No, President Trump has not won his pressure campaign to get the Ukrainian government to manufacture dirt on his opponents.
Nonetheless, some headlines this morning are suggesting that Ukraine will review the investigation of a Ukrainian natural gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
The reality is subtler, and more complicated, than these stories make it seem.
The backstory here begins with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appointment of Ruslan Ryaboshapka as the country’s general prosecutor. That position has surreally become a political football in Washington, after Ryaboshapka’s two predecessors — Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko — wound up as main characters in Rudy Giuliani’s bid to smear Hunter Biden and discredit the Mueller investigation.
Zelensky referenced Ryaboshapka on his now-infamous July 25 phone call with President Trump, telling him that “the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person.”
“He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue,” Zelensky replied. “The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case.”
But Ryaboshapka’s comments in Kyiv on Friday don’t really suggest that the Ukrainian government has decided to fulfill Trump’s request to, in the President’s memorable phrasing, do him a “favor.”
Rather, the country’s new top prosecutor gave a subtler reply, suggesting a review of a wide array of investigations into grand corruption that were inexplicably shut down over the past few years.
Ukraine’s 2014 revolution created huge internal pressure to investigate the massive corruption that took place under the overthrown Viktor Yanukovych government. One such case was the natural gas company where Hunter Biden would later join the board, Burisma. The company’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, had used his official position as a minister in Yanukovych’s government to dole out gas drilling permits to himself.
But the new government that came into power after the revolution failed to keep corruption out of its own ranks, and struck a series of deals with corrupt officials who got rich during the Yanukovych government to allow them to escape prosecution.
One of the most notable of these deals related to Burisma, on whose board Hunter Biden gained a seat in 2014. Some Ukrainians who worked as prosecutors at the time — and secretly recorded conversations — suggest that the investigation into Burisma was not closed because of pressure from Joe Biden, as Giuliani has suggested, but rather because the company agreed to sell gas at below-market rates to firms owned by then-President Petro Poroshenko.
The resulting impunity for officials from the Yanukovych era led to massive disillusionment in Ukrainian society. Zelensky was elected in part on an anti-corruption platform promising to address these failures.
In his press conference on Friday in Kyiv, Ryaboshapka announced his priorities as general prosecutor — a position he entered in late August.
He told reporters during his opening remarks at the presser that he would conduct an audit of the “many high-profile cases that were either closed” or transferred.
Later on, a reporter asked Ryaboshapka whether the General Prosecutor’s Office would re-open the Burisma case and whether it was “empowered to hold Biden or others accountable” in the case.
Ryaboshapka replied that his office was “conducting an audit” of high-profile cases from the Yanukovych years, and that there were around fifteen cases that fell under the audit.
He added that the review focuses on “cases where illegal procedural decisions were made.”
So while it’s true that the Ukrainian government is reviewing its handling of the Burisma case, it’s something of a stretch to suggest that Kyiv has caved in to pressure from the Trump Administration on this score.
Rather, it seems more like the government is taking a likely inconsequential step to improve its own domestic political standing and send vague signals to Washington that it’s playing ball without actually doing anything significant.