US presidential candidate Joe Biden is about to learn an unpleasant lesson about Ukraine: Once you’ve stepped into the country’s politics, there’s no way to emerge unsullied. Recent developments suggest he’ll be fielding questions about a lot more than what President Donald Trump has already slung his way.
Consider the case of Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash, which could play into one of the conservative blogosphere’s favorite obsessions: the idea that Ukraine played a role in furthering the “witch hunt” -- that is, US Democrats’ efforts to find evidence of Trump’s connection to Russian election meddling.
Firtash, who got rich playing middleman between Russian and Ukrainian energy companies, has long been fighting extradition to the US from Austria. He’s wanted for allegedly bribing Indian officials more than a decade ago, but he could be valuable in other ways: He was once close to now-deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and therefore might know about the Ukrainian activities of Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced former campaign chairman.
Earlier this year, on the verge of being sent to America, Firtash retained a duo of Trump-connected American lawyers and presented a Vienna court with a wealth of documents that he says prove that the extradition request was actually politically motivated. Among those documents is an affidavit from former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who testified that Biden “directly manipulated the political leadership of Ukraine on false pretexts” to prevent Firtash from leaving Austria for Ukraine -- where, as a Ukrainian citizen, he couldn’t be extradited.
This is the same Shokin whom Biden has boasted of getting fired by threatening to withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee. The former prosecutor has since said that Biden -- then the US vice president -- did it to thwart a Ukrainian investigation into Burisma, a natural gas company where his son Hunter was a well-paid board member. Although the claim is probably false, Trump has picked it up and pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate, sparking a separate scandal about the current US president’s use of his office to dig up dirt on a potential election rival.
Expect the Trump team to try to show that Biden abused his power by coercing Ukrainian authorities into helping him get a prospective Russiagate witness to the US. If Firtash works with Trump’s people, he can also provide a steady supply of testimony and documents suggesting that Obama administration officials, including Biden, actively meddled in Ukraine’s domestic politics after 2014. Whether or not they had corrupt motives in doing so is almost irrelevant -- conservative conspiracy theorists will take it from there.
That’s where a second potential line of attack comes in. Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, set up at the insistence of the country’s Western partners, is investigating two cases against Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevskiy. Neither has anything to do with the Ukraine-Biden connections that Trump has been tweeting about. It appears that the bureau, which has a strong record of resisting any kind of political pressure, has managed to hang on to the shreds of the Burisma case that three Ukrainian prosecutors general tried hard to bury between 2014 and 2017.
In May, the bureau notified Zlochevskiy of his status as a suspect in a money laundering case involving fugitive oligarch Sergey Kurchenko, thought to have been the Yanukovych family’s business manager. Zlochevskiy is accused of using Burisma to help Kurchenko launder $33 million, which the latter needed to buy an oil terminal in southern Ukraine. Although the events in this case are supposed to have taken place in 2013, before Hunter Biden took up his board seat, any new hint of corrupt dealings at Burisma could be used against the elder Biden.
If the Democratic front-runner ever thought it would be enough to debunk the charge of getting Shokin fired to protect Hunter, he was wrong. For anyone intent on running a smear campaign, Ukraine is a gift that keeps on giving. So much about Ukrainian politics and business smells bad that any involvement can be damaging. Both Bidens, of course, should have known that before they plunged into the Kyiv swamp. It’s too late now: The impeachment proceedings against Trump will keep Ukraine in the news, and people in the US will learn more than they ever cared to know about the sordid affairs of the country’s elite and its American friends and mentors.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru -- Ed.