Ukraine risks losing US support as Zelenskyy steps into scandal cooked against Biden
On 19 May, Ukrainian independent MP Andrii Derkach made public audio records of phone conversations from 2015 allegedly “with voices similar to those of” Joseph Biden and Petro Poroshenko, the US Vice-President and the President of Ukraine at the time. Derkach made his allegations at a press conference in Interfax Ukraine, a branch of the Russian news agency Interfax, stating that the tapes “testify to the facts of international corruption and state treason at the highest state level.”
On the next day current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at his open-air press conference dedicated to the first year of his presidency said that Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova had opened a high treason criminal case based on the Derkach tapes.
And this move may cost Ukraine the bipartisan support of the US Congress. Here is why.
Russian Orthodox Church’s KGBist
Andrii Derkach was born and raised in the city of Dniptopetrovsk (now Dnipro). In 1993, Andrii Derkach graduated from the Russia-based Dzerzhynsky Higher School of the KGB and started his carrier in Ukraine as an operative of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).
A year later he moved to Kyiv to get an appointment in the administration of President Leonid Kuchma who came from the same city. In the subsequent years, Derkach worked for the Cabinet of Ministers, headed nuclear energy institutions, and since 1998 until now, he’s been a legislator elected every time at the same single-mandate constituency. At different elections he represented various parties, including Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Since 2003, Derkach has been a president of the Kyiv-based International Festival of Orthodox cinema Pokrov that promotes the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Ukraine. In 2009 he was a delegate of the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church representing “the laity of the diocese of Konotop.” In 2010, the ROC’s Holy Synod included Derkach in the so-called Inter-Council Presence – one the Russian Orthodox Church’s official bodies. The biography on his site states that Derkach participated in the election of the current ROC Patriarch Kirill.
In early 2014, Derkach was among those legislators who voted for the infamous dictatorship laws that were part of then-President Yanukovych’s effort to put down the Euromaidan revolution.
MP Derkach released the recordings of 2015 phone conversations mostly between Poroshenko and Biden at his press conference on 19 May, he claimed that he received the files from “investigative journalists.” Later both Poroshenko and Biden’s campaign noted that the records were heavily edited.
Videos featuring the audio versions of the Derkach tapes emerged on the Youtube Channel NABU Leaks the same day in two versions, Ukrainian and English.
This Youtube channel was registered on 3 March 2020 and saw its first uploads on 10 March, and they whitewashed ex PG Shokin whose dismissal back in 2015 was a condition for Ukraine to a US loan. Those videos featured Shokin’s doctor with some papers stating that those are medical documents that show that Shokin was poisoned, Shokin’s lawyer who assured that Shokin didn’t “rule out” that his alleged poisoning might have been related to Joe Biden; and, on multiple occasions, MP Andrii Derkach was on other initially published videos. Among other things, Derkach accused the anti-corruption bureau NABU of leaking “secret personal information” on politicians to the US Embassy, called the reverse shipment of the Russian natural gas by Naftogaz that made Ukraine immune to the decades-long Russian gas blackmail “a corruption scheme” in which, as Derkach speculated, Joe Biden was involved. He also stated that Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk worked for KGB and funded Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Despite the far-fetched accusations of corruption and high treason made by Derkach at his 19 May press conference and making headlines in world media, the released conversations themselves don’t contain any evidence of the mentioned wrongdoings.
The recordings didn’t reveal anything that Biden hadn’t previously said publicly. Biden acted as a representative of his country and linked $1 billion loan guarantees to dismissing then Ukrainian PG Shokin who was unanimously seen as a corrupt figure by Ukrainian civil society and Western leaders.
The US wasn’t obliged to give the aid to Ukraine, and Ukraine’s right was to comply with the condition and receive it or dismiss the offer. Ukraine was facing the hot stage of the Russian invasion of the Donbas and its terror attacks in the government-controlled regions and desperately needed funds for quick reforms to stabilize the situation. The money didn’t end up in someone’s pocket but was used for reforms as intended.
How Zelenskyy, Poroshenko, and Biden reacted
On his 20 May press conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said,
“I think that it [Derkach’s tapes – Ed.] is not the last phone call which the Ukrainians will see. Those who should address it are the Prosecutor’s Office, the law enforcement agencies. I know that the Prosecutor-General has registered the criminal proceedings, they will investigate it. I know that it can be qualified as high treason, it’s for the low enforcers.”
Commenting on the leak and Zelenskyy’s statement, ex-President Petro Poroshenko assumed that Zelenskyy’s Office might be behind the leak and called the published audio records forged,
Audio files presented yesterday by the graduate of Moscow-based Dzerzhynsky Higher School of KGB are forged. But the “raw materials” for them they could receive, particularly, in the Office of the incumbent President. The SBU should investigate who did it, who sanctioned it, and who benefits.
Poroshenko believes that the leak is a large-scale information operation against Ukraine by the Kremlin’s “fifth column” and its goal is to undermine the American support of Ukraine. The former president also alleged “information sponsors of the provocation,” mentioning three pro-Russian TV channels, and the “media resources of the oligarch investigated by a US Federal Jury charged with laundering hundreds of millions of dollars” [i.e. Ihor Kolomoiskyi, an ally of Zelenskyy – Ed.].
The Biden campaign, according to Wahington Post, pointed to the role played by the Russian state-run RT news network in promoting the recordings and noted Derkach’s ties to Russian interests, thus they view it as a continuation of a Russian long-standing campaign against Biden. Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said,
“They heavily edited this [the tapes – E], and it’s still a nothingburger that landed with a thud.”
Russia’s and Trump’s interests
Russia has been interested in isolating Ukraine from international support to make it weak enough to force Ukraine to return to the Russian orbit of influence and accept all the Russian demands directed against the Ukrainian pro-Western aspirations. That’s why anti-Ukrainian narratives have been on top of the enormous Russian propaganda efforts for several years now. This very case is clearly aligned with the Russian interests, however, there is no direct evidence of the Russian involvement and the indications of that are rather indirect, such as the Russian connections of Mr. Derkach.
On the other hand, this scandal clearly plays in Trump’s hands, since this scandal – no matter how it’s substantiated – creates a media buzz that shows Biden in the same light as Trump emerged in the transcript of his conversation with Zelenskyy. Moreover, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani met with Derkach in person on his visit to Kyiv on 5 December 2019, where Derkach could have informed him in advance of his intention to release the tapes if he already had them back then.
Why Zelenskyy swallowed the bait
The new proceeding against Poroshenko is not the first case against the former president. Earlier, Ukrainian law enforcement institutions opened numerous cases based on submissions by Andriy Portnov, an ally of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych ousted to Russia by the Euromaidan revolution. Portnov himself was hiding in the EU for five years but returned to Ukraine immediately after Zelenskyy won the presidential race in 2019.
However, the new case is different since one of the figures involved in the case is an American presidential candidate. Zelenskyy’s desire to initiate the “high treason” case based on the materials of the illicit leak instead of a high-profile espionage case against those who leaked the confidential conversations shows that he really wants to imprison his rival no matter how it might affect the future if Ukraine.
Meanwhile, not only has an investigation started but also Kyiv Pechersk District Court’s judge Serhiy Vovk known for his controversial decisions in many politically charged cases judged that the name of Joseph Biden should be explicitly mentioned in the case papers.
Implications for Ukraine
Trump’s impeachment inquiry in the US showed that the US president in his call with Zelenskyy would have liked him to do “a favor” by opening two investigations, one of which would be a corruption probe connected to a Ukrainian company, in which a son of Joseph Biden worked back in 2015.
Zelenskyy was going to do what he was asked, saying that the new prosecutor-general set to be approved by the parliament in September 2019 who would be “100% my person” would “look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.” It is unknown whether the Prosecutor’s office satisfied these requests under the leadership of PG Riaboshapka who was that “100% Zelenskyy’s person.”
Nonetheless, earlier this year Riaboshapka was dismissed and under the new PG, Iryna Venediktova, the prosecutor’s office has opened the politically motivated investigation that Zelenskyy endorsed and praised on his one-year in office anniversary, based on Derkach’s records of leaked talks between major political rivals of both Zelenskyy and Trump.
And this also shows that the Ukrainian President is not against taking sides in US domestic politics by supporting one political force months before the US presidential elections.With Zelenskyy striving to lock up Poroshenko and please Trump by the probe involving Biden, Ukraine risks losing the bipartisan political support in the US Congress as Zelenskyy’s clear attempt to benefit Trump over his Democrat rival may encourage the Democrats to drop their support for Ukraine.
Moreover, Zelenskyy’s move may be considered as an attempt to influence the outcome of the upcoming US elections which may lead to the US sanctions on the Ukrainian president, putting Ukraine on the path of further losing the international support to finally remain alone in the face of the ongoing Russian aggression.
And that is just what Russia needs to force its agenda in Ukraine.