The meeting of world leaders in New York for the UN annual general meeting should have been Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s coming out party, but the meeting has been overshadowed by the so-called “whistle blower” scandal and "Ukrainegate".
A US government employee has filed a formal complaint against US President Donald Trump, claiming that he and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to pressure the Ukrainian government into “re-opening” a corruption investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who took a job on the board of a Ukrainian company.
There was a telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy where Trump shamelessly pressed Zelenskiy to "relauch" an investigation into Biden's son. Read the transcript here.
The scandal exploded and the US news media talked about little else for the next 24 hours. The Ukrainian media has been bemused and held itself to running translations of the western reports. And the international press corps that cover Ukraine for the international media started issuing appeals to their colleagues to “get in touch” to check facts. The US reports are full of mistakes, inaccuracies, heavy spin and flat out lies.
RFE/RL correspondent Christopher Miller, and widely regarded as one of the best foreign correspondents covering Ukraine, felt the need to call on the western press to get in touch with the Ukraine-based corps to properly understand what happened.
“Hi from Kyiv! Ukraine's being talked about by everyone right now & not all of it is, er, accurate. Luckily, there are many journalists & researchers in Kyiv—or who've spent significant time working here—who can help. Without further ado, here are those I recommend you following,” tweeted Miller, adding a list of names that is a who’s who of well respected and long in the tooth Ukraine-focused reporters: “@fabrice_deprez @matthi_williams @stefsiohan @SebaGobert @berdynskykh_k @TaniaKozak @dpeleschuk @TaniaKozyreva @wiczipedia @ianbateson @myroslavapetsa @JoshKovensky @IKoshiw @sarahlain12 @ser_ou_parecer @Matthew_Kupfer I may be forgetting some. If I have, add below.”
The Kyiv Post is another excellent source of balanced reporting, which has been covering Ukraine for at least two decades and ran an explainer this week with what actually happened.
The problem is that the “Biden Ukraine scandal” is a non-story. There was no investigation into Hunter Biden to re-open. That is flat out wrong and much else in the story is a blatant twisting of the facts.
It is true that Joe Biden was in Ukraine and that he did press former president Petro Poroshenko to sack the then general prosecutor Viktor Shokin; not to head off an investigation to his son, but because Shokin was completely corrupt and had failed to launch any investigations or actually arrest anyone. Shokin had sacked or ousted all the true anti-corruption fighters in his office and just minutes before his own sacking he fired deputy prosecutor general Davit Sakvarelidze, who was one of the only officials that really was fighting corruption.
“In March 2016 Shokin stood out as the most corrupt person in the Ukrainian administration who really fought for corruption & all wanted out,” tweeted Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who linked to his article celebrating Shokin’s sacking at the time.
If anything Biden’s trip to Kyiv on that occasion was one of the high points of the US’ involvement in Ukrainian politics. Biden gave an outstanding speech and held the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada to account. It was a great performance.
“You have a historical opportunity. You must put aside parochial difference and make real the revolution of dignity. The whole world is watching you,” Biden said in an uplifting and earnest speech. “The world is watching as so much rides on your fragile experiment with democracy… Your progeny will judge whether or not you had the moral courage to put the general good above local prejudice. And this is all within your power. It’s within your hands. Nobody else’s – yours,” Biden said.
Biden didn't go to Ukraine to bail out his hapless son from a spot of bother after he made a bad choice when accepting a board seat from a Ukrainian company that had some very dodgy links.
I’m not even going to go into the details of the accusations against Biden. There’s no point. It's not that some of the facts are not true. Biden did lean on Poroshenko to fire Shokin. Hunter Biden did work for a Ukrainian company. Some of those he worked with had dodgy connections (it's Ukraine after all, named “the most corrupt country in Europe” by Transparency International).
“Fact: Biden didn’t demand Ukraine’s then Pros Gen Shokin be fired b/c he was investigating Burisma. There was no open probe of Burisma. Why? B/c Shokin failed to prosecute any high-level cases. If anything, Biden opened door to a probe by getting a new prosecutor in office,” tweeted Miller.
But none of this matters. Most of what is being reported now in the US, or at least implied, is wrong. It is perfectly clear this is all about US domestic politics and has nothing to do with Ukraine or arms money or whom Hunter Biden was working for. Trump is looking for dirt that he can use to wound Biden’s presidential election bid.
It’s that simple.
Stepping back a little, there are two very worrying takeaways from this whole fracas.
The first is that the US corporate press seem to have abrogated all pretence at sticking to the vaunted journalistic ethics that come with working for “the fourth estate” – it's a job that comes with a democratic duty to tell the truth as best you can.
The pundits at outlets like Fox News predictably threw themselves down the rabbit hole of speculation, making wild and uninformed accusations that have more to do with pushing their partisan line than reporting a story.
But the rest of the press corps have willingly joined the stampede to be on the “hot story”. Of course there are many highly competent and serious journalists in the US, but the majority of publications have join the herd, spewing out half digested theories on the basis of partly digested facts presented in other reports. Notably few have bothered to call anyone in Kyiv.
The current scandal is reminiscent of the “Russia gate” scandal where the same thing happened. Claims that the Kremlin had hacked the French general election were refuted by Guillaume Poupard, head of the French government’s cyber security agency, and yet this “fact” was repeated ad museum after the report. The international Russia-centric press corps were equally frustrated by the level of innuendo and almost total lack of real evidence, but that story was less clear than “Ukraine gate” as the Kremlin was guilty of some wrong doing.
But the more serious problem is that the whole escapade shows that the Trump administration has abrogated any attempt to run a real foreign policy. America’s foreign policy has simply become domestic policy, but carried out overseas.
Ukraine is in a delicate position. Its economy was wrecked and its people remain the poorest in Europe. It is riven by corruption and avaricious oligarchs run wild burning down the homes of their enemies. And it is fighting an undeclared war with Russia in the Donbas. It really does need international help and support to deal with these problems and face down an aggressive Kremlin.
Yet Trump’s strategy has been to withhold military aid in order to bully a poor partner into giving him some election dirt on a political rival.
This theme runs throughout his administration. The spectre of Russia is constantly held up as a justification, and it is true that Russian President Vladimir Putin represents a danger to the wellbeing of Europe, but the threat of Russia has been magnified to serve as an enemy at the gate excuse for what is actually blatant use of foreign policy to further America’s commercial interests.
The most dramatic example is the US decision to withdraw from the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, celebrated as a triumph of Obama’s diplomacy to reduce the threat of nuclear conflict. That not only destabilised the entire Middle East but lead to the EU finding itself in a strange alliance with Russia and Iran in facing down US pressure to end business ties and oil imports from Iran.
The US doesn't care about Iran. What it cares about is a country that is not in its camp controls the straights of Homuz and is in a position to choke off the world’s oil supplies – a strategically unacceptable position for Washington.
The US has virulently objected to Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian made S-400 missile defence system as it is “not compatible with NATO arms”. However, there is nothing in the Nato treaty that says you have to buy arms from Nato allies and the lost business is the real reason for US ire.
The US has objected to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that connects Russian gas fields directly to Germany, as it will make Europe “more dependent on Russian gas”. But Russia’s share in Europe’s gas consumption has fallen from circa 80% in the 90s to 34% last year and if anything an extra pipeline will improve Europe’s energy security. What is really at issue here is cheaper Russian piped gas will depress demand for the US new business of exporting LNG to Europe.
Splitting the world
While the US commercial bullying is not the main theme of commentary it’s perfectly apparent to Europe’s politicians. The cold truth is that the US is no longer Europe’s friend, despite the superficial good relations. Europe remains too deeply entwined in the US security arrangements to disengage easily or quickly, but that process has begun.
As bne IntelliNews commented in “The end of the post WWII world order” the EU has begun to actively try and move out from under the US security umbrella that has ensured peace in Europe since the start of the Cold War. The EU alliance to defy the US re-imposition of sanctions on Iran was a commercial manifestation. Calls by German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass and French President Emmanuel Macron for a pan-European military force is the security manifestation.
In the longer term the US' aggressive policies have driven Russia into the arms of China, which are now the two major world powers that are not aligned in any way with the US. The other two big BRIC countries, India and Brazil, are sitting on the fence, but here too the US relations are being undermined.
With population growth centred in the emerging markets and the economic revival of China, by 2050 the world will become a multipolar affair irrespective of anything the US does to coax or bully other countries into its camp. Not that Trump cares. He’s fully focused on getting re-elected. For him nothing else matters.