With Ukraine making headlines around the world, journalists from outside Ukraine have been turning to dubious sources to get the “real story” behind the explosive charges that have triggered the impeachment investigation into U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
Trump is under investigation by the U.S. House for putting pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate ex-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic Party candidate for president in 2020.
Some major media outlets have extensively quoted, among others, some of the most controversial and least credible people in Ukraine’s modern history: former prosecutor generals Yuriy Lutsenko and Viktor Shokin, along with former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, now in Russian exile along with the president he served, Viktor Yanukovych.
Lutsenko, who prosecuted no one of significance for corruption in his three years in office, said he can help the U.S. investigate the Bidens, Joe and his son Hunter.
Hunter Biden won a lucrative $50,000 a month advisory job with a shady Ukrainian energy company, Burisma. It is owned by Yanukovych-era Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, who while in office managed to acquire 38 lucrative oil-and-gas exploration permits that his ministry approved. There hasn’t been, however, any evidence made public that either of the Bidens did anything illegal, although Hunter Biden is widely criticized for cashing in on his father’s name and position.
Azarov, who has been implicated in Yanukovych-era corruption scams, suggested that Ukraine should investigate the Bidens.
And Shokin, who had a record of protecting corruption more than prosecuting it, complained he had been dismissed from his job in 2016 at Joe Biden’s behest to obstruct him from investigating alleged corruption of Biden’s son Hunter.
In Ukraine, however, this trio has a reputation severely lacking in credibility, experts say.
“If either Shokin or Lutsenko told me the sun was shining I would look out of the window to be sure,” Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, told the Kyiv Post. “Working for Yanukovych itself is a huge black mark against Azarov’s trustworthiness.”
But most people who have examined their records closely find the trio of Azarov, Shokin, and Lutsenko as unreliable sources of information, at best.
Yuriy Lutsenko clung to the job
Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian member of parliament who lacked a law degree or relevant experience in prosecuting crimes, was appointed under former President Petro Poroshenko and served as prosecutor general from 2016 and 2019, after Shokin.
He is now widely credited with having sparked the Trump scandal by trying to curry favor with the U.S. and spin stories in an effort to win Western favor and keep his job, multiple experts believe.
“Lutsenko was first and foremost who stirred things up. He personally informed Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and the information he provided was a lie. He is a person who also changed his version of the course of events. Hence, he cannot be trusted,” said former Ukrainian lawmaker and investigative journalist Sergii Leshchenko.
Leshchenko provided evidence on the shadowy activities of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort in Ukraine, including records showing off-the-books payments of $12.7 million to Manafort for his work as a political consultant to Yanukovych.
Lutsenko, in turn, initiated legal proceedings against Leshchenko, but the case has since been closed.
Lutsenko then came up with three baseless conspiracy theories.
The first one, introduced in March, was that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential elections by backing Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state and Trump’s defeated rival.
The second, which came about around the same time, targeted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Lutsenko accused of giving him a list of “untouchables,” people he should not prosecute. The U.S. State Department called Lutsenko’s claim “an outright fabrication.” Lutsenko neither showed the list nor named anyone listed. Yovanovitch was dismissed from her job and called back to the U.S. in May.
The third of Lutsenko’s theories are related to Hunter Biden being allegedly involved in corruption while serving on the board directors at Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private oil and gas company. Lutsenko suggested Ukraine failed to investigate the case properly. No evidence followed that claim either.
“Yuriy Lutsenko is used to lying. He frequently lied in Ukraine and got away with this. He achieved his PR targets (this way) and thought that such methods will work in geopolitics,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center.
“He lied to the American outlet The Hill to keep his job,” said Kaleniuk, referring to a series of interviews Lutsenko had given to John Solomon, a controversial author at The Hill, in March and April. Citing Lutsenko, Solomon stated that the investigations against Burisma had been “stopped abruptly once Shokin was fired.”
Kaleniuk called Lutsenko’s interviews with The Hill “high treason” and insisted that his claims should be investigated in Ukraine. The State Bureau of Investigations opened criminal proceedings against Lutsenko for alleged abuse of power on Oct. 1.
The record shows that Lutsenko closed some of the Burisma cases. One involved an LLC company connected to Burisma being charged with tax evasion. Then, in November 2016, the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped criminal proceedings against Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma.
“It is hard to trace any evident logic in the actions of Ukrainian investigators,” an Anti-Corruption Action Center report states.
As the preparations for the 2020 presidential elections accelerated, Lutsenko has become an informer for Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on the Bidens’ alleged fraud. The pair met a few times, including in New York in January and in Warsaw in February.
The scandal with Lutsenko gained momentum in mid-September when a whistleblower filed a complaint about Trump’s call with Zelensky where he mentioned Lutsenko as a person whom Trump “praised” and suggested Zelensky keep him in his position. Lutsenko was dismissed from his job despite this.
Some of the allegations Lutsenko had made he later walked back. On Sept. 29, in his most recent interview with the BBC, he reversed his earlier statement that Ukraine has no jurisdiction to investigate the Bidens, indicating that the U.S. should do so.
Later, on Sept. 30, the spokesperson for Lutsenko confirmed that he had left for the U.K. to study English there.
Lutsenko has a long track record of finding himself at the epicenter of scandals in Ukraine.
In November 2017, he got involved in a massive and public fight with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). He instructed employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office to arrest a NABU agent on a mission, evoking angry responses from abroad. Lutsenko also blamed the head of NABU personally for interference in the 2016 American elections.
Lutsenko was also extensively criticized for a family vacation at the Seychelles’ Four Seasons Resort in January 2018, which cost as much as 52,000 euros. Lutsenko later commented that such a trip is “something a middle-class Ukrainian can afford.” His salary is estimated at Hr 150,000, compared to the Hr 7,711 average salary in Ukraine at the time.
Viktor Shokin, a ‘very good’ prosecutor?
Shokin is another Ukrainian prosecutor general who stands in the center of the American whistleblower scandal after Trump called him “very good” in his phone conversation with Zelensky.
Shokin, Lutsenko’s predecessor, held the position of prosecutor general from February 2015 to April 2016.
Since September he has been discussed after testifying before the Austrian court in support of Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmytro Firtash, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. on bribery charges.
“I was forced out because I was leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into Burisma,” Shokin said in his affidavit. He is currently trying to win his job back through the Supreme Court of Ukraine.
Kaleniuk called Shokin’s affidavit “a lie” and the part about the reason for his dismissal “nonsense.” She indicated that Shokin was dismissed because he sabotaged corruption cases.
“We have plenty of evidence that Shokin has dumped cases against Yanukovych’s associates, including Burisma,” said Kaleniuk referring to Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma and ex-Yanukovych era ecology minister.
On Oct. 2, Fox News reported that they obtained a copy of Giuliani’s notes from his January 2019 interview with Shokin where he claimed that his “investigations (were) stopped out of fear of the United States.”
Shokin insists that he was dismissed on Joe Biden’s order. Biden has publicly acknowledged, in his book and on video, that he threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine unless Poroshenko fired Shokin. The video segment came during a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in January 2018.
However, experts say that Biden’s role was nothing extraordinary or secret.
“There was absolutely no secret that the EU and the U.S. and others all wanted Shokin to be removed as quickly as possible. There was no Western support of keeping Shokin in office because he was seen from the beginning as an obstacle to reform the prosecutor general’s office,” said Bond.
Many Ukrainians wanted Shokin out. Hundreds of protesters even took the streets of Kyiv in March 2016 demanding that the parliament fire Shokin.
“He was an absolutely corrupt prosecutor who had to go. When Joe Biden was calling Ukraine to dismiss Shokin we had been doing so for half a year already,” said Kaleniuk.
In 2016, under pressure from Shokin, two of his deputies left office accusing their chief of corruption.
Shokin is also the owner of a number of real estate assets, including a house in Prague, the Czech Republic, and a house near Kyiv, that he did not list in his e-declarations, according to what RFE/RL journalists found out. His official salary would not have been enough for him to afford the assets he owns.
Mykola Azarov: a voice from Russia
Azarov served as prime minister during Yanukovych’s presidency, from 2010 to 2014, and is a close ally of the fugitive president. Azarov lives in exile in Russia, where he fled following the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled Yanukovych. But he has a long record of government service, dating back to ex-President Leonid Kuchma’s time in office, from 1994-2005, when Azarov was the tax commissioner.
Last week, in an interview with Reuters, Azarov called on Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden’s involvement in Burisma.
NABU is currently investigating two cases involving Burisma – but both relate to the period of 2010-2012 before Hunter Biden joined the board. The cases are actually against Zlochevsky, who served as an ecology minister from 2010 to 2012 in Azarov’s government.
“Anything that he (Azarov) says particularly now living in exile under Russian protection has to be taken as being designed to damage Yanukovych’s political opponents in Ukraine and support a Russian-sponsored narrative,” said Bond.
Azarov is wanted in Ukraine. In 2015, Interpol issued the red notice which said he was wanted on various charges including embezzlement.
Since Azarov left the country, the Prosecutor General’s Office has opened a few cases against him, accusing the former prime minister of abuse of power, bribery and financial fraud.
According to prosecutors’ statement released in October 2018, Azarov is suspected of receiving 140 million hryvnias as a bribe in 2010 in return for appointing someone as a vice prime minister.
One pre-trial investigation against Azarov involves alleged embezzlement of 2.2 billion hryvnias involving the seizure of liquefied natural gas. According to another pre-trial investigation, Azarov is suspected of unreasonably spending 220 million hryvnias from Ukraine’s budget on an unneeded telecommunications network.
Azarov is among the 12 of Yanukovych’s allies sanctioned by the European Union. On March 4, the EU Council again extended the asset freezes against him for another year.
While some in Ukraine say that the Biden saga may put Ukraine at risk of losing the support of both Democrats and Republicans, others believe it is a moment for Ukraine to bring the world’s attention to issues that Kyiv wants in the spotlight.
“I think it will have a good impact rather than bad,” said Joanna Hosa, Wider Europe program manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It is not the best angle because the attention is on corruption, but also it is bringing attention to other issues in Ukraine such as the war in Donbas,” she said.