KIEV, Ukraine — Tall, wiry and bespectacled Serhiy Leshchenko, instantly recognizable on the streets and in the cafés of Kiev, can barely take 10 steps in public without being stopped for a handshake or a selfie. Leshchenko was the whistleblower before the whistleblower (the anonymous informant who kicked off the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump): a Ukrainian journalist and former member of Parliament who put Ukraine on the U.S. political map in August 2016, when he disclosed the existence of a secret “black ledger” showing cash payments totaling more than $12 million from the ruling party of Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, to Paul Manafort.
The next day, Manafort, a political consultant with extensive ties to the Russian-backed “Party of Regions,” resigned as the chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and later pleaded guilty to charges related to the payments.
And now Leshchenko is paying for it, as the case against Manafort continues to resonate here — and in Washington, where newly released documents that were part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe showed that the idea of blaming Ukraine rather than Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 may have actually originated with Manafort.
Until early May, Leshchenko was part of the transition team advising Ukraine’s president-elect, Volodymyr Zelensky, previously known as a comedian who played a president on TV in the popular satire “Servant of the People.” Forming a party of the same name, and promising to end a draining war with Russia in eastern Ukraine that has dragged on for five years, Zelensky won in a landslide. Scarcely a week before the inauguration, Leshchenko, who was expecting to be tapped as a top adviser, suddenly turned radioactive.
The reason: Rudy Giuliani, who’d planned to visit the incoming president, but whose gesture was rebuffed when Zelensky got wind of the political favors Giuliani planned to request.
The former New York mayor hit the cable news networks to explain why he’d canceled the trip: because the president-elect was surrounded by foes of America, he said, and then to Leshchenko’s shock, Giuliani singled out one of these supposed foes in particular in an appearance on Fox News, a person whom he accused of working with Democrats in 2016, “a gentleman by the name of Leshchenko.”
“He called me an enemy of the United States and of Trump,” says Leshchenko, who adds he is fond of the U.S. and has visited often, including a 2014 trip to D.C. to pick up an award from the National Endowment for Democracy, where he spent four months as a fellow. Given the importance to Ukraine of staying on the good side of the American president, Leshchenko overnight was disqualified from a high-profile post in Zelensky’s administration. He believes Giuliani is working with Manafort and that the attack on him was revenge, a suspicion that grew when Giuliani accused Leshchenko of having “supplied a black book that was found to be fraudulent.”
Giuliani has continued to attempt to discredit the ledger, while Zelensky is walking a fine line in relation to the Trump administration’s demands. On Friday, Reuters reported exclusively that the Ukrainian president had shaken up the top leadership of the General Prosecutor’s Office and fired more than a dozen staffers who had been working on cases related to Manafort’s work for Yanukovych.
Leshchenko’s suspicions are supported by reporting from Murray Waas, writing for the New York Review of Books in late September, who reported that lawyers representing Manafort and Trump have been meeting to discuss strategies and possible rationales for the president to pardon his former campaign manager, including discrediting those who brought the damning information about Manafort to light. Describing notes memorializing the lawyers’ meetings that Waas reviewed, he writes that “the records show that Manafort’s camp provided Giuliani with information designed to smear two people: one was a Ukrainian journalist and political activist named Serhiy Leshchenko, whom Manafort believed, correctly, of helping to uncover Manafort’s secret payments from Yanukovych.”
It’s just one of the threads in the crazy quilt of the Trump impeachment inquiry that has made “quid pro quo” the phrase of the year and has turned a spotlight on the nation of 42 million previously best known as the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — the largest country located entirely within Europe, and certainly one of the most overlooked.
Recent weeks of testimony before Congress have revealed to Americans that Trump had been withholding congressionally approved, much-needed military aid to Ukraine — and a much-desired invitation for Zelensky to the White House — in hopes of a “favor” or two from Zelensky, including an investigation of Trump’s Democratic opponents from 2016 and his prospective 2020 challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Ukrainians, at least those who follow global geopolitics, know full well how much is at stake for them in Washington. As even Kiev-based think tanks point out, Ukraine has few friends in the world, and even fewer who can stand up to Russia. “I see how dramatic this situation is for Ukraine and I’m very worried,” says Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anticorruption Action Centre. “The situation in Ukraine depends on the situation in the United States, which is our major strategic geopolitical partner in building democracy and in fighting the war with Russia. We receive a lot of help and support from the United States. And it’s important that this support is bipartisan.
“What’s happening now in the U.S. is actually undermining bipartisan support for Ukraine — and making it even a toxic word to talk about.”
But ordinary Ukrainians don’t make the connection between the impeachment inquiry and potential impacts for Ukraine, she says.
“The majority of the population in Ukraine don’t understand the link,” she says. Most of the country, and the media, is transfixed by the fighting with Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, and don’t grasp the extent of their country’s dependence on military aid and diplomatic support by the U.S.
Outside of the English-language press aimed at expats, the local media only sporadically covers the impeachment inquiry and President Zelensky’s inadvertent but pivotal role in it. That lack of attention suits, and perhaps reflects the influence of, Zelensky, who is trying to avoid becoming what former U.S. Ambassador Steven Pifer describes as “a political football” in domestic U.S. politics. With the exception of a recent 14-hour interview marathon, during which Zelensky bravely, if dubiously, maintained he hadn’t felt any pressure from Trump, it’s been radio silence from the presidential palace. “Zelensky and his office don’t see any benefit in speaking out,” explains Kiev-based investigative reporter Christopher Miller. “They view this as an impossible position — anything they say could be spun by the Democratic impeachment inquiry or by the Republicans who oppose it.”
Ukrainian political analysts wonder whether Trump is even on their side, and see his ambivalence as effectively kneecapping a hopeful new administration in a fledgling democracy. “The U.S. president and State Department leadership don’t look like Ukrainian allies,” says Nataliya Gumenyuk, who hosts a political broadcast from Kiev called “The Sunday Show.” “They look like they’re on the other side of this war with Russia.”
As Zelensky tries to negotiate a ceasefire with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he needs American support, she says. “The U.S. can be the guarantee that it [is] a serious discussion.” But it’s apparent to her that “Trump won't keep the Kremlin in line in Ukraine.”
That appearance of Trump taking a pro-Kremlin stance was underscored last Wednesday when Christopher Anderson, a State Department official, testified before the House impeachment inquiry that last November, when Russia attacked Ukrainian vessels in Ukrainian waters, taking the crews as prisoners, the State Department drafted a strong condemnation of Moscow — which was blocked by the White House.
Russia has loomed large in the minds and fears of Ukrainians for decades, and for good reason.
Ever since Ukraine broke free of the Soviet Union 28 years ago, Moscow has tried — sometimes subtly and often not so subtly — to reembrace the agriculturally rich nation, once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, that is also the transit point between Russian natural gas producers and their European customers, despite an agreement between the U.S., Britain, Ukraine and Russia that was supposed to guarantee Ukrainian independence and the security of its borders. The 1994 agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, called for Ukraine to relinquish its stash of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons, mostly aimed at the United States, in exchange for security guarantees from Washington.
But Russia keeps disregarding the agreement. Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says that Russia’s behavior since 2014 “has grossly violated the commitments it made in the Budapest Memorandum. We told the Ukrainians when negotiating this document that, if the Russians violated it, we would be supportive of Ukraine.”
And to Ukrainians, that support isn’t so obvious at the moment, especially after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and began restricting free movement of Ukrainian vessels around the Black Sea. Kaleniuk, for one, wouldn’t mind if a U.S. Navy fleet showed up on occasion to keep Russia in line.
The Crimean land grab five years ago was Russia’s reaction to a massive protest known as the Revolution of Dignity against the Putin-aligned government of Yanukovych, who had put Manafort on the payroll. Yanukovych, accused of looting billions from the government, built a massive 350-acre lake-dotted compound called Mezhyhirya Residence that included a zoo, a hunting lodge, a golf course, a clubhouse and even an ostrich farm.
When Yanukovych backed out of a planned agreement with the European Union, a first step toward possible membership, and instead moved closer to Russia, protests erupted in Kiev and spread across the country, with demonstrators risking arrests and even death at the hands of police. About 100 protesters were killed in Maidan Square, their photos now displayed along the walls and trees where they died.
“We made the decision — we want Western values in Ukraine,” says Kaleniuk. “We want rule of law. We don’t want to go back to Russia or to live in an authoritarian state. We don’t want to be part of the Russian empire.”
In February 2014, Yanukovych fled — to Russia, of course. Having lost its proxy leader in the Ukrainian capital, Russian forces invaded the Crimean Peninsula and annexed it, a move not recognized by most of the world. And then it began kicking up problems in the eastern region known as Donbas.
And that’s why, when Trump shows little concern for Ukraine, and holds up military aid, Ukrainians start worrying. Ukraine, whose very name means “borderland,” is the buffer between West and East, democracy and kleptocracy.
“Ukraine is geopolitically significant,” says Aubrey Belford, an investigative journalist for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project who is based in Kiev. Belford, like other reporters living in Ukraine, believes the conspiracy theories Trump is promoting about Biden have no basis. After looking into the circumstances of Biden’s son Hunter receiving a lucrative seat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, he found nothing to add to what’s already been reported. “It looks bad — like a cozy deal — but it’s all technically legal,” he says.
In the course of researching Biden, however, he discovered something curious: articles about Ukraine by conservative op-ed writer John Solomon in The Hill, concerning an ousted Ukrainian prosecutor with an ax to grind about Joe Biden — and hinting that the vice president had the prosecutor pushed out to protect his son Hunter. The articles, Belford thought, smacked of “being planted” and smelled like “an influence campaign” aimed at a U.S. audience to raise suspicions about both Bidens — an explanation of the origins of the conspiracy that Giuliani and Trump are now spreading.
Researching it further, Belford and an investigative team at BuzzFeed tracked down two curious Soviet-born men, living in Florida, who were associates of Giuliani — and had left a trail of “unpaid debts, multiple evictions, unpaid rents” and, in the case of one of the men, “three brokerages, shut down for violations, including fraud.” Which is to say Belford and the BuzzFeed team in July became the first to report about Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, months before they became household names after being arrested as they were about to board a flight to Europe and charged with campaign finance violations to a pro-Trump super-PAC.
The two also traveled the world soliciting donations to build a new village outside Kiev to resettle Jewish Ukrainians displaced by the war with Russia — a village named “Anatevka,” after the fictitious town that was the setting for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” They arranged for a ceremonial key to the village to be presented to its honorary mayor, Rudy Giuliani — an event scheduled for his planned arrival in Ukraine in May, when he was also slated for a paid speech in the new village. When Giuliani canceled his spring visit, he instead flew to Paris and the village rabbi presented him with the ceremonial key in the French capital.
Though his requests to investigate the Bidens are not being followed up by the Ukrainian government, Trump, under pressure for his July phone call to Zelensky, did finally release the military aid. The two leaders were supposed to talk and sign documents when Trump visited Poland in late August — but citing the hazards of Hurricane Dorian, Trump canceled that visit. And though the two met briefly and held a press conference on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in late September, an invitation to visit the White House has not yet been extended.
Zelensky has kept pressing his reforms and enjoys a 70 percent approval rating five months into his term. Concerns have been raised about his connection to a Ukrainian oligarch who owns the television station that aired “Servant of the People,” and some reporters fear he is not open enough with the media. Anna Babinets, co-founder of Kiev’s investigative journalism agency Slidstvo.Info, opines that “Trump is a role model” for Zelensky. “He controls everything,” she says, and “tries to ignore journalists, tries to show us journalists that they don’t need us — that they can communicate with audience directly, using Facebook and Instagram.”
Nevertheless, a guarded optimism is evident among Ukrainians. New members fill the Parliament, which Zelensky’s party controls, new anticorruption laws and measures are being passed, and Zelensky is moving ahead with plans to negotiate an end to the war with Russia.
With Trump wavering, Germany, France and NATO have stepped up in support. Germany and France are helping to negotiate a somewhat shaky ceasefire in the east, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is calling on Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine, showed up in Kiev last week, promising to expedite Ukraine’s entry into the alliance. "NATO supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said during a press conference with Zelensky. “NATO does not and will not recognize Russia's illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea. All NATO allies are united in their condemnation of Russia's aggressive actions.”
Culture is thriving in the Ukrainian capital, where Yanukovych’s estate has been turned into a museum. Ukrainian bands, like ethno-chaos group DakhaBraka, are traveling the world, projecting, in a small way, Ukrainian soft power. Aside from a one-hour weekly TV show, which doesn’t pay enough to live on, Leshchenko remains unemployed. He says he might sue Giuliani for defamation.
And whatever else Giuliani has said in the past year, including assertions that were provably false at the time or that he had to correct within moments of saying them, he does have one prescient prediction to his credit. Back in May he promised Fox News viewers that investigations concerning Ukraine were something we’d be hearing about a lot in upcoming months. He was referring to investigations about the Bidens that he hoped Zelensky would launch, which haven’t happened, but in a way he never intended, his prediction turned out to be correct.
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