omersukrugoksu/iStock(NEW YORK) — When Ukrainians voted to elect comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy as their next president in the spring of 2019, the fledgling administration was eager to coordinate a phone call with Kyiv’s most important benefactor — the United States, according to an adviser to Zelenskiy.
But after weeks of discussions with American officials, Ukrainian officials came to recognize a precondition to any executive correspondence, the adviser said.
“It was clear that [President Donald] Trump will only have communications if they will discuss the Biden case,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, an anti-corruption advocate and former member of Ukraine’s Parliament, who now acts as an adviser to Zelenskiy. “This issue was raised many times. I know that Ukrainian officials understood.”
The Trump administration’s alleged insistence that the two leaders discuss a prospective investigation into Biden, one of the president’s political opponents, casts his July 25 conversation with Zelenskiy in a new light.
During the call, a rough summary of which was released by the White House Wednesday, Trump repeatedly encouraged Zelenskiy to work with Attorney General William Barr and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to probe Biden’s role in the dismissal of the country’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, in 2016.
In an interview with ABC News in April 2019, Shokin said he believed Biden pressured the government to fire him because he was leading an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian oil and gas company where Biden’s son, Hunter, had a seat on the board of directors.
But the assertion that Biden acted to help his son has been undercut by widespread criticism of Shokin from several high-profile international leaders, including members of the European Union and International Monetary Fund, who said Biden’s recommendation was well justified and that Shokin had been removed because of widely shared concerns he was obstructing efforts to root out entrenched corruption in his office and Ukraine’s judicial system.
During a bilateral meeting with Trump on Wednesday in New York, Zelenskiy reaffirmed that he has no interest in getting Ukraine involved in U.S. politics and denied that Trump had pressed him to investigate Biden.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved in … elections of USA,” Zelenskiy said. “No, you heard that we had, I think, a good phone call. It was normal, we spoke about many things, and you read it that nobody pushed it, nobody pushed me.”
Fallout from the release of a transcript chronicling Trump’s July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart has sparked partisan furor in the United States. But in Ukraine, according to Leschenko, the prospective investigation was part of an effort by a Ukrainian official to curry favor with the Americans.
The source of the proposed investigation was Shokin’s successor as prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, who fed the idea to Giuliani and has spoken about it publicly before he was removed from his post this summer.
Leshchenko and another former senior Ukrainian law enforcement official said they believe that Lutsenko invented the investigations that Giuliani pushed as part of an effort to keep his job.
In early 2019, Lutsenko’s position as prosecutor general was under threat after Zelenskiy — who was then heavily ahead in the polls — promised to remove him if elected president. Leshchenko and the other official said Lutsenko had then sought out Giuliani in a desperate bid to try to enlist the Trump administration in the hope it would somehow protect him.
“We understood that he was just trying to protect his position in the new administration using this scandal,” Leshchenko said. “And he put Ukraine on this battlefield.”
Leshchenko and other Ukrainian officials said that as far as they were aware no investigation was ever opened into Biden. They said that if the Trump administration suspected that Biden and his son had broken the law, then U.S. authorities should submit a formal request that Ukraine investigate through the usual channels.
“If there will be a request from the American side, we’ll look at it,” Anton Gerashchenko, who was appointed Ukraine’s deputy interior minister on Wednesday, told ABC News. He said that as far as he was aware no formal request had ever been made.
Leshchenko himself was attacked by Lutsenko and Giuliani, who alleged he had played a role in the origins of the Russia investigation into Trump that Giuliani has claimed were sown in Ukraine by Democrats and their allies there.
In 2016, Leshchenko helped publish parts of a secret accounts books detailing alleged illegal payments made by the party of Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s name was included next to payments in the accounts, The New York Times reported, after which he stepped down as campaign manager.
Over two years later, Giuliani and Lutsenko alleged that Leshchenko acted unlawfully in helping publish the parts of the ledgers involving Manafort, and while Lutsenko was still prosecutor general, a court in Kyiv in December convicted Leshchenko of illegally harming the interests of Ukraine. Leshchenko appealed that judgment, however, and in May a court in Kyiv cleared him of any wrongdoing and ordered he be paid compensation, he said.
The saga with Giuliani, Leshchenko said, had placed Ukraine in a very difficult position. The the key thing now was for Zelenskiy’s administration to remain neutral and not appear to take sides either with the Democrats or Republicans, he said.
“The best way for Ukraine is to be neutral,” he said. “Ukraine has done nothing wrong.”
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