When Volodymyr Zelensky won Ukraine’s presidential election in April 2019, President Donald Trump was one of the first world leaders to call to congratulate him. For officials inside Ukraine and out, Zelensky represented a chance for the country to rebuild its anti-corruption institutions and a chance for Kyiv to develop better, stronger relationships with Western countries, including the United States.
But in the weeks and months that followed, efforts to construct a partnership between the Zelensky and Trump administrations, one focused on fighting corruption, crumbled. It crumbled in part because the Zelensky team was pulled into an American domestic political fight spurred by Trump’s push to have Ukraine investigate his rival Joe Biden, Biden’s son Hunter, and supposed interference in the 2016 election. That’s according to Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former chairman of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, who said the requests “rattled” Zelensky’s team.
Danylyuk spoke to The Daily Beast last week in his first on-the-record conversation since impeachment proceedings began in Washington, saying he resigned from his post in Kyiv in September in part “because of the situation with the U.S.” When Danylyuk answered my FaceTime call, he appeared to be in his office in Kyiv, with pictures of the city in the background. The former Ukrainian official was supposed to have traveled to the U.S. to meet me but caught a virus at the World Economic Forum in Davos and flew home to recover. (We plan on meeting in person for our second interview.)
Over the course of two hours, Danylyuk laid out his reasons for joining the Zelensky team and why he decided to leave the administration. The former official said his hope was that he would get to “change lives” as a part of the Zelensky government, helping develop Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions and promoting the country as an international powerhouse worthy of respect. Danylyuk, a self-described technocrat, said the U.S.-Ukraine shakeup “set an uncomfortable background” but that the two countries can still forge ahead with a new, better roadmap.
“There is no other way besides just continuing on,” Danyluk said. “Because what else is there? What else? Emotions? There’s no place for emotions.”
Looking back almost four months after his resignation, Danylyuk says there’s one person in the Trump administration he trusted to help secure a new pathway forward for the U.S. and Ukraine: former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton departed the Trump administration in September, just two weeks before Danylyuk left his post.
“I would say it was definitely John who I trusted,” Danylyuk said. “I think John, because we worked together on trying to set up an official framework for a U.S.-Ukraine relationship.”
Bolton is now the subject of intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where senators are sitting through the impeachment trial of Trump. Over the weekend, The New York Times published an article saying the former national security adviser’s upcoming book reveals that Trump tied Ukraine’s aid to President Zelensky’s opening of the investigations. Senators are now considering calling Bolton to the Hill for questioning.
Danylyuk said he and Bolton arranged a meeting to discuss a roadmap for U.S.-Ukraine cooperation on July 10, 2019. Several former U.S. officials have testified in front of House impeachment investigators that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland first broached the topic of Trump’s demands for investigations. Fiona Hill, the administration’s former top Russia adviser, said during her testimony that Danylyuk appeared “alarmed” during Sondland’s interjections about the investigations. “He didn’t look like he knew what was going on.”
“When I designed it, and drafted it, I discussed it with Zelensky,” Danylyuk said of his roadmap for the U.S. and Ukraine to cooperate on a range of issues. “We went through it very thoroughly. He said, ‘Yeah, I fully support this… it should be the basis of the relationship.’” Danylyuk wouldn’t discuss the military component of the plan but said the plan was “very broad” and included proposals for the U.S. to export American natural gas to Ukraine.
“This roadmap... it covered several areas. But at its core it is about national security,” Danylyuk said. “So if anywhere you can talk about this holistically—it’s with the U.S. National Security Council and Bolton. And he was the person to… discuss the vision.”
Danylyuk said he and his team, which included Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak, “couldn’t conclude [the meeting] properly” because as The Daily Beast previously reported, Sondland interrupted the conversation to bring up the demands from Trump that Zelensky agree to the investigation of the Bidens. Soon after Sondland’s interjection, Bolton ended the official meeting. That’s when the group, which included Hill, Sondland, and other Trump officials, moved into the Ward Room of the White House and Sondland again, but more ferociously, pushed the investigations further, telling Danylyuk and Yermak that it was the only way the two countries could develop a meaningful relationship.
“This roadmap should have been the substance but... [the investigations] were raised,” Danylyuk said.
Danylyuk said he maintained contact with Bolton and his aides at the National Security Council in Washington in the following weeks in an attempt to get a meeting between Zelensky and Trump on the books.
But Team Zelensky grew more and more concerned as the days rolled on, Danylyuk said. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had for weeks appeared on television shows, saying Ukraine should open an investigation into the Bidens and claiming it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 election, not Russia. (The claim is a widely debunked conspiracy theory that national-security officials say has been propagated by Russian intelligence services.)
“At that time it was clear to me that we should not be dropped into into this battle at all,” Danylyuk said. “If we were dragged into this internal process… that would be really bad for the country. And also, if there’s something that violates U.S. law, that’s up to the U.S. to handle.”
On July 21, Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor sent a text message to Sondland, pointing to a conversation he had with Danylyuk about the U.S. taking Ukraine seriously.
“Gordon, one thing Kurt and I talked about yesterday was Sasha Danyliuk’s point that President Zelensky is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” Taylor wrote to Sondland.
“At the time I said there are some serious things that we need to discuss and agree on between the two countries. And that needs to be where the attention goes,” Danylyuk told The Daily Beast about his conversation with U.S. representatives at the time. “And if we’re talking about dragging us into internal politics… using our president who was fresh on the job, inexperienced… that could just destroy everything.”
Then came the now-infamous July 25 call between Zelensky and Trump, the one in which Trump asked for a “favor” and suggesting Ukraine investigate whether individuals in the country interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Things grew “worse” after that, Danylyuk said.
“One thing I can tell you that was clear from this call is that that issue [of the investigations] is an issue of concern for Trump. It was clear,” Danylyuk said.
And then in August, Danylyuk said, he thought that partnership with the U.S. and the roadmap he had designed with Bolton was doomed.
Danylyuk said he first found out that the U.S. was withholding aid to Ukraine by reading Politico’s article published Aug. 28. U.S. officials and Ukrainian diplomats, including the country’s former Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal, have said publicly that Kyiv was aware there were problems with the U.S. aid as early as July.
“I was really surprised and shocked. Because just a couple of days prior to that… I actually had a meeting with John Bolton. Actually, I had several meetings with him. And we had extensive discussions. The last thing I had expected to read was an article about military aid being frozen,” Danylyuk said. “After that... I was trying to get the truth. Was it true or not true?”
Danylyuk said that “it was a panic” inside the Zelensky administration after the initial news broke, saying Zelensky was convinced there had been some sort of mistake. Danylyuk put in calls to the National Security Council and asked other officials in Washington what to make of the news.
“The next time we met in September... it was in Poland for the commemoration of the beginning of the Second World War,” Danylyuk said, adding that he met with Bolton on the sidelines of the commemoration. “I had my suspicions. There was a special situation with one of our defense companies that were acquired by Chinese. And the U.S. was concerned about this. Bolton actually made the public comments about this as well. So somehow I linked this to things and tried to understand. OK, maybe this could be related to this.”
“I never got an answer,” Danylyuk said.
Danylyuk left the Zelensky administration in September, citing multiple “triggers” that pushed him to quit, including the ongoing struggles with the Trump administration.
“I was committed to develop a constructive agenda,” Danylyuk said. “It was a big investment. I invested my reputation, I invested my time. When the situation changed [with the U.S.], I didn’t like it.”