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How Ukraine Became Chinatown

Kyiv finds itself embroiled in American politics for the second election in a row, with little to show for it

Vladislav Davidzon
February 01, 2021
Andrii DerkachWikipedia
Andrii DerkachWikipedia

The “Ukrainegate” scandal triggered Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, and it’s winding down just in time for the former president’s second impeachment. The scandal’s denouement is a shockingly tidy end to what started as a convoluted and confusing set of overlapping scandals. It came when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, one of the few Trump officials to serve out his entire four-year term, announced the sanctioning of seven former and current Ukrainian officials who he claimed were tied to “a Russia-linked foreign influence network.”

The announcement of the new sanctions ended a sordid and surreal chapter of American political history. It also served as a de facto rebuke of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s confidant and lawyer who faithfully carried out Trump’s frenzied quest for oppo, or so-called “Kompromat,” regarding the Ukrainian activities of Joe Biden’s troubled son Hunter. Giuliani had gathered a piratical assemblage of shadowy middlemen—exactly the sort of characters that he had made his name prosecuting back in New York City—to deliver the goods to the American press, which mostly declined to report on the scandal. Those few who did found their accounts locked and tweets blocked by social media giants, America’s new arbiters of what news is fit to print.

Individuals sanctioned by Treasury included serving parliamentarian Oleksandr Dubinsky; the fugitive former lawmaker and international playboy Oleksandr Onyshchenko (he had been leaking the tapes); former midtier prosecutor Konstatin Kulyk; and the former diplomat-turned-lobbyist Andrii Telizhenko, who had served as Giuliani’s personal political fixer in Kyiv. All five men had taken part in the campaign to prove that former Vice President Joe Biden had behaved inappropriately to defend his son: Biden was overseeing the Ukraine anti-corruption portfolio as President Obama’s point man in Kyiv at the time that Hunter was receiving $50,000 a month from a Ukrainian gas company. Several media companies connected to Andrii Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian parliament known in Ukrainian political circles for his pro-Moscow posture, were used to publicize the various accusations against the Bidens. (Those companies were also sanctioned.)

The fact that Giuliani was searching for compromising material against the Bidens created an energetic market for that commodity. Supply arose to meet the demand, and a host of political operatives, Russian connected spymasters, disgraced former prosecutors, and corrupt members of parliament soon responded to the call with relish—each with their own agenda, and each to be paid in their own currency (including access, television interviews and arranged meetings). The professional fixer Telizhenko connected the others with Giuliani. Since the going price for the goods was high, these unscrupulous individuals happily fed the obsessive, bitter, and cunning former mayor with information—some of what they provided was totally true, some doctored or speculative, and much of it simply unverifiable.

I myself wound up as a United States law enforcement witness regarding various parts of the conspiracy involving Giuliani and his fixer Telizhenko—after the latter tried to bribe me to illegally lobby the United States Senate on behalf of Russian political interests in Ukraine.

The latest round of sanctions began in early September, when the Treasury Department first sanctioned Derkach, as the pivotal figure behind a plot involving Ukrainians, Russians, and their various proxies to use “a wide range of influence methods and actors to target our electoral process, including targeting U.S. presidential candidates.” The sanctioning underlined that he had “directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.”

Derkach is a truly nefarious figure whose father was the head of the Ukrainian intelligence services in the 1990s and who himself was educated in the Moscow KGB academy. He is known in intelligence circles to have made large sums of money in the nuclear fuel trade between Russia and Ukraine when he headed the Ukrainian parliamentary commission on nuclear energy issues. While the term “agent of influence” has admittedly lost much of its pungency due to its frequent misuse by the American media as well as amateur social media investigators, Derkach surely fits the bill.

He and his Ukrainian confreres were feeding a combination of toxic rumors, carefully engineered disinformation and torqued-up facts directly into the ear of President Trump. And I don’t mean that figuratively.

Though it was grounded in actual facts, Ukrainegate, like it’s big sister Russiagate, highlighted America’s descent into banana republic territory under the dual influence of Trump’s dime-store Juan Peron act (and very nasty nativism), and the unhinged conspiracy-theorizing of his self-righteous “resistance” foes. It also showcased the endemic credulousness, unprofessionalism, and partisanship of whole swathes of the legacy American media. Reporters competed with each other to distort basic facts and confuse motives and timelines without the slightest apology. They displayed little understanding of the vexed relationships between what in fact were often mutually loathing and competing local factions. The lack of local context and language skills of the international press, their pervasive amateurishness shading into conspiracy theorizing, made the local media in Kyiv look good by comparison.

Ukrainegate is not just a tremendous political scandal, it was a political scandal and a media scandal rolled into one. Various American journalists had relied too heavily on the deeply unreliable narrative and self-serving agenda of Telizhenko himself, soon after he’d been sacked from his low-level position with the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C. for an array of questionable behaviors.

To categorize the purpose of Ukrainegate as “misinformation” is itself a form of conceptual word-bending, because contrary to the versions of reality that today’s American political operatives would like to enforce, more than one truth can be true at the same time—a worldview that Ukrainians and Russians are forced to imbibe with their mother’s milk. While Derkach and his fellows were indeed part of a Russian-linked influence network that actively sought to interfere in the 2020 election, it can also be true that the substance of the accusations against Hunter Biden were not entirely false. None of it was fake news, or rather, none of it was only fake news.

In accepting a position on the board of directors of Burisma, an energy company owned by the former Yanukovich government minister Mykola Zlochevsky, Hunter Biden undoubtedly created a tremendous political liability for his father. That the younger Biden—a sad and self-destructive figure with a messy personal life—was engaged in influence-peddling and profiteering off his family name seems undeniably true. It is also absolutely true, as Republican counsel proposed during the first impeachment trial, that Hunter Biden had never worked in that sector or in Eastern Europe or had any relevant experience that would seem to necessitate such a large monthly retainer for his services—aside from the hope of influencing his father or providing the intimation of political cover for the company. That Joe Biden should never have tolerated his son’s compromising positions, and that the former vice president deserved criticism for doing so, is also true, even if his personal behavior may not have risen to the level of the unhinged-seeming accusations of corruption leveled by Giuliani in the final days of the presidential campaign.

Foreign influence operations against American elections, whether instigated by foreign intelligence services or in concert with domestic campaign operatives, are here to stay.

Hunter Biden is hardly the exception. He is part of a spreading class of decadent, hereditary princelings who exist throughout both political parties. He is the louche and coddled progeny of an oligarchic elite that is currently ruling a country that was explicitly founded in opposition to the idea of oligarchic elites.

With a demonic gift for sharp political judgments and capacity to instantaneously grasp the vulnerabilities of his opponents, Trump seemed to instinctively identify the Hunter Biden story as the narrative that would be the most damaging to Joe Biden’s campaign. Ordinary Americans understandably resent living in a modern iteration of late imperial Rome, complete with a class of sybaritic ne’er-do-wells who fly around the world using their family name to extract wealth from places like Ukraine, or who profited by exporting American manufacturing capabilities and jobs to China. Hunter Biden’s checkered past and willingness to take cash from anyone seemed tailor-made for the populist tirades of the Trump campaign.

The accusation that Joe Biden had intervened to protect his troubled and brash son by compromising an anti-corruption campaign in a country where he was supposed to be the main outside arbiter of good governance was a powerful and ugly narrative, if the Trump team could prove it. The only problem was that it didn’t make any sense to locals or to Western journalists who had devoted their professional lives to the country. It was difficult for those of us who were active in Kyiv during the whole affair to explain to outsiders, politically motivated or not, that the Obama-Biden policy of calling for President Petro Poroshenko to sack his loyal Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was not that far-fetched; it was in fact the same view held by America’s allies.

Shokin was not a great reformer. Indeed, he typically signaled far more interest in sitting in the banya with a cool drink after a long day of protecting the remnants of the old political elite from prosecution than in actually reforming the Ukrainian judiciary. The one time that I was briefly introduced to him by an oligarch source whom I was dining with in a Kyiv hotel, he struck me as being inordinately—perhaps even obscenely—relaxed. Hunter Biden was surely under less judicial threat with Shokin in place. Yet the claim that the Obama administration was trying to oust Shokin in order to protect the vice president’s son was the basic premise underlying the accusations against Biden.

Clearly, the younger Biden’s business dealings were the correct card to play if you were looking to undermine Joe Biden’s reputation as an honest “straight shooter,” but the Trump team played it completely wrong. They were as unlucky in 2020 as they had been lucky four years earlier.

The Russian intervention in the 2016 elections, which has produced libraries of analytical commentary and was later adumbrated in full detail by the Mueller report, was a relatively simple mischief-making affair, whose aim was more or less to cause maximum chaos on a small budget. It seems fair to call that operation a categorical success. But the 2020 American influence operation that attempted to use Hunter Biden’s actions to destroy his father was a “massively overengineered and overly complicated disinformation operation that was always destined to fail,” as one Western intelligence agent who worked on the matter informed me after the election.

The coordination of too many moving parts—including the complexity of explaining Eastern European political culture and Ukrainian factional infighting to an American audience—guaranteed the scheme’s failure. Sen. Ron Johnson’s Senate committee hearings on the matter planned for mid-March 2020, fell apart for a variety of reasons. There was the political pressure from different sides, and the tremendously bad timing regarding COVID-19. Trump tried to raise the scandal during one of his presidential debates with Biden in September, but the set up for the narrative wasn’t in place, and the story fizzled.

Despite the failure of the 2020 gambit, foreign influence operations against American elections, whether instigated by foreign intelligence services or in concert with domestic campaign operatives, are here to stay. The new social media technology, coupled with the dissipation of the protective filtering function of the media, ensures it. The possibility of tremendous political outcomes stemming from very low-cost and deniable influence operations ensures that such operations will be far too tempting to pass up in the future.

While this was surely not the first time that foreign actors attempted to intervene in internal American elections, what was notable this time was that they were legitimized by media operations on both sides of the American partisan divide (and very few, if any, nonpartisan forms of media exist anymore in the United States). American party politics have become globalized. Foreign governments hire K Street lobbyists and former attorneys general to influence and even corrupt the American legislative and sanctioning process, just as the American government takes for granted its right to engage in nation-building projects abroad. Thanks to increased political polarization and the breakdown of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus, foreign actors are forced to choose sides within American political feuds at the expense of institutional arrangements based on values, norms, interests, or commonsensical alliances. Picking a partisan side to play on is of course not a useful way to maintain civil relations with both sides. In this, as in much else, Trump’s presidency exacerbated preexisting trends and dragged a long simmering issue out into the daylight. It also demonstrates that there remains literally nothing left from the crumbling edifice of the post-Cold War consensus.

Fairly or not, the Ukrainian state will for some time be seen as having entangled itself in American politics. Worse still: Kyiv appears to have backed the wrong horse two elections in a row. (Even if it was various factional elements within the government who made the unwise decision, but try explaining that to skeptical outsiders.)

A deeper issue is that for a generation of American politicians, political operatives, and consultants, Ukraine was always a source of easy cash. John McCain, to his credit, figured out that various people close to him who had been orbiting the Paul Manafort circle were radioactive, and he never gave Manafort the top job as his 2008 presidential campaign chairman. The Ukrainegate scandal is the harbinger of much greater political skirmishing to come. In a dramatic first, the tech monopolies dropped their facade of political neutrality during the Hunter Biden affair when they intervened to keep a poorly sourced and partisan New York Post piece on Hunter Biden’s errant laptops from being shared on their platform, regardless of whether the story was true or not. As it turned out, an uncomfortable portion of the story did turn out to be true.

Ukrainegate is the future. The jokes that those of us who have spent years reporting in Eastern Europe make about the systematic Ukrainization of American politics are as apt as they are glib. My beloved Ukraine is the new Chinatown.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.