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How Ukraine Landed in the Spotlight of an American Political Drama

For the second time in three years, Ukraine, the former Soviet republic between Russia and the West, has been caught in the glare of American news cameras because of an American political drama. In 2016, the spotlight was trained on the campaign chairman for Donald J. Trump, then the Republican candidate for president, and the aide’s undisclosed business with a pro-Russia political party.

This year, the cameras are directed at President Trump and his dealings with Ukraine’s new president, a former comedian who played a teacher-turned-president on TV.

How did Ukraine get here?

Ukraine’s links to the current American political debate go back at least to Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s pro-Russia leader whose party worked with Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s one-time campaign chairman.

In 2013, Mr. Yanukovych broke a promise to sign political and free-trade agreements with the European Union — part of a long-running battle for influence in Ukraine between Russia and the West.

“It’s a cliché to say a country is torn between East and West, but Ukraine is the closest thing we have to that,” said Seva Gunitsky, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Protests began over Mr. Yanukovych’s reversal, and after deadly clashes with security forces, they evolved into broader demonstrations against abuses of power. Watching his authority crumble, Mr. Yanukovych fled from Ukraine in February 2014, later reappearing in Russia.

In the weeks after the Ukrainian president’s ouster, Russian military forces moved into Crimea, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia annexed the peninsula.

More than five years later, the war is still grinding on, with more than 13,000 people killed. Most have been civilians, including 298 people on a passenger jet shot down over Ukraine in 2014. International investigators this year charged three Russians and a Ukrainian with murder in the case.

The West, seeking to prevent further aggression by Russia, has bolstered Ukraine with aid. European countries gave $ 1.8 billion in development assistance from 2014 to 2017, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have given aid. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States gave $ 1.3 billion in aid to Ukraine from late 2013 to early 2017 and $ 600 million in security assistance.

Ukraine has struggled for years with entrenched corruption. Experts call it a legacy of the Soviet system, in which institutions like the courts were weak, oligarchs could carve out power and self-serving officials could use their authority for personal gain.

Despite the 2014 revolution, many longtime politicians remained in office and efforts to root out corruption — and the influence of oligarchs — had mixed results.

“Sometimes it does feel like rolling the stone up the hill only to watch it fall back down again,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.

Mr. Yanukovych’s successor, Petro O. Poroshenko, a billionaire candymaker, focused his efforts more on the war than on corruption. “A lot of Ukrainians were very disenchanted,” said Mr. Gunitsky, likening the government to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Still, he said, Ukraine has a vibrant civil society, a free press and so many competing interests — including among the oligarchs and reform movements — that corruption comes to light more often there than in post-Soviet states like Belarus.

“Everything is just discombobulated enough to keep things in place,” Mr. Gunitsky said.

Serhii Plokhii, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, said Ukraine was not necessarily more corrupt than other nations. But he said its society was able to expose scandals — if not resolve them.

Ukraine’s status as a battleground, between Russia, the West, oligarchs and other forces, he added, has meant more American interest in the nation, both well-intentioned and ill.

“The West has, in some ways, through tax havens, shell corporations, P.R. firms, lobbyists, enabled corruption,” Ms. Conley said.

Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who defeated Mr. Poroshenko in April, was catapulted to office on an anticorruption platform — and his fame as an actor. On television, he played the role of a schoolteacher whose viral tirade against corruption helped propel him to the presidency.

Ukraine’s previous intersection with American politics was in 2016, when a former political consultant, Mr. Manafort, was serving as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman.

Ukrainian investigators, looking into their ex-president, Mr. Yanukovych, that summer, found that his pro-Russia party had made $ 12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Mr. Manafort from 2007 to 2012.

Mr. Manafort was dismissed in August 2016 from the Trump campaign after the hidden income was revealed.

His work for the pro-Russia party later fell under investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in the United States. Mr. Manafort was found guilty last year in a financial fraud case that focused on the millions he had made advising the Ukrainian party. He was sentenced this year to nearly four years in prison.

“Ukraine acquired the reputation as a place that was enormously corrupt and where you could find compromising material if you dug deep enough,” said Serhy Yekelchyk, a historian at the University of Victoria.

More recently, President Trump has become focused on the Democratic National Committee server that CrowdStrike, an American cybersecurity firm, examined after Russian operatives hacked into it and stole thousands of the Democratic Party’s internal emails.

The firm concluded Russia was behind the breach, as did American intelligence agencies and the Justice Department.

But an unfounded conspiracy posits that Ukrainians, not Russians, were behind the hack, and that the Ukrainians framed the Russian government. Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, has been among those pushing this theory.

Mr. Trump appeared to be referring to the theory in his July phone call with Ukraine’s president, when he asked Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor” by looking into the firm and the server.

[Read more about the CrowdStrike theory and a fact-check of its details.]

Mr. Trump also urged an investigation into whether Joseph R. Biden Jr., a political rival, used his position as vice president to push for the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor, thus helping a Ukrainian energy company that was paying his son Hunter Biden. The prosecutor’s office had oversight of investigations into the oligarch who owned the company.

No evidence has emerged that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pushing for the prosecutor’s ouster.

The prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was widely accused of turning a blind eye to corruption, and was removed by Ukraine’s Parliament in March 2016. The United States and European nations had called for months for his dismissal, citing the corruption accusations.

[Read more about the accusations against the Bidens here.]

Mr. Zelensky said Tuesday that he did not want to get involved in American elections, and emphasized that Ukraine still wants American and European support. He has not announced any investigation into the Bidens.

The record of his phone call with Mr. Trump could cause him some problems at home, experts said, because of its implication that Mr. Zelensky could exert undue influence over a Ukrainian prosecutor. But Mr. Zelensky, still new on the job, remains hugely popular.

Now that Mr. Zelensky is in the middle of an American political fight, experts said many Ukrainians are likely to understand his awkward position: trying to fight corruption, end the war and keep good ties with President Trump, Congress and Europe.

“Everyone knows exactly what’s going on,” Mr. Yekelchyk said. “They are not really surprised that the American president did what he did because this is what they would have expected from their recent presidents.”

And for many Ukrainians, the impeachment debate is a distant concern compared to the war and putting food on the table. Ukrainians following the news who spoke to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an organization backed by the United States, were unruffled by it.

“I know the essence of it and I am curious what will happen now,” Olha Ivanova, a Kiev resident, told the broadcaster. “It looks like a very American scandal.”

Source: NYT > World News

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