The release of the recordings prompted a flurry of headlines in Ukraine about new investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Poroshenko. In the United States, Donald Trump Jr. hinted that the recordings contained ominous news for the man likely to face his father in the next U.S. presidential election:
U.S. conservatives took the cue and launched a wave of attacks on the former vice president. Yet their efforts to stir up a full-fledged campaign over the allegations never really got off the ground. The likely reason? The recordings don’t live up to their billing.
Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said they showed Biden making U.S. financial assistance to Ukraine contingent on allowing the corruption schemes of Ukrainian gas company Burisma to continue. If this were true, it would confirm a right-wing conspiracy theory claiming that Joe Biden had leveraged U.S. assistance to protect his son Hunter, who sat on Burisma’s board at the time. Yet the recordings — which are heavily edited and drawn from multiple phone calls — never once mention or allude to Burisma or Hunter Biden.
In the recordings, Biden tells Poroshenko that the United States will withhold aid until Ukraine replaces its prosecutor general. For a U.S. official to make such a demand from a country with a well-established rule of law would normally constitute a serious breach of diplomatic protocol.
But Ukraine, which has been crippled by entrenched corruption almost from its birth as an independent state in 1991, doesn’t fall into that category; both Americans and Europeans have spent years trying to push Kyiv to combat malfeasance (including the firing of corrupt officials). At the time Biden and Poroshenko spoke, Ukrainian activists were taking to the streets to accuse the prosecutor general of neglecting his duty to prosecute corrupt officials and business figures. Pushing for a different prosecutor was also a push to make sure any money given stayed in the Ukrainian state’s coffers.
What most undermines the newsiness of the revelations, though, is that Biden was the first to reveal them in 2018. “If the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money,” he said, summing up his conversation with Poroshenko about then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in a live-streamed talk. “Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.”
Derkach, an ex-member of the Ukrainian security service, has earned notoriety for his role in spreading conspiracy theories. In December, he famously met with Trump confidant Rudolph W. Giuliani in Kyiv, who had traveled to Ukraine looking for dirt on the Bidens. Derkach and Giuliani were taking part in what by then had become a well-established pattern: Ukrainians with various political axes to grind made wild claims about Biden (usually with minimal evidence), which were then picked up by U.S. right-wing commentators and social media. Biden’s campaign team asserts that those participating in such conspiracy theories are assisting a Russian campaign to discredit him ahead of the election.
That assertion isn’t entirely far-fetched. Russian state-controlled media outlet RT has actively promoted the story. Derkach, the son of a Soviet-era KGB officer, is a graduate of the KGB academy in Moscow and has ties to the Russian intelligence services.
More “revelations” of this type are almost certainly on the way. Trump’s handling of the covid-19 crisis is already becoming a liability for his 2020 reelection campaign, and his supporters of all stripes are casting around for anything that might serve as a distraction.
Russia’s cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 campaign showed that such tactics can have a powerful impact on elections. So far, there is little evidence that the Kremlin will change its behavior in the months to come. Biden’s enemies will continue to use Burisma-related claims against him. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to subpoena documents concerning the company.
All of this suggests that Ukraine will continue to the ride the waves of the news cycles during the 2020 election. But if it does become a central topic for Republicans, it may also be harder to sideline Trump’s own actions in Ukraine — the same ones, for those who have forgotten, that got him impeached earlier this year.
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