MOSCOW—Just as the U.S. Congress and the world prepared to hear bombshell testimony in the impeachment hearings this week, headlines in the Ukrainian and Russian press Wednesday claimed that the government in Kyiv is opening a criminal investigation into the natural gas company Burisma and Hunter Biden, the son of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who sat on its board.
That would be a bombshell in itself. Trump’s pressure on Ukraine’s new president to announce such investigations is at the center of allegations that Trump abused the power of his office—even as Trump has exploited the publicity to continue smearing Joe Biden, a possible rival in the 2020 elections.
Right-wing Twitter feeds in the United States claimed not only that the investigation had been opened, but that there had been an “indictment” of Burisma’s founder—until Twitter suspended one of the sites pushing that fake news, and others quickly deleted their posts.
According to Ukraine’s prosecutor general there is no such investigation into Burisma and the Bidens by his office, and there are no outstanding indictments.
But the fake story is important nonetheless. It indicates some of Ukraine’s politicians and oligarchs want to curry favor with U.S. President Donald Trump in ways connected to the impeachment inquiries. They also have promoted what Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia at the Trump White House, testified on Thursday is a “fictional narrative” of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections.
In the complicated and corrupt political landscape of Ukraine, some of those promoting these fictions are associated with President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Servant of the People party. This, even though the record shows Zelensky and his close aides have sought to steer clear of American politics.
The story began when two members of Ukraine’s parliament declared at a press conference on Wednesday that “investigations” have been opened into Burisma, Hunter Biden and Burisma’s founder, billionaire and former minister of natural resources Nikolay Zlochevsky.
Alexander Dubinsky, a Ukrainian MP from Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party, claimed that Hunter Biden and his “partners” had been paid a total of $16.5 million with “money raised through criminal means and money laundering.” It is not clear what Dubinsky meant by “partners,” possibly other members of the board, which included a former president of Poland.
Ukrainians know Dubinsky as a YouTube blogger and a presenter on the 1+1 television channel which belongs to Ukraine’s most influential oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky. Importantly, he was Zelensky’s patron when Zelensky was just an actor in a sitcom about an unlikely common man who becomes Ukraine’s head of state. Kolomoisky had spent years living in Israel after fraud charges were leveled against him by the previous government in Kyiv, but he returned to Ukraine following Zelensky’s election.
Another member of Ukraine’s parliament, Andriy Derkach, said at the Wednesday press conference that new information has been found by “investigative journalists” about international money laundering schemes involving Zlochevsky and ex-President Victor Yanukovych’s family, “in particular, with regard to laundering of criminally obtained income." Zlochevsky held his cabinet position as minister of the environment and natural resources under Yanukovych, who was overthrown by the popular Maidan Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and fled to Russia.
Derkach has an interesting background. He was formerly a member of Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, which was advised by Paul Manafort before Manafort became Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016.
By the time Trump was elected, Derkach had become an independent. In early 2017, according to reports by Politico that year, Derkach began pushing publicly for a probe into what he claimed had been meddling by the Ukrainian government of then-President Petro Poroshenko in the U.S. presidential race.
In a tweet on July 25, 2017, Trump called on the U.S. attorney general’s office to investigate “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage the Trump campaign.” That was exactly two years before Trump asked a “favor” of Zelensky, which was for Ukraine to announce just such an investigation.
Last month MP Derkach claimed that Ukraine had paid Hunter Biden $900,000 for lobbying through a company named Rosemont Seneca Partners, the investment company Hunter Biden founded with Chris Heinz, the stepson of former Secretary of State John Kerry.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani referred to those claims when he appeared on Hannity on Fox News last month.
Only a couple of hours after the MPs ended their presentation in Kyiv, Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka spoke at his own press conference about the review of all cases mentioning “Biden” and “Burisma.” And the most important message for Washington was loud and clear: “The Burisma probe does not exist,” said Ryaboshapka. He added that there were 13 cases mentioning Zlochevsky, who is wanted in Ukraine but has not been apprehended.
“Here is what is going to happen to these cases next,” said Ryaboshapka. “They will be handed over in accordance with their jurisdiction. Some of them will be transferred to NABU [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau], others perhaps to the National Bureau of Investigation, and the rest maybe to the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine], where they focus on financial terrorism or terrorist acts.” (Terrorism in this context can refer to Russian backed separatists.)
Ryaboshapka also pointed out that he had not discussed the Biden case with any foreign governments: “I haven’t been asked any questions, haven’t been pressured or given any requests.“
Testimony at the impeachment hearings suggests Trump did not care what the prosecutors say. He wanted President Zelensky to commit in public.
As for the billionaire Zlochevsky, the prosecutor explained that the investigation into the Burisma founder was expanded to include large-scale fraud, but then the case was suspended because Zlochevsky’s whereabouts were unknown.
Even before the prosecutor general clarified the issue of Biden and Burisma investigations, attentive Kyiv observers had made their own conclusions about the real agenda behind the statements of MP Dubinsky and MP Derkach.
“These are Kolomoisky the businessman’s people, they represent his interests, I doubt that they represent Ukraine’s interests,” says Ivan Yakovina of the magazine Novoe Vremia. “At the moment, nobody is investigating Burisma.”
Ukraine’s leading corruption fighter, Daria Kaleniuk, told The Daily Beast that several Ukrainian politicians are now using the impeachment process for their personal interests. “Dubinsky is supported by about 20 percent of the Servant of the People party. They are now in contradiction to the party’s leadership and to President Zelensky. And Kolomoisky’s hand in this is getting more and more clear.”
Kaleniuk also said that she had seen the “investigation” documents mentioning a U.S. based investment company. “There was no evidence, just a memorandum, a one page Word document—the investigation was pushed forward by Konstyantyn Kulyk, ” she said. Kulyk is a prosecutor who has faced allegations of corruption himself. Independent corruption fighters have been pushing to have him removed from the prosecutor’s office
In an interview with The New York Times Kolomoisky said that if he were Trump, he would proceed with the investigations. The oligarch threatened the Democrats: “If they get smart with us, we’ll go to the Russians.” This aggressive irony is typical of Kolomoisky. The Daily Beast asked him during a lunch break at the Yalta European Strategy conference in September about Trump releasing $390 million in military aid and $140 million more than the amount Kyiv had expected.
“Is this big money for United States? When they give us at least one billion dollars, then we are going to thank them,” Kolomoisky said.
It is hard to overstate how important it is for Washington to understand the depth of corruption in Ukraine and the game played by Kolomoisky. The oligarch is widely criticized for his cynical calls “to embrace” Russia.
“What is the fastest way to resolve issues and restore relationships?” Kolomoisky asked rhetorically in his interview with The New York Times. “Only money,” he said.
Many in Ukraine believe that Kolomoisky is in fact desperate for money after a British court froze $1.9 billion of his assets. But apparently the oligarch, who is very close to President Zelensky, is still powerful enough. “Kolomoisky is believed to control 25 percent of Servant of the People’s Rada deputies,” says Jim Brooke, editor in chief of the Ukraine Business News journal.
Could such figures play a decisive role in the fate of the American president? Once the Pandora’s box of Ukraine’s corruption is opened, in fact, almost anything is possible.