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Why the Ukraine Scandal is Really about Russia

September 27, 2019


Suddenly, the country of Ukraine has been thrust into the seething molten center of US domestic politics with the revelation that Trump phoned Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on July 25 to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. What we need to keep sight of is that all of this (at least as far as it concerns Trump) ultimately is really about links to Russia, both past and present. Ukraine was just unlucky enough to be caught in the middle.

As the released memcon of Trump’s Mafia-style call to Zelenskyy (read it here) makes clear, his very first “ask” before releasing US money approved by Congress and the Pentagon to help arm Ukraine’s beleaguered military involved the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.

[Trump]: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.

Huh? Well, Crowdstrike is the company that exposed the Russian intrusions into the Democratic Party computers in 2016 which Trump has repeatedly sought to deny. According to the Washington Post, “CrowdStrike has been a subject of allegations that rippled through conservative news sources, onto social media, into the criminal trial of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone and, finally, in July,” into this phone call. The Post reports that “the month before the Ukraine call, Trump voiced dark suspicions about CrowdStrike in a call with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. That same day, Breitbart News had published a story, based on documents that had emerged in Stone’s trial on charges of lying, obstruction and witness tampering, about how the FBI relied on information from CrowdStrike in its probe of the DNC hack. ‘Take a look at Ukraine,’ Trump said to Hannity in a conversation that was broadcast on his show. ‘How come the FBI didn’t take the server from the DNC? Just think about that one, Sean.’ People familiar with the president’s thinking said he has come to suspect the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine.”

In other words, this looks like yet another attempt by Trump to discredit the conclusion of the US intelligence community and the Mueller investigation that Russia interfered to get him elected.

Let’s pause at this point to consider Ukraine’s situation vis-a-vis Russia and the Trump administration. In 2014, massive protests resulted in the removal of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who then fled to Moscow. In response, Russia seized and annexed Crimea, which had been Ukrainian territory, and sent arms and troops to help pro-Russian rebels occupy a large area of eastern Ukraine, which remains effectively in Russian control and where a low-grade shooting war continues today. These actions led the Obama administration to impose severe sanctions on both the Russian government and selected individuals, which Moscow has labored mightily to have removed. (Remember that Mike Flynn reportedly all but promised Russian officials to lift the sanctions right after the 2016 election, while Obama was still president.) Ukraine depends heavily on financial and military support from the EU and the US to resist Russian aggression and to avoid being reduced again to a satellite of its vastly larger and more powerful neighbor. The US Congress and government in general has supported maintaining the sanctions and aid to Ukraine, but Trump himself has been oddly deferential to Putin and has never directly condemned Russian territorial aggression against Ukraine.

Ukraine is clearly vulnerable to this kind of pressure. In May 2018, with the delivery of US Javelin anti-tank missiles in the balance, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor froze investigations into Paul Manafort’s activities in the country.

All this leaves new President Zelenskyy in a highly compromised position. He is threatened by Putin’s Russia and therefore desperately needs military, diplomatic, and economic support from the US, whose president however consistently supports Putin’s positions even though the rest of the US government may not. So what is he supposed to do when Trump calls and demands a “favor”? Especially right after Trump has put a hold on delivering military aid already approved by Congress?

That’s the very definition of being between a rock and a hard place: On one side is a predatory Putin. One the other is Trump whose support he needs, but who often seems suspiciously like an admirer or even agent of Putin, and who clearly got help from him to get elected.

Then there is Ukraine as a nexus of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign as detailed in the Mueller Report, mostly though not exclusively through Paul Manafort, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager. Manafort helped make Yanukovych president of Ukraine, to whom he was introduced by Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian steel oligarch who was based in eastern Ukraine (now largely under Russian control). According to the Washington Post, Manafort’s firm also lobbied for Yanukovych in Washington and other Western capitals, but never bothered to register as a foreign agent. Manafort continued to work in Ukraine after he began working for the Trump campaign. In August 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine published a “black ledger” of secret cash payments showing that Yanukovych’s party had paid Manafort $12.7 million between 2007 and 2012, a revelation that led to him leaving the Trump campaign. According to the New York Times, the illicit payments first came to light when they were published by Serhiy Leshchenko, then a member of the Ukrainian parliament.

Leshchenko’s name appears in the whistleblower complaint (read the entire published redacted version here) .

Beginning in late March 2019, a series of articles appeared in an online publication called The Hill. In these articles, several Ukrainian officials — most notably, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko — made a series of allegations against other Ukrainian officials and current and former U.S. officials. Mr. Lutsenko and his colleagues alleged, inter alia, that they possessed evidence that Ukrainian officials — namely, Head of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine Artem Sytnyk and Member of Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko — had “interfered” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, allegedly in collaboration with the DNC and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Here is the basic kernel of the alternative narrative that Rudy Giuliani has been working tirelessly to construct: That the REAL foreign interference in the 2016 election was by the Clinton campaign, which somehow engineered the leak of the “black ledger” on Manafort to hurt the Trump campaign. The Biden allegations, which have been pretty thoroughly debunked, were the icing on the cake.

The whistleblower (who appears well versed in Ukrainian politics) includes a footnote about Yuriy Lutsenko, the man who was shopping this story around DC.

Mr. Sytnyk and Mr. Leshchenko are two of Mr. Lutsenko’s main domestic rivals. Mr. Lutsenko has no legal training and has been widely criticized in Ukraine for politicizing criminal probes and using his tenure as Prosecutor General to protect corrupt Ukrainian officials. He has publicly feuded with Mr. Sytnyk, who heads Ukraine’s only competent anticorruption body, and with Mr. Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who has repeatedly criticized Mr. Lutsenko’s record. In December 2018, a Ukrainian court upheld a complaint by a Member of Parliament, Mr. Boryslav Rozenblat, who alleged that Mr. Sytnyk and Mr. Leshchenko had “interfered” in the 2016 U.S. election by publicizing a document detailing corrupt payments made by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych before his ouster in 2014. Mr. Rozenblat had originally filed the motion in late 2017 after attempting to flee Ukraine amid an investigation into his taking of a large bribe. On 16 July 2019, Mr. Leshchenko publicly stated that a Ukrainian court had overturned the lower court’s decision.

Lutsenko appears to be who Trump was referring to in his phone call to Zelenskyy when he said: “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.”

Giuliani has been pursuing this narrative widely. According to the Miami Herald, he has two Soviet-born Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, as legal clients. Parnas and Fruman reportedly helped introduce Giuliani in Ukrainian political and financial circles, and they are telling the same story to anyone who will listen. They appear to be referred to–though not by name–in the whistleblower complaint, and have made major donations to Trump and other Republican campaigns. The Herald observes that “Parnas’ and Fruman’s newfound political prominence, including major donations to GOP candidates, belies a history of financial troubles.”

There is no question that Ukraine–like Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union–is rife with corruption, and it would take a panel of experts in Ukrainian politics to parse the corrupt deals and score-settling that is the background of this story. But it is clear that Paul Manafort was in the thick of it. So far, no one has produced any persuasive evidence that Joe Biden or his son engaged in anything nefarious, but in TrumpWorld that doesn’t matter. Trump is still trying to litigate the 2016 election and desperately wants an alternative narrative to use against the “Russia hoax”, and his followers will accept anything, regardless of how flimsy.

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