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Ukraine is not a major player globally, but it has turned out to be a key stage for events in the turmoil around the Trump White House. The post-Soviet nation was the site for significant portions of President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s career, the energy company board membership of Hunter Biden, and Rudy Giuliani’s subsequent attempts to dig up dirt on Mr. Biden.
Ukraine is fertile ground for such events because it is politically unstable, profoundly corrupt, and a magnet for self-dealing schemers to get involved with, says Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist and Ukraine expert at the University of Ottawa. “Post-Soviet Ukraine has always been a corrupt, oligarchic system where rich and powerful people want to enlist the support and patronage of Westerners to whitewash themselves at home and abroad,” he says.
But it is also a place that contains many pitfalls for Americans who do not understand it, says Yevgeny Kiselev, a former Russian TV news anchor. “They cannot always play the decisive role they wish to, and it may be that they sometimes overestimate the reach of their influence.”
For most Americans, Ukraine is a strange, if not unknown place. But as unfamiliar as it might have been just a few years ago, the post-Soviet nation has become a central topic in the controversies orbiting the Trump White House.
Between Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman and onetime adviser to Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych, and Hunter Biden, the son of ex-Vice President Joe Biden who once served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Ukraine is turning out to be of disproportionate importance to the future of President Donald Trump’s administration and the 2020 U.S. presidential race.
And that is likely due to the country’s confluence of post-Soviet economic opportunity, seeming routes to reform, and hidden pitfalls for Westerners who do not understand the costs of doing business, literally or figuratively, in a place that bears many resemblances to 1990s Russia.
“Ukraine is a country still in transition from the former Communist system. This often involves ugly things, but that’s probably unavoidable. You can’t make such a transition all at once,” says Yevgeny Kiselev, who was one of Russia’s best-known TV news anchors in the 1990s, but who immigrated to Ukraine in 2008 after finding it impossible to work freely in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “It may be that Americans don’t always understand the limits of the possible in this part of the world. They cannot always play the decisive role they wish to, and it may be that they sometimes overestimate the reach of their influence.”
A magnet for schemers
Today’s Ukraine is politically unstable, profoundly corrupt, and a magnet for self-dealing schemers to get involved with, says Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist and Ukraine expert at the University of Ottawa. “Post-Soviet Ukraine has always been a corrupt, oligarchic system where rich and powerful people want to enlist the support and patronage of Westerners to whitewash themselves at home and abroad,” he says. “Since the Maidan [Revolution] in 2014, Ukraine itself has become something like a client state of the U.S., where American politicians sometimes behave in ways that make a mockery of Ukrainian independence.”
American involvement can come in different ways: Witness the differing cases of Mr. Manafort and Mr. Biden, both of whom have found themselves in trouble back home for their Ukrainian activities. Mr. Manafort is now in prison, while Mr. Biden has had to admit he showed “poor judgment” in taking a lucrative job with a Ukrainian gas company accused of money-laundering.
Experts say that most Ukrainians remain oblivious to the scandals rocking the U.S., while their mostly oligarch-owned media has seemed reluctant to cover the odd dynamic between Mr. Trump and their new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, perhaps out of fear of crossing one or another powerful faction in Washington.
But experts say that for both men, getting involved in Ukrainian affairs was negative, if to different degrees. “Manafort was involved with notorious political figures in Ukraine, and probably knew some of the things he was doing were illegal under U.S. law. Biden Jr. might have thought he was doing something positive, but it doesn’t look good in retrospect because it’s clear he was riding his father’s coattails,” says Mr. Kiselev.
Echoes of ’90s Russia
This is not the first time that Americans seeking adventure, fortune, or to promote positive change have become entangled in complex, often corrupt post-Soviet realities – with their reputations back home suffering as a result.
Though comparisons shouldn’t be overstated, the Russia that emerged from the Soviet collapse seemed a wide-open “wild east” where an American consultant or entrepreneur might find exceptional business opportunities while helping to push history’s needle in the direction of democracy and free markets. Moscow of the 1990s was full of foreigners of all different types, many Americans, including official advisers, financial investors, consultants, missionaries, and carpetbaggers.
But their legacy is not fondly remembered in Russia. American political support is blamed for helping nudge Russia back onto a more authoritarian path after Boris Yeltsin abolished his elected parliament in 1993 and then shelled it out of existence, for urging the mass privatizations that led to the rise of Russia’s rapacious oligarchic class, and for supporting International Monetary Fund programs that fueled corruption in Russia’s elite, impoverished most Russians, and led to a devastating financial crash in 1998. Even many liberal Russians blame the period of U.S.-backed reforms for creating a public backlash that enabled the rise of Mr. Putin and a mass rejection of Western ideas and counsel.
“It is often said, only half-jokingly, that there are two schools of thought in Washington on what to do about Russia,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing activist and director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. “One school thinks Russia should be helped. The other thinks it should be destroyed. Ironically, both advocate exactly the same policies.”
As in Ukraine today, some Americans got entangled in the culture of corruption they were ostensibly there to work against, and reputations were destroyed. A team of economic experts from Harvard University headed by economics professor Andrei Shleifer advised the Russian government in the mid-’90s, – largely funded by U.S. taxpayer funds. But they landed in disgrace and were sued by the U.S. government after it was revealed that they had paid themselves excessive salaries and enabled relatives to engage in dubious Russian financial dealings.
Americans even dabbled in a bit of election meddling. After Mr. Yeltsin was narrowly reelected to the presidency in 1996, it was revealed that a team of U.S. political consultants had been secretly holed up in Moscow’s President Hotel directing the Kremlin leader’s campaign.
“Russian elites used American advisers for their own purposes,” says Mr. Kagarlitsky. “Perhaps they had a symbiotic relationship, having a joint interest in creating this brave new capitalist Russia, in a highly elitist, top-down form. The Russians needed that close association with Americans to confer legitimacy on what they were doing, and it is by no means certain that the Americans ever had a clear view of how their advice affected most Russians.”
“Think about how it looks to Ukrainians”
Today’s Ukraine is not the equivalent of Russia 20 years ago, in part because it lacks the vast natural resources and geopolitical weight of Russia, and also because its democratic political culture is more firmly established. But it is home to concerns about Westerners dispensing equally destructive advice.
Mr. Katchanovski recalls the episode just before the Maidan overthrow of former President Yanukovych, when then-Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was secretly taped lining up the next Ukrainian government cabinet in a phone conversation with the U.S. ambassador. So too the much discussed episode in which then-Vice President Joe Biden bragged about pressuring the Ukrainian government into firing the country’s chief prosecutor.
“Americans are arguing about whether [Joe] Biden did this to help his son or to fight Ukrainian corruption, but that is beside the point. Think about how it looks to Ukrainians: U.S. officials high-handedly telling them how to run their affairs,” says Mr. Katchanovski. “The past five years have been a difficult time for most Ukrainians. They have suffered from plunging living standards, war, and political chaos.
“A lot of Ukrainians are getting disillusioned about all this. Unlike Russia, which was rich enough to break away [from Western tutelage] and chart its own course, Ukraine has much more limited choices.”
Still, he says, “let’s hope that this leads to better understanding of Ukrainian realities” so that past mistakes won’t be repeated.