Biden’s campaign dismissed the tapes as revealing nothing but routine international diplomacy. But the leaks reinforced the view that almost no conversation is safe in Ukraine’s cutthroat political battlefield.
Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the administration plans a new law that would make it a crime to publish secretly taped conversations of officials.
The changes, he told The Washington Post in an interview by video link from Kyiv, seeks to end the “malicious practice,” adding this was necessary to “protect state security.”
“I want to emphasize that we regard this as a direct violation of the national security of our country,” he said.
'It's not normal'
“It’s not normal when someone records a head of state. And it’s not important whether this is the illegal act of a Ukrainian citizen because of some domestic motives, or some foreign intelligence services are behind it,” Yermak added, commenting on the Biden tapes.
The move may reassure international diplomats alarmed about Ukraine’s apparent difficulty in keeping high-level conversations private.
It could also protect Zelensky and his team against damaging leaks or disinformation campaigns of the kind that surface constantly here. But the measure may also raise alarm bells for journalists and anti-corruption activists if it stops them from airing tapes showing corruption of public officials, judges, prosecutors and others.
Last year, Zelensky was drawn into the center of a Washington firestorm after Trump tried to pressure him to launch investigations into Biden and his son to help his reelection campaign. The transcript of the July 25, 2019, conversation helped trigger impeachment hearings against Trump, who was impeached by the House and later acquitted by the Senate.
In May, Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach released tapes of the Biden-Poroshenko conversations, claiming they showed Biden was interfering in Ukrainian affairs. Biden spokesman Andrew Bates in May dismissed the Derkach recording as “a nothingburger that landed with a thud.”
The leak is being investigated by Ukrainian prosecutors.
U.S. ties crucial for Ukraine
Presidential adviser Igor Novikov — who called scandalous tape leaks Ukraine’s “national sport” that had to end — said Ukraine had to mend the damage to its image caused by the leak of the Biden conversations.
“We, I think, narrowly avoided Ukraine becoming toxic during the impeachment,” he said in a follow-up interview with The Post. “And since we’re now actively being dragged into U.S. domestic political fight against our will, we are again in danger of becoming toxic, meaning that nobody would want to deal with us.
“It’s a dangerous situation. I cannot think of many precedents, globally, where the conversations between an acting president and a vice president of the United States were not only recorded and leaked but also showcased in the manner they are now. And it’s in nobody’s interest, including the United States’,” Novikov added.
The leaders of Ukraine — wedged uncomfortably between Russia and Europe — rely on Washington’s support as they deal with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, its backing of rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine as well as disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks.
Although Zelensky plans to move swiftly on the proposed new anti-leak law, the effort may come too late to keep Ukraine out of U.S. election politics by stopping more tapes from surfacing before November.
Derkach asserted that the tapes exposed corruption when Biden urged Poroshenko to fire a prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, as a condition for U.S. loan guarantees. Derkach claimed Biden’s request was made to protect his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
But officials of global financial institutions and the European Union were also pressing for the removal of Shokin, who was widely seen as ineffective at battling corruption.
Fugitive businessman Oleksandr Onyshchenko claimed he has more recordings. More Ukrainian tapes also could surface as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee probes Hunter Biden. Ukraine prosecutors have found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
History of tape leaks
Ukraine has a long history of cases of illegal secret recordings surfacing with dramatic effect.
In 2000, the body of Georgiy Gongadze — an investigative journalist who was a sharp critic of Ukraine’s president at the time, Leonid Kuchma — was found decapitated in a forest outside Kyiv. Weeks later, one of Kuchma’s former bodyguards released taped conversations in which Kuchma allegedly discussed how to silence Gongadze. Kuchma denied he ever said this and maintains that the tapes were doctored.
During the country’s pro-Western demonstrations in 2014, recordings were posted online that appeared to be between U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and Washington’s ambassador in Kyiv, Geoffrey Pyatt, allegedly discussing their preferences for appointments to the Ukrainian cabinet.
U.S. officials accused Russia’s intelligence services of being behind the leak, though they did not deny the authenticity of the recordings.
Stern reported from Kyiv. Natalie Gryvnyak in Kyiv contributed to this report.