President Donald Trump’s smear campaign against former vice-president Joe Biden — a campaign that sought to enlist Ukrainian officials by threatening to withhold security assistance vital to Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression — is based on an Orwellian inversion of reality.
The smear perpetuates the widely refuted claim that Biden did something wrong during the Obama administration by pressing Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as blatantly corrupt. The United States’ European allies and the Ukrainian anti-corruption community were already working to remove the prosecutor from office.
What’s striking about Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is that they seem to be arguing that a figure at the epicentre of some of Ukraine’s most notorious corruption scandals should have remained in place.
One episode in particular illustrates why so many were eager to get rid of Viktor Shokin. Midway through his tenure as prosecutor general (February 2015 to March 2016), the Ukrainian Security Service raided the homes of two of Shokin’s subordinates and found a substantial stash of diamonds, cash and other valuables, leading the Ukrainian media to dub the two men the “diamond prosecutors”.
David Sakvarelidze, the deputy prosecutor general, who looked into the case, found that “wherever it’s possible to physically pressure or scare someone or use administrative resources, they’re launching a full-frontal attack”.
The characterisation angered Shokin, who promptly sacked Sakvarelidze. However, Sakvarelidze would not be silenced and went public by accusing the “diamond prosecutors” of being Shokin’s business partners, and saying they had all been part of a criminal conspiracy to shake down Ukrainian businesses.
A similar fate befell Shokin’s other deputy, Vitaly Kasko, who also tried to investigate the “diamond prosecutors” but was similarly stonewalled by Shokin. Kasko eventually resigned in disgust, calling Shokin’s office “a hotbed of corruption.”
By early 2016, Shokin’s office had a well-earned international reputation for aiding and abetting corruption. The International Monetary Fund was so upset that its director, Christine Lagarde, refused to disburse additional tranches of a loan agreement to Ukraine until Shokin was removed and his office was thoroughly reformed, even though Ukraine was dangerously low on foreign currency reserves as it fought a grinding war against Russia.
US officials pressed the same message on the Ukrainian Government. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 2015 that “the Prosecutor General’s Office has to be reinvented as an institution that serves the citizens of Ukraine, rather than ripping them off. That means it must investigate and successfully prosecute corruption and asset recovery cases — including locking up dirty personnel in the PGO itself.”
Then US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt noted in a September 2015 speech that corruption within Shokin’s office “flies in the face of what the Revolution of Dignity is trying to achieve”.
When Biden, as vice-president, travelled to Ukraine in December 2015, he carried talking points based on recommendations by the US inter-agency policy co-ordination committee (of which I was a part). The talking points emphasised that the United States should demand that then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko reform the prosecutor general’s office.
Biden delivered the message: he told Poroshenko that without root-and-branch reform of Shokin’s office to eliminate blatant insider corruption, US taxpayer assistance, including a planned $1 billion loan guarantee, would not be forthcoming.
Thanks to prior diplomatic co-ordination with the European Union and IMF, the Western community was sending Ukraine’s leadership a united message: clean house or risk losing Western support.
During this period in 2015, it was abundantly clear that Shokin’s office had no intention of investigating a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma. Some Ukrainian anti-corruption activists believed that Burisma’s owner had illegally obtained natural gas exploration licences under the previous government, headed by Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian kleptocrat who milked Ukraine’s state budget to fund his political party and extravagant tastes.
Trump has made much of the fact that Biden’s son Hunter later joined the Burisma board, but the fact remains: Despite repeated calls by the US Government — whose Ukraine policy Biden led — pressing Kiev to co-operate with a British-led investigation of Burisma, neither Shokin nor his successor showed any inclination to help the British or to launch a serious probe of their own.
This is why Trump’s version of events is such a distortion. Biden supported the fight against corruption and advocated increased scrutiny of wrongdoing, including urging an investigation of Burisma.
A strong majority of the Ukrainian legislature, agreeing with the United States and other Western critics, voted to dismiss Shokin because of his systematic failure to prosecute corruption in country that has been beset by it for far too long.
Michael Carpenter is senior director of the Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy and Global Engagement