easy for people like Giuliani to project their version of reality onto Ukraine.
Corruption and politicized prosecution are still big problems in Ukraine. The irony is that the programs supported by the State Department were starting to change that.
For the time being, it still isn’t uncommon for Ukrainian politicians to try to cut a deal to open a baseless investigation into an opponent. What’s surprising this time is that it wasn’t a Ukrainian president who asked, or who opened one.