In his testimony before the impeachment inquiry last month, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor described a conversation about a sensitive topic: whether or not Ukrainian law enforcement should investigate Petro Poroshenko, the former president of Ukraine who lost a re-election bid to Volodymyr Zelensky on April 21. Now, one of the Ukrainians in that conversation is indicating that Taylor’s testimony didn’t capture the full story. Taylor, America’s top diplomat in Kyiv, is a key witness in Democrats’ investigation of President Donald Trump and his policy toward Ukraine.
In his testimony, Taylor said two Zelensky aides, Andriy Yermak and Igor Novikov, reacted strongly after Taylor and then-special envoy Ambassador Kurt Volker urged them not to scrutinize Poroshenko. Poroshenko faced criticism during the election for certain military decisions and had faced a bruising scandal when news broke in the weeks before Election Day about the alleged involvement of the son of one of his close business partners in a scheme to soak Ukraine’s defense sector for millions of dollars. One of Poroshenko’s top national security officials, Oleg Gladkovsky, resigned over the news and was reportedly detained last month as part of an investigation into the situation.
“Kurt said, you know, you should move forward, don’t prosecute Poroshenko,” Taylor said in his testimony, describing a conversation that happened on September 14. “And they responded, take a look at this.”
Yermak and Novikov pulled out their phones, according to Taylor, and showed the two American diplomats “pictures of their relatives–one was a brother, and one was a cousin–who had been killed or wounded in the east.”
Taylor apparently saw a connection between the military service of the aides’ family members and the Zelensky administration’s approach to Poroshenko.
“[T]hey showed this to Kurt and me, and they said, Poroshenko is responsible for this,” Taylor said. “There was a deep-seated anger at Poroshenko at an emotional level. And that was one of the things motivating–one of the things motivating the attacks on, or the court cases on President Poroshenko.”
Reached for comment about the exchange, Novikov offered a view of the issues they discussed at that dinner that differed from Taylor’s.
“The fact that one of my close relatives is serving Ukraine, risking his life to protect our country from the Russian aggression makes me proud, not angry,” he told The Daily Beast. “The main issue with Mr. Poroshenko is corruption, especially within the defense sector. In my view, it is unacceptable to steal from the very people who are defending our freedom.”
“I strongly believe that if Ukraine were to deoligarchize itself, there should not be two separate categories: ‘good oligarch’ and ‘bad oligarch,’” he added. “No one should be above the law. Is Mr. Poroshenko an oligarch? I have an opinion on that, but I’ll let everyone else also be the judge of that.”
Volker and Taylor’s efforts to influence Ukrainian prosecutors’ investigation decisions made for a bit of discomfort, according to George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs. Kent said that when Taylor and Volker urged Yermak not to investigate Poroshenko, Yermak pointed to American efforts to get Ukraine to open politically motivated investigations.
“Andry Yermak said: What? You mean the type of investigations you’re pushing for us to do on Biden and Clinton? And at that point Kurt Volker did not respond,” Kent said.
Taylor is set to testify publicly next week as part of Congressional Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. The inquiry focuses on efforts by members of the Trump administration to pressure Kyiv to announce investigations into alleged Ukrainian interference in the U.S. 2016 election and a company linked to former Vice President Joe Biden.