KYIV – Ukraine has been shaken by a new scandal involving leaked recordings, purportedly made secretly at the highest level, but this time involving former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the current U.S. presidential candidate from the Democratic Party, Joe Biden.
While this affair obviously has potential ramifications within the context of the U.S. presidential campaign and for U.S.-Ukraine relations generally, it is already impacting Ukrainian domestic politics.
On May 19, Ukrainian National Deputy Andriy Derkach, an ally of President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, released audio recordings received from “investigative journalists” of alleged phone conversations between former U.S. Vice-President Biden and former President Poroshenko made in 2015-2016 when they were in office.
Among other things, Messrs. Biden and Poroshenko are supposedly heard discussing the need to dismiss the Ukrainian prosecutor general at that time, Viktor Shokin, in return for $1 billion in U.S. aid. Mr. Shokin was reportedly investigating Biden’s son Hunter for financial impropriety in Ukraine.
The Biden-Poroshenko-Shokin subject had already been raised before and, given the political rivalry between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, required some smart footwork last year from newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his dealings with the current U.S. Administration.
Initially, the new leaks and recycled accusations made more of a splash in Ukraine than in Washington. The Washington Post, for instance, dismissed them as a case of both déjà vu and much ado about nothing. But the potential damage that could be caused by the leaks has resulted in an unprecedented pro-Ukrainian response – seven former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine issued a statement expressing their concerns and affirming their support for Kyiv. (See their statement on page 3.)
In Ukraine, commentators did not hesitate to describe the affair as the most serious since the cassette scandal back in late 2000 when President Leonid Kuchma’s former bodyguard, Maj. Mykola Melnychenko, revealed conversations purportedly recorded secretly in the president’s office.
Both Mr. Derkach and President Zelenskyy have stated that more leaks can be expected from the same, as yet undisclosed, source. Much will depend on whether anything new emerges that is more damaging for Mr. Biden or the Ukrainian side, notably Mr. Poroshenko, but also for Ukraine’s credibility. If additional recordings emerge, will they be limited to the Biden-Ukraine theme, or will they shed new light on the inner workings of Mr. Poroshenko’s administration and hurt him, and by implication post-Revolution of Dignity Ukraine as such?
Mr. Biden says the leaked recordings have been heavily edited, while Mr. Poroshenko dismisses them as “fabricated.” Nevertheless, President Zelenskyy has declared that the recordings will be investigated. Subsequently, Mr. Poroshenko’s lawyer, Ilya Novikov, revealed that Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova had opened a criminal case over the so-called “Biden recordings.”
In fact, the Prosecutor General’s Office has opened an investigation into possible high treason by Mr. Poroshenko. A controversial judge also ordered a criminal case into alleged interference by Mr. Biden into the work of Ukraine’s former Prosecutor General’s Office. In other words, the leak of the recordings has precipitated instant reaction within Ukraine.
It is not known what is behind the new leaks and what their ultimate purpose is. It’s clear that damaging the prospects of Democratic Party presidential hopeful Mr. Biden at home is a primary objective. But otherwise, the leaks could undermine U.S.-Ukraine relations by complicating relations with both the Trump administration and the Democrats, and at the same time they could foster the image of Ukraine as a corrupt country that does not deserve strong U.S. support. Simultaneously, the leaks could spur further division in Ukraine itself.
Among the key questions are: Who is the latest “Melnychenko” who made the recordings, and who has made them available now? While in office, did Mr. Poroshenko record his discussions, whether by telephone or in person, with his interlocutors? If so, who has leaked them, a former friend and auxiliary, or a hidden foe (domestic or foreign)?
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin, when asked during a TV discussion, said that at his level, such telephone conversations were not recorded, but only summarized in note form. So the origin of the recordings is indeed a question for Mr. Poroshenko and the Security Service of Ukraine to look into.
Not surprisingly, on May 26 Ukrayinska Pravda reported that the State Investigation Bureau has opened a case into a possible illegal wiretap of the phone calls between former Vice-President Biden and former President Poroshenko. It focuses on: “The illegal use of technical means of obtaining information which could inflict damage to national interests.”
Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Poroshenko have suggested the recordings are a Russian provocation. And a possible Russian trace is not hard to detect. Mr. Derkach, an independent lawmaker, was not only previously a member of a pro-Russian parliamentary faction, but he and his father are linked with the Soviet and (later) Russian secret police, through office and education.
According to Michel Tereshchenko, the grandson of a famous pre-revolutionary Kyivan businessman, philanthropist and politician, who some years ago returned to Ukraine from France and became the reformist mayor of Hlukhiv, Mr. Derkach represents the bad old ways. He and his political cronies have imposed their own bandit-like, Soviet-style rule in northeastern Ukraine. Despite initial assurances from Mr. Poroshenko that he would support Mr. Tereshchenko and the new way, he backed Mr. Derkach’s people. Today, when Mr. Poroshenko is no longer in power and his support is unnecessary, Mr. Derkach has effectively stabbed him in the back.
The aim of Mr. Derkach’s insinuations was to depict former President Poroshenko as a corrupt leader prepared to accept alleged U.S. manipulation and interference in the country’s domestic affairs. But they also implicitly hit at Mr. Zelenskyy and the pro-Western course he has stuck to by, in effect, challenging him to renounce publicly the notion of dependence on Washington and reliance on support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international creditors and donors.
This “anti-Western” theme has been played up more and more in recent months. Not only by the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life, but also by the rogue oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who blames the IMF and Western courts for his recent major setbacks connected with the adoption by the Verkhovna Rada of a law preventing the return of banks to their former owners after they were nationalized because of apparent large-scale fraud.
They have been joined by Yulia Tymoshenko and her Batkivshchyna party, who have begun claiming, as she said recently on a leading TV political talk show, that international financial institutions are out to transform Ukraine into a “banana republic.”
Other figures likely to be implicated in this unfolding drama are former Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, a close ally of Mr. Poroshenko, who discredited himself by, among other things, cooperating closely with the Trump camp to the extent of seeking to undermine the former U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch. The other is Konstantin Kulik, a former prosecutor who turned against Mr. Poroshenko and is believed to be acting in Mr. Kolomoisky’s interests.
The latest twist in this story concerns the fugitive businessman and former lawmaker Oleksandr Onyshchenko, who fled Ukraine in 2016 after being accused of fraud and money laundering in the gas sector. On May 20, while detained in Germany as he awaits a decision on his extradition, he gave a press conference utilizing Russian media during which he sought to corroborate the accusations made by Mr. Derkach. On May 27, a German court unexpectedly rejected the extradition request from Kyiv and freed Mr. Onyshchenko, reportedly on the grounds that conditions in Ukrainian prisons do not meet international norms.
Observers expect that the likes of Messrs. Onyshchenko and Kolomoisky will seek to raise their profile with the Trump administration by continuing to attack Mr. Biden in the hope that this will ease their actual or potential legal problems in the U.S.
Commentators here are generally in agreement that in this situation President Zelenskyy has to carefully avoid being dragged into American politics by staying strictly neutral during the U.S. election campaign. They also warn against using the leaked tapes as a pretext for settling scores with Mr. Poroshenko, emphasizing that there are sufficient other possible cases against him that are pending.
In any case, as the election campaign in the U.S. heats up, the attempts to exploit Ukraine within it are only to be expected. This is both a dubious backhanded compliment and a serious challenge.