Ukraine’s politics has always been a bare-knuckle affair with smears, low blows and, at times, threats of criminal prosecution or even violence. But it’s getting even messier and more unpredictable.
President Volodymyr Zelensky faces declining ratings, a vast economic crisis, the continuing pandemic and stalling reform efforts after losing his control over the parliament. The last thing he needed is more pressure on Ukrainian politics as the U.S. election in November draws nearer.
Ukraine has been here before.
An effort by President Trump’s associates to dig up campaign dirt in Ukraine roiled Ukraine’s politics for more than a year and unbalanced the presidency of Zelensky, a 42-year-old former TV comedian.
Fallout from the recording
The latest political storm in Ukraine touching Zelensky and his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, also has been leveraged by Trump’s backers: recorded snippets of a four-year-old conversation between then-Vice President Joe Biden and Poroshenko. The recording was released by a pro-Russian lawmaker, Andriy Derkach, who met with Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani in Kyiv in December. Poroshenko has called the recording fake, but its authenticity has not been disputed by Biden or aides.
Derkach asserted they showed corruption by Biden and “treason” by Poroshenko. The recording proved neither, according to anti-corruption and disinformation analysts.
But it has sent Zelensky’s administration into damage control and led to an investigation of Poroshenko. Prosecutors issued abuse-of-office charges Wednesday against him in a separate matter. Poroshenko’s name also has been dragged into 19 other cases looking at a range of alleged offenses — from treason to the illegal import of artworks — as a suspect in some and as a witness in others.
Poroshenko has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed what he has called a political campaign against him by “pro-Russian marginals” such as Derkach, who once studied spycraft in Moscow. Poroshenko declined to be interviewed for this report.
Zelensky has repeatedly insisted he wants to steer clear of U.S. political battles after his July 25, 2019, call with Trump was at center stage in Trump’s impeachment in the House and his later acquittal in the Senate. In the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden.
But the current flap in Ukraine appears to draw Zelensky right back into the mix.
'Playing with fire'
When Derkach released the recording last month, Zelensky immediately lent them credibility, even as anti-corruption advocates said they offered no revelations of wrongdoing.
Zelensky told journalists last month that Poroshenko’s purported conversation with Biden over issues including a prosecutor’s dismissal “qualified as high treason” and called on law enforcement to act. He said the prosecutor general would investigate Derkach’s claims and told Ukrainians there were more revelations to come.
Derkach triggering an investigation by Ukraine prosecutors of alleged treason by Poroshenko is pay dirt for Trump allies who have tried since last year to exploit Ukraine’s political divisions and push for investigations of Biden or his son Hunter, who was on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
“Zelensky seems to be playing with fire,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukraine analyst at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “He is leaning in too much into playing in favor of Trump at this moment. Zelensky is not clear in communicating that Ukraine remains neutral.”
Timothy Ash, an emerging-markets analyst at BlueBay Asset Management, wrote that Zelensky “seems to be taking an undue risk by seeming to try and pamper to Trump.”
“Have they not seen the U.S. poll ratings?” he added in an emailed analytical note Friday. “Best to stay neutral chaps.”
Zelensky tried to allay concerns that he was taking sides in the American election race.
“Now we are enjoying bipartisan support in the U.S. both in Congress and the Senate,” he said in a June 1 interview with the Telegraph, the British news outlet. “We have the support of the president. These tapes are not a priority.”
No 'illegal acts' by Bidens found
Ruslan Ryaboshapka, a Ukraine prosecutor general with reformist credentials who served from August to March, conducted a full audit of all the criminal cases in Ukraine involving the Bidens and Burisma. He said he found no evidence of “illegal acts.”
“In my period in the prosecutor general’s office, we did not find any proof of guilt or illegal acts from Burisma or Biden or other American citizens,” he said in an interview.
Ryaboshapka also declined to pursue what he called a political prosecution of Poroshenko. He believes that is one of the reasons he was dismissed.
Zelensky’s call for parliament to fire Ryaboshapka — who had launched sweeping measures to clean up corruption-riddled prosecution offices, dismissing thousands of people — shook Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and Western officials’ confidence in the Zelensky administration.
On Saturday, Ukrainian anti-corruption authorities announced they had seized $5 million, which they allege was intended to bribe top officials to close a criminal case against Mykola Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder. Officials also emphasized that neither Joe nor Hunter Biden had anything to do with the suspected bribery attempt.
The recording has Biden urging Poroshenko to dismiss a prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was seen as an obstacle to anti-corruption efforts. In return, Ukraine would qualify for $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees, contingent on measures against corruption.
In interviews with Russian and Ukrainian media outlets, Derkach and others have raised a dark swirl of assertions of criminality and corruption, with scant evidence. Derkach claims Poroshenko allowed U.S. officials to effectively usurp Ukraine’s sovereignty, accusing him of treason. He also claims Biden was trying to quash investigations of Burisma to protect his son Hunter.
Biden spoke openly about his pressure for Shokin’s removal in 2015 and 2016, part of a campaign by the United States, Europe and global financial institutions to press Ukraine to end corruption and institute reform measures. Biden spokesman Andrew Bates last month dismissed the Derkach recording as “a nothingburger that landed with a thud.”
Oleksandr Onyshchenko, the Ukrainian businessman in exile in Germany who claims to have made the recording, said Giuliani invited him to the United States last year to air the accusations on the One America News Network, a small Trump-favored network that frequently broadcasts conspiracy theories.
According to Chatham House’s Lutsevych, there are also Russian traces.
Derkach studied at the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow in the early 1990s.
“I think Zelensky is acting very naively and there’s a risk that he will be played to damage Ukraine,” Lutsevych said. “I think Russia is in on it for sure.”
Onyshchenko claims to have further material, which he told the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik News would be used by the Trump administration closer to elections — implying that a long drip is planned to maximize political damage to Biden’s campaign.
Such a tactic, long used by Russian and Soviet intelligence, is called “kompromat” — the release of compromising material, used to smear or blackmail targets. The principle depends not on whether the kompromat is true, but whether the swirl of scandalous disinformation does the trick.
“It’s kompromat in a clear way, and I think they will be releasing more, because even Zelensky at the news conference said there will be more coming up,” Lutsevych said.
Nina Jankowicz, a specialist in Russian disinformation at the Wilson Center in Washington, has called Derkach’s allegations “a disinformation narrative around Biden and Ukraine,” saying the recording contains no evidence of wrongdoing.
“I listened to the bombshell recordings about Joe Biden released by an untrustworthy Ukrainian lawmaker today so you don’t have to and here’s what they say: nothing,” she tweeted May 20.
Dixon reported from Moscow.