By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
For the second time since the surprise election of Donald Trump, the fight between the Democrats and president Trump is being fought in Ukraine. First, the Muller inquiry put its teeth into the business of Paul Manafort, briefly member of Trump’s campaign team, who made millions in Ukraine, including by orchestrating the election campaign of “pro-Russian” Yanukovich who defeated “pro-Western” Yushchenko. Despite the incapacity of Muller to proof direct collusion between the Kremlin and Trump, the Democrats are still convinced of the existence of a foreign element in the Trump campaign. By September 2019, he offered them a new motive to attack him, and more seriously, as he confirmed himself he had requested the aid of newly elected Ukrainian president Zelensky to gather “kompromat” capable to destabilise the campaign of his rival for the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden. But he denied having linked this cooperation to the delivery of a $400 military aide to Kiev already approved by Congress.
The issue of impeachment is the object of debates. What is for sure is that the Muller inquiry was only a curtain raiser for the exposure of the shoddy business made under the flag of helping democracy and transparency to blossom in former Soviet states. Ukraine had its own peculiarity, but witnessed the same collusion between Western mercenaries and corrupted nationals. As it was the case during the Cold War, the motto was “they are bastards, but they are our bastards”. So president Poroshenko was a “good guy”, who defeated the “bad guy” (read “pro-Russian”), even if he was himself an oligarch and used the judiciary to protect his allies.
President Zelensky had to be tested, by Washington as he was by other capitals. Since independence, all leaders tried to influence Ukrainians, knowing their dependency on foreign aides, first from Russia and that the West. Trump has always been convinced that the Democrats are using dirty tricks against him in the present campaign for his reelection; the Democrats still believe that Trump stole Hillary Clinton’s victory with the help of a foreign state, and is ready to do it again.
The Muller inquiry found skeletons in Ukraine, with the help of Poroshenko’s regime. Trump wanted to enlist his successor to do the same by reopening a criminal case against a company that hired the son of his main rival, Joe Bidden. Indeed, the case of Hunter Bidden’s business in Ukraine was there to be exploited, and the Democrats were naïve to believe it was enough to resign when his father entered into campaign.
It rebound against Trump when he was forced to admit, after denying another “fake news”, that he raised the question during a telephone call with president Zelensky. But he denies the cooperation was a condition for sending the $400.000 approuved by the Congress, which was simply “withhold” the time he was sure the dollars would not feed corruption.
The Burisma factor
In 2014, Ukrainian oligarch Mikola Zlochevsky hired Hunter Bidden to the board of his company Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private gas company, registered in Cyprus, that he set in 2002. Bidden was paid $50.000 a month for working in a field he knew nothing about. But he was the son of American vice-president, who turned out to be Obama man in Ukraine and, together with prominent members of Democrats or Obama’s administration, ostensibly supported “democratic revolution” on Maidan (as well as many Republicans, notably around senator John McCain).
Burisma followed a typical formula for expansion in the Ukrainian oligarchic system, with its confusion between politics and business. He was even minister of natural resources from 2010 to 2012. But in 2014, after President Yanukovich took refuge in Russia, Zlochevsky found himself the target of international investigations into the source of his wealth. In a classical move, he tried to repair his image by hiring a Westerner – and who better than the son of the American vice-president. Another citizen from a friendly country, former Polish president Aleksandr Kwasniewski, is still member of the board.
In fact, especially after 2014 and the folly of Russian adventure, the American involvement in Ukrainian affairs has sharply increased, in a way that EU never did, and will do, with its accent on building democratic institutions and other “non rentable” fields. On the contrary, the American ambassadors, whose successive nomination was analysed in Kiev as an indication of the White House policy towards Ukraine, have been sort of proconsuls in Kiev, influencing politics but also promoting American compagnies, using the fight against corruption and the policy of redistribution, as well as the anti-Russian mood, especially in the sectors of defence industry and energy. It has been “America first” well before president Trump.
All that explains why Trump’s impeachment is also a national affair for Ukraine. Smartly enough, Zelensky and his administration stick to the same line – let the Ukrainian judiciary deal with Ukraine’s internal affairs; and the Americans deal with their own. The media and the public indulged in endless jokes, for the better and for the worst, about the sudden international importance of their country, including among Americans often unable to put it on a map.
In fact, this Washington saga confronts Zelensky with a major test of his political and diplomatic skills.
Much has been said about the end of the bipartisanship in Washington that offered security and certitude to successive Ukrainian presidents. It makes ground around Zelensky less sound, even if the EU is pressured (including by Washington) to increase its aide to anchor Ukraine in the Wester camp., But this end means too that Zelensky’s opponents can play with anti-Trump elements in Washington to derail their president’s agenda, notably by claiming he is turning back into Moscow’s orbit. Poroshenko’s clan was at a loss since his electoral defeat, feeling vulnerable after Zelensky sacked officials in key sectors (armed forces, judiciary, security) and in the regions; and that the new general prosecutor opens inquiries and seize properties.
Now they can team up with anti-Trump forces, for instance to oppose the politics of reconciliation Zelensky promised during his presidential campaign, with a clear response from voters.