On August 23, Rudy Giuliani, US president Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and one of his closest advisors, announced that he had met with Andriy Yermak – a confidant of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – to discuss the possibility of Ukraine investigating two politically sensitive cases.
The Washington Post’s editorial board succinctly described Giuliani’s aim as wanting Kyiv on one hand “to prove that Ukraine improperly acted against Mr Trump in the 2016 election”; on the other hand, “to meddle in his favour for 2020”. Indeed, Mr Giuliani’s first hope is that Ukrainian prosecutors will both probe claims regarding the alleged interference of some members of the former Ukrainian government in the 2016 US presidential election. He also wants them to reopen a closed investigation into Burisma Holdings, a natural gas firm on whose board Hunter Biden – the son of former US vice president and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden – previously served.
In May, Yuriy Litsenko, Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, told Bloomberg that no evidence of wrongdoing had been found in either of the two cases. Around the same time, Giuliani called off a planned trip to meet Ukrainian officials, telling Fox News that he felt he was “walking into a group of people who are enemies of the president, in some cases enemies of the United States”, though Mr Giuliani has never specified who exactly he was accusing.
Mr Giuliani may have called off the May trip, but he and President Trump have continued to levy accusations against Joe Biden. Specifically, Trump and his lawyer have suggested that then-vice president Biden’s efforts to convince the Ukrainian government to dismiss the country’s former top prosecutor Viktor Shokin were retaliation for Shokin’s investigations into Burisma.
Mr Giuliani has based his claims on a 2016 conversation which Biden, then responsible for the White House’s Ukraine policy, had with former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. Biden himself acknowledges that he threatened to withdraw one billion US dollars in loan guarantees unless Mr Shokin was fired. According to Bloomberg, however, any investigation into Burisma had been “long dormant” by the time that Biden advocated that Shokin be sacked, and the idea to push for Shokin’s dismissal had apparently filtered up from diplomats at the US Embassy in Kyiv.
Giuliani has remained steadfast in his assertions, however, admitting that he had “strongly urged” Yermak in late August to look into Biden and any potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election. The former NYC mayor’s move was widely seen as using presidential power to make gains in partisan politics, with US Democrats and legal experts suggesting that his push might have been illegal.
This week, the House panels on Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight announced that they have begun a probe into whether Giuliani is attempting “to manipulate the Ukrainian justice system to benefit the president’s re-election campaign and target a possible political opponent”. Giuliani questioned the legitimacy of the House investigation, vowing to use the probe “as an opportunity to highlight what phonies [Congressional Democrats] are”.
As part of the investigation, the committees are seeking State Department documents following reports by the New York Times that prominent members of the US State Department, including US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, made the meeting between Mr Giuliani and Mr Yermak happen. Despite the State Department’s involvement, however, Giuliani has insisted that the meeting was initiated on his own behalf as a private citizen, and declined to answer if Mr Trump knew about it.
Giuliani’s zeal raises ethical concerns
Dmytro Gron, a senior associate of the Evris Law Firm in Ukraine, told Emerging Europe that Giuliani’s actions would not be “treated as illegal (especially from a criminal perspective) unless any written notices of crime were filed on his behalf (and such notices were designedly false)”.
Even if legally permissible, the US president’s personal lawyer’s push for an investigation has raised other concerns. “Mr Giuliani’s position as a special advisor to the US president, his confirmed communications with Ukrainian public officials in an ambiguous role and the media attention attached to his personality, as well as his activities regarding Ukraine can be perceived among society as politically motivated and unethical,” Mr Gron added.
These concerns about the ethical ramifications of Giuliani’s endeavours span both sides of the Atlantic. “Rudy Giuliani has too often improperly stepped outside of his role as the president’s personal attorney,” Mike Quigley, a Democratic US House Representative and the co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus told Emerging Europe, adding that the president’s lawyer “does not speak for the US government and has no official role crafting US foreign policy. His effort to influence Ukrainian affairs is motivated strictly by politics and should be rejected.”
Mr Gron highlighted the need for any potential investigation of the Bidens to be grounded in a legal perspective, rather than a political one. “The outcome of the proceedings will depend on the possibility for prosecution officers to prove all material elements of the crime. In case any element cannot be substantiated, the proceedings shall be closed,” he noted.
Throwing Washington’s support for Ukraine into doubt?
The timing of the former NYC mayor’s push for an investigation could not be worse for bilateral relations between Kyiv and Washington. While Ukrainian and US officials have been negotiating a visit by Mr Zelensky to Washington for months, senior officials from the State Department told the New York Times that Mr Giuliani caused several complications in their efforts to arrange the visit and accused him of machinations to make the visit look like a show of support for the investigations.
At the same time, pressure is mounting on the White House to reaffirm its commitment towards Ukraine. On September 3, a bipartisan group of senators in the US Senate’s Ukraine Caucus wrote a letter to the White House urging the president to release defence funds for Ukraine. Some 250 million US dollars worth of financial assistance was approved by the US Congress earlier this year, with 50 million US dollars designated for new weapons.
“This funding is crucial to the long-term stability of Ukraine and has the continued backing and approval of the U.S. Congress which appropriated these funds,” the bipartisan letter reads.
Regarding the defence funding, Congressman Quigley pointed out that the US administration’s policy on Ukraine was inconsistent and “harms everyone – not simply Ukrainians on the frontline” in the Donbas region. “It is funding that has historic bipartisan support and US House Appropriators in particular have fought for many years to complete this funding package. It then should come as no surprise that there is bipartisan opposition to the administration holding up this funding so arbitrarily,” he stressed.
For the Ukrainian president and his newly sworn-in government, dealing with the case will be a major test. If Ruslan Riaboshapka, Ukraine’s new prosecutor general, who was appointed by Mr Zelensky, decides to reopen the case, that might please Mr Trump and his Republican allies. However, this course of action could easily backfire on Ukraine in case of a new incumbent in the White House from 2020, with the European Union also likely to criticise such a move from Ukraine.
The US president’s recent call to reinstate Russia’s membership in the G7 could also lead to assumptions that the White House is losing interest in supporting Ukraine. Other actions by his administration, however—the late August visit of White House national security advisor John Bolton to Ukraine, for example—have suggested that the highest levels of the US government still back Kyiv.
According to Yevhen Mahda, the executive director of the Institute of World Policy in Kyiv, the former NYC mayor “is helped by the desire of Volodymyr Zelensky to meet with Donald Trump as soon as possible. Mr Trump’s desire to get incriminating evidence on Joe Biden demonstrates his desire to decide the outcome of the 2020 presidential campaign in his favour before its official launch.”
“It is extremely risky for Ukrainians to get involved in the machinations of Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani. Kyiv may calculate that Ukraine is a small state and the potential rewards are high. But they are indeed a small state, and could just as easily get badly burned. US-Ukraine policy under Trump has already been a roller-coaster – first the promise of arms and then the review of aid,” Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, remarked.
“Ukraine should not play cat and mouse with the Biden affair, as it relies on bipartisan support for Congress, not a specific politician. Ukraine needs to maintain the sympathies of both Republicans and Democrats,” Mr Mahda concluded.