Like it or not, we’ve been talking a lot about Joe Biden. The former Vice President and current Democratic presidential frontrunner has made news again… Or rather, current President Donald Trump has vaulted Biden back into the headlines over Trump’s attempt to make the government of Ukraine “dig up dirt” on Biden’s family.
In the past, I’ve subtly tried to fact-check the rumors about Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and what the hell happened in Ukraine. However thanks to Trump’s latest campaign gambit, we need to get to the bottom of all this right here and right now.
First, a brief(ish?) history lesson on Ukraine
For centuries, Ukrainians have sought to establish their own nation and their own identity. And yet, time and time again, Russia has treated Ukraine as another of its many geopolitical playgrounds. This pattern continued in the 20th century, when Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin manufactured a drought that Ukrainians call Holodomor: At least 5 million people, including some 3.9 million Ukrainians, were slaughtered by starvation in 1932 and 1933 with the goal of forcing Ukraine into submission and converting the region’s farmland into Russia’s most fertile breadbasket. From there on, the Soviet Union encouraged ethnic Russians to resettle and remake Ukraine in Russia’s image, a kind of erasure of Ukrainian people, culture, and identity akin to China’s current oppression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
However, Soviet leaders weren’t the only ones who saw Ukraine as their own personal breadbasket. Adolf Hitler did, too, and some Ukrainian nationalists welcomed Nazi Germany’s invasion during World War II as an opportunity for Ukraine to finally achieve independence from Russia. That didn’t happen. At least 5 million people, including 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, were killed and some 2.2 million Ukrainian people were taken by the Nazis and forced into slave labor in Germany. And when the Allies won World War II in 1945, the Soviet regime quickly reimposed totalitarian rule over Ukraine.
The Soviet Union poisoned Ukraine again in 1986… But this time, instead of genocide by drought, it was a nuclear accident that largely could have been prevented. While HBO’s Emmy winning series may have taken some artistic license in diverting from the widely accepted historical record, Chernobyl very accurately portrayed the Soviet regime’s prioritization of propaganda over people’s lives as they tried to cover up a nuclear power disaster that will likely leave the Pripyat region contaminated for another 24,000 years.
Perhaps the ultimate ironic twist was Chernobyl exposing the gruesome reality behind the Kremlin’s elaborate facade, thereby facilitating the Soviet Union’s collapse and the establishment of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Yet even then, Russia continued to exert influence over Ukraine and gained traction due to its prior resettling of Russians into parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Next, let’s talk Maidan and Manafort
When we examined the rise of American fascism earlier this month, we were reminded of Paul Manafort’s long history in the Republican Party. America was never enough for Manafort, so in 2004 he took a consulting gig for the Party of Regions, headed by one Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych first ascended to the presidency in 2004, but that stint didn’t last long as protesters flooded the streets of Kiev and independent observers found evidence of election fraud. Yet when Yanukovych won again in 2010, the election was determined to be clean and Yanukovych initially seemed to prove his pro-Western naysayers wrong with his public pursuit of a closer relationship with the European Union (E.U.).
In November 2013, Yanukovych abruptly abandoned his proposed association agreement with the EU and accepted a Russian loan bailout instead. While other issues and disputes had already been percolating in the background, this sudden rebuke of the E.U. and embrace of Russia enraged his opponents and launched the Maidan Revolution. The unrest only worsened after Yanukovych attempted to reassert control through draconian, dictatorial measures, but ultimately he was forced out of power in February 2014. Yet by then, Yanukovych encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops to invade Ukraine.
This whole time, Paul Manafort amassed what would become a $60 million+ windfall in consulting fees and kickbacks due to his work with the Party of Regions and the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who had a very cozy relationship with the party. And while Yanukovych was outwardly displaying zeal to seal the deal with Europe, the whole time Manafort and other operatives were fanning the flames of discord and contributing to the Party of Region’s larger culture of corruption that always linked back to Russia.
Here’s where Joe and Hunter Biden fit into this story
As the Maidan Revolution was underway, then U.S. President Barack Obama and America’s European allies had already begun taking a harder line on Vladimir Putin, his regime’s widespread culture of corruption, and his increasingly brutal oppression of his own people. And it wasn’t just Obama and the Democratic Party (at that time), as the Magnitsky Act to authorize sanctions targeting Putin and his network of oligarchs was introduced by then Rep. Dave Camp (R-Michigan) and passed both houses of Congress with widespread bipartisan support in late 2012.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, activists kept pushing the new government to act on the culture of corruption that festered even after Yanukovych fled into exile in Russia. In 2016, both the U.S. and the E.U. pushed the Ukrainian government to oust prosecutor general Viktor Shokin over his failure to investigate and prosecute the corruption that was still plaguing Ukraine’s public sphere. Then Vice President Joe Biden became the Western alliance’s point person in demanding the Ukrainian government remove Shokin from office and do more to root out this pervasive corruption once and for all, and he even threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid if the Ukrainian regime didn’t remove Shokin as prosecutor general.
One such company that benefited from Yanukovych’s active support and Shokin’s looking the other way was Burisma, a natural gas company owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, who served as Ukraine’s environment and natural resources minister under Yanukovych (yes, really). In an apparent attempt to curry favor with Obama and Biden, Burisma appointed Hunter Biden to its board in 2014 and paid him $50,000 per month.
Despite Zlochevsky handing Hunter Biden this sinecure, the Obama administration continued to demand a stronger crackdown on corruption in Ukraine. Meanwhile, it was Viktor Shokin who continued to protect Zlochevsky, other Burisma executives, Yanukovych, and other oligarchs with close ties to Yanukovych and Putin from any legal action until Shokin’s removal in 2016.
Remember this: Facts matter
Anyone who’s been following this site and my reports from the 2020 campaign trail know that I am anything but a Joe Biden stan, fangirl, or lackey. When he’s screwed up, I’ve never hesitated to call him out. (And for the record, the same goes for all other candidates.) Today’s explainer/fact check column has nothing to do with me having any interest in promoting Biden’s campaign or protecting him from valid criticism. Rather, this is entirely about debunking invalid smear campaigns and calling out abuse of power wherever it occurs.
After The New York Times ran a story this past May suggesting the Bidens wanted Shokin fired because he was investigating Burisma, Ukraine’s current prosecutor general confirmed to Bloomberg that he has no evidence of either Hunter Biden or Joe Biden taking part in any of Burisma’s illicit activities. Rather, it’s former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort who’s been convicted of financial crimes relating to his work for Yanukovych and his oligarch allies in Ukraine (which should encourage us to ask about Manafort’s and Trump’s relationship with Putin).
Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump personally called current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July and asked him to work with Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City Mayor who’s now Trump’s personal lawyer, to launch a criminal investigation into the Bidens. Then on Fox News Sunday just yesterday, Giuliani openly boasted of traveling to Ukraine to “get dirt on Joe Biden”.
Where have we seen this before? Perhaps someone should ask Hillary Clinton. Or better yet, instead of racing to spread propaganda that just so happens to benefit Trump and Putin, why don’t more of us ask why Giuliani is peddling false allegations about Joe Biden? Oh, and while we’re at it, we might as well ask ourselves and our Members of Congress why we continue to tolerate such abuses of power and fail to match the usual “no one’s above the law” rhetoric with real action.