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In U.S.-Ukraine dealings, Russia is never far away

President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday.
President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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KIEV, Ukraine — For decades, as Ukraine has drawn a parade of visiting American diplomats and officeholders and investors and political fixers, Russia has rarely been out of anyone’s line of sight.

It’s all about location — and Ukraine’s now-hostile embrace with its big next door neighbor.

Ukraine has become a magnet for all sorts of visitors with expansive — and Moscow-looking — visions. Some see Ukraine as a key to its big neighbor. To others, Ukraine is a crack in Russia’s armor.

While Ukraine has a starring role in the impeachment inquiry in the House, Russia is never far away from anything that happens in Kiev’s territory.

“Ukraine is not another Russia,” objected Yevhen Mahda, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev, while discussing on Saturday the dynamics of the turmoil stemming from the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

During that call, Trump urged Zelensky to work with Attorney General William P. Barr on a possible investigation into Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian gas company that had recruited him as a member of its board.

Biden’s role came to Trump’s attention as the president’s associates — among them Rudolph W. Giuliani — sought to undermine accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Americans’ dealings with Ukraine have all taken place in the context of its proximity to Russia.

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Then-President George H.W. Bush told Ukrainians in August 1991 to stick with Moscow and try to preserve the collapsing Soviet Union. Hillary Clinton told Ukrainians in 2013 to spurn Moscow and sign an agreement with the European Union. Ukraine ignored them both.

In 2004, the United States and other countries sponsored exit polls that led to the overturning of a blatantly rigged election. That began an “Orange Revolution” that led some to hope that such an exercise in transparency could be duplicated in Russia.

Instead it turned Russian President Vladimir Putin resolutely against “color” revolutions anywhere. And it didn’t solve Ukraine’s official corruption or general disregard for the rule of law.

More recently, Paul Manafort began working with the Kremlin-backed president in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. But in 2014, Yanukovych had to flee the country, and Manafort, who would later become Trump’s campaign chairman, wound up in an American prison.

The man who had served as Yanukovych’s prime minister, Mykola Azarov, currently lives in exile in Moscow to escape Ukrainian criminal charges.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) went to Kiev and cheered on the revolutionary crowds who resisted Yanukovych, as a way to send a message to Moscow. A relatively more honest government took office, but Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia in 2014 and has been mired in a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

And Ukraine’s endemic corruption remains a fact of life.

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On Friday, an International Monetary Fund delegation ended talks with Zelensky’s government after failing to reach a new lending agreement.

“Growth is held back by a weak business environment — with shortcomings in the legal framework, pervasive corruption, and large parts of the economy dominated by inefficient state-owned enterprises or by oligarchs — deterring competition and investment,” an IMF statement read.

When one of those oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky, was asked in an interview who would prevail if Zelensky was forced to choose between him and IMF loans, he replied simply: “I will.”

Kolomoisky, who had a business relationship with Zelensky, swears he has kept his distance since this year’s presidential election. Critics don’t believe it.

“Kolomoisky’s influence is direct and transparent,” said Konstantin Batozky, a political analyst. The oligarch said that Ukraine can manage without IMF money, Batozky said.

Running like a river through every Ukrainian political scandal and conflict is the sale and shipment of natural gas. The transit of Russian gas westward to Europe dwarfs Ukraine’s own consumption, by a factor of three in 2018.

The people who profit from it, Kolomoisky said, are not those with expertise in the gas business, but those with political links to the Ukrainian cabinet.

“The business consists of putting documents from one pile onto another,” he said. “It’s like making money out of thin air.”

And the upstream source of most of that money is Russia — which has been noticeably silent on Washington’s latest political storm , even as some Ukrainians worry that in highlighting their failures of governance it plays into Putin’s hands.

It was a gas company, Burisma, that brought Biden on board in 2014, in an apparent effort to clean up its image following the ouster of the graft-ridden Yanukovych administration. (Burisma deals with the extraction of Ukraine’s own natural gas.) A criminal investigation was opened but then allowed to go dormant.

On Friday, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine announced that the investigation covered the years 2010-2012 — during the Yanukovych years and before Biden joined the board. It said there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by the American.

If the country is unable to recast this moment as a fight against corruption, said Oleksandr Solontay, former head of the Power of the People Party, “then in the long-term perspective Ukraine will have an image of total corruption.”

If Ukraine is not Russia, as Mahda accurately pointed out, it bears some cultural resemblance to its big neighbor. Ukrainians’ own “historical inferiority complex,” as he put it, helps to feed Western perceptions of their country always being in Russia’s shadow.

David L. Stern contributed to this report.

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