In my piece, I described how Lutsenko was using the conservative media in the United States to push a false narrative about Ukraine. Specifically, Lutsenko used an interview with journalist John Solomon of the Hill to announce that he was opening a criminal investigation into an alleged attempt by a top Ukrainian law enforcement official to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Lutsenko’s interview set off the ridiculous “Ukraine collusion” narrative that Trump loyalists have been pushing for 10 months.
It was quite clear at the time that the story was fake, and I dismantled it accordingly. Yet I and other Ukraine-watchers had no idea that we had spotted just one small part of a much larger scheme to boost President Trump’s reelection via intrigues in Kyiv. We didn’t know that Giuliani was already plotting to dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden. We hadn’t heard of Parnas or Igor Fruman.
What we thought we were seeing was then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko trying to curry favor with Trump for his own domestic political advantage. That spring, Poroshenko was facing a reelection of his own, and he was tanking in the polls. As I noted in my article, he clearly had an incentive to help Trump by promoting the story of Ukraine collusion in the 2016 election. (Back then, Trump was still dealing with the Mueller investigation, and he could have used the diversion.) A White House meeting in return would have been a big help to Poroshenko.
I might not have been entirely wrong about that. What I didn’t see, though, was that the real push was coming from Washington. We didn’t know that Giuliani and Co. were orchestrating a full-blown campaign to pressure Ukraine into going after Biden.
Parnas got Lutsenko to play along in exchange for a promise to remove Marie Yovanovitch, then serving as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch was a public critic of the Poroshenko administration’s failure to confront corruption — and she clearly regarded Lutsenko as part of the problem. She deemed him ineffective and blocked his meetings with U.S. officials.
He wanted payback. “Lutsenko was motivated out of a lust for revenge,” a top former U.S. official told me. (Lutsenko didn’t respond to my requests for comment.)
The Parnas-Lutsenko chats show how deep the scheme went. In February, long before the notorious July 2019 phone call that prompted Trump’s impeachment inquiry, Team Giuliani was pressuring Poroshenko to announce an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter. In one of his interviews this week, Parnas claimed that the first quid pro quo offer was made to Poroshenko; in exchange for launching an investigation into Biden, Trump would support Poroshenko’s reelection bid. (Poroshenko says that Giuliani never raised Burisma or the Bidens with him.) Poroshenko eventually turned them down, and a month later Parnas coordinated the Hill interview.
Parnas would continue the same tactics with Poroshenko’s successor, Volodymyr Zelensky. As the chats show, officials in Kyiv understood very well that Parnas represented Giuliani and therefore Trump. Parnas had access to Zelensky’s inner circle as well as the head of the Ukrainian security service, the minister of internal affairs and the country’s most notorious oligarch. Many of Ukraine’s top officials corresponded with Parnas, who addressed them in his messages as “brother” (and wrote equally awkwardly in both English and Russian).
Yet there’s still so much we don’t know. The messages set up numerous phone calls and meetings whose details we haven’t learned. Much of the information is fragmentary.
I’m glad that I managed to raise a curtain on one part of the story in its early days. But I don’t find the expanded picture terribly consoling.
I find myself wondering how the United States will be able to promote democracy and anti-corruption programs in Ukraine now that Americans acting in the name of the president have shown that they can be as transactional as the most ruthless oligarchs. And I wonder how the U.S. foreign service will continue to attract top talent when the president and the secretary of state won’t stand by their own ambassadors.
How much worse can it get?