Biden’s Ukraine Problem Has Nothing to Do With His Son
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s clear by now that former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in a large field of Democratic candidates for the presidency, will have to keep answering questions about his own and his son Hunter’s involvement in Ukrainian affairs. President Donald Trump, aides such as Rudy Giuliani, and Fox News commentators will keep calling for the Bidens to be investigated for a conflict of interest, and various Ukrainian figures will do their best to keep the story alive.
The conflict of interest story isn’t worth much on its merits. But if it plagues Biden, he will deserve it for the ham-handed way he interfered in Ukrainian politics — a snake-pit that isn’t kind to badly informed outsiders. Biden’s cowboy-style interventions didn’t do Ukraine any good, and its wily politicians ran circles around him. Americans shouldn’t pay too much attention to the shaky corruption allegations, but Biden’s record in Ukraine doesn’t speak well for his judgment on foreign policy.
The central allegation spun up by Trump and his allies involves Hunter Biden’s work for the oil and gas company Burisma Holdings, where he served as a board member from 2014 until recently. Burisma is owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, who had been a cabinet minister under President Viktor Yanukovych. Zlochevsky fled Ukraine after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity that deposed Yanukovych, and was put under investigation by the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office. Last year, Biden famously boasted that he had forced Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to fire the prosecutor general by threatening to withhold a $1 billion U.S. loan if he failed to obey.
Now, that prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, says he was fired because he was pursuing Zlochevsky and Burisma. “I didn’t get the hints that we should stop the investigation of Burisma wrongdoing,” he said in an interview published this week, in which he also accuses Biden of pursuing “personal interests” in Ukraine and recruiting Ukrainian officials to protect them — charges Biden denies.
Shokin’s claims are highly questionable. The illegal enrichment and money laundering investigation against Zlochevsky was started in August 2014 at the request of Shokin’s deputy, Vitaly Kasko. He had a strained relationship with his boss, and resigned in early 2016, two months before Shokin’s firing. Shokin didn’t actually lead the Zlochevsky investigation, so his removal wasn’t necessary to stop it. Besides, Kasko denies there was any U.S. pressure to end the investigation: He told Bloomberg News that the case had been dormant for a while when Shokin was fired.
It’s likely, however, that Poroshenko was indeed interested in ending the Burisma investigation for reasons that may or may not have had anything to do with the Bidens. Global corruption watchdog Transparency International closely followed the transformation of the criminal investigation into a demand for back taxes. “There are reasonable grounds to believe that close associates of current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have significantly assisted Mykola Zlochevsky in dismissing criminal cases against him,” Transparency wrote in a detailed brief on the history of the Zlochevsky investigation.
Zlochevsky, cleared of all charges, is free to do business in Ukraine, and Burisma reports steady growth in natural gas production. And Poroshenko, of course, has been voted out as president, losing by a landslide to comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy last month. Depending on whether Zelenskiy decides to go after Poroshenko for alleged graft — he hinted strongly during the campaign that he would do so — the Burisma narrative coming from Ukraine may undergo surprising permutations. Ukraine is a country without a functioning legal system. Justice often depends on who’s in charge.
Trump partisans will try to use the Burisma case to pump up the shaky claims into a scandal against Biden. But Biden opened himself up to the smears by diving into the Ukrainian cesspool — and bragging about it. Shokin’s words would be that much less credible had Biden not boasted that he’d personally gotten the prosecutor fired. Although Ukrainian anti-corruption activists had been clamoring for Shokin’s dismissal and his days in office were probably numbered, Biden decided for some reason to claim credit — a move as nearsighted as it was unnecessary.
Biden’s other boasts about Ukraine reveal a naivete about the country’s political landscape and the forces shaping it. In his 2017 memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden described making a call to Yanukovych “in late February of 2014, when his snipers were assassinating Ukrainian citizens by the dozens” to tell him to “call off his gunmen and walk away” because “his Russian friends” wouldn’t rescue him from the disaster. “The disgraced president fled Ukraine the next day,” Biden wrote.
If indeed Biden called Yanukovych the day before his flight, that would have been Feb. 21, when Yanukovych signed a European-brokered deal with opposition politicians that would have kept him in office for a transition period with drastically reduced powers. Protesters seized the government quarter in Kiev in the next few hours, and Yanukovych fled to his country residence, fearing for his life. It’s impossible to know now if it was Biden’s alleged call, coupled with the takeover of government buildings, that gave Yanukovych the idea the deal was never meant to be kept. If so, Biden could have inadvertently helped to set off the chain of events that led to the Russian takeover of Crimea as a reaction to what Russian President Vladimir Putin saw as a U.S.-led coup.
In other Ukraine interventions, Biden tried to keep the peace between Poroshenko and his first prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whom Biden described as a “young patriot” in his book — long after the Yatsenyuk became deeply unpopular thanks to the corrupt schemes of his associates. Poroshenko listened to Biden’s exhortations about working with Yatsenyuk, then pushed him out anyway once Yatsenyuk had been thoroughly discredited.
Biden has publicly insisted that the Ukrainian authorities get tougher on corruption. He even made an impassioned speech about it to the Ukrainian parliament in 2015. But at the same time, he likely led Ukrainian leaders to believe that maintaining a good relationship with the U.S. vice president meant more than any substantive anti-graft measures when it came to getting foreign aid. Poroshenko, Biden wrote in his memoirs, “knew I had gone to bat for him to get aid from the International Monetary Fund and loan guarantees from the United States.” The IMF, of course, is supposed to issue loans based on strict criteria, not on political support; if Poroshenko indeed “knew” anything of the sort, it must have contributed to his imitation of reforms for the sake of foreign sponsors such as Biden. It didn’t help him much with Ukrainian voters this year, though.
Generally, open meddling in the politics of a foreign country, even one as troubled as Ukraine, isn’t a great idea for a U.S. politician, even if he was personally handed the Ukraine portfolio by the president. It’s even worse when the politician doesn’t have a clear idea of the consequences. The election of populist political novice Zelenskiy is a direct consequence of Poroshenko’s bungling rule, assisted by a bungling, boastful Biden. Once Zelenskiy takes office this month, the U.S. will have to turn a new leaf with Ukraine.
There’s nothing much for U.S. voters to see in the Burisma case: It’s too convoluted and buried under too many layers of Ukrainian political and business relationships to yield any useful conclusions about Biden’s character. The voters, however, would be right to ask whether Biden’s foreign policy skills, as displayed in Ukraine, are what the U.S. needs to rebuild the relationships undermined by Trump and his rough, bullying style. I’d say a subtler diplomat and better judge of character would be needed for such a role.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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