The leaked Biden-Poroshenko tapes leave a questionable trail with traces of Russian influence. But most of all it lacks enough substance to scandalize US Electoral politics.
Ukraine is back at the center of American electoral potpourri. Amid a backdrop of chaotic, disorderly COVID-19 response, a leaked tape featuring democrat Presidential nominee Joe Biden and former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is trying to penetrate voter mind space.
The tape is the new link in the chain of events that led to President Trump’s impeachment.
In late 2019 before the virus showed its real face in the US, President Donald Trump went all out attacking Joe Biden with allegations of misuse of official position. Trump tried to persuade Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and son Hunter’s professional dealings in the East European nation. Ironically, the move backfired as the Democrats launched an impeachment drive against Trump on charges of misusing the president’s office. Republican-dominated Senate saved Trump after the Democrats impeached Trump in the House of Representatives. That was in February.
In the tape leaked on May 19, Biden and Poroshenko allegedly discuss a ‘give and take’ proposal floated by the former Vice President. However, the tape comes with a trail of skepticism and traces of Russian influence.
Through the lens of skepticism
The Ukrainian lawmaker who made the tapes public is called Andriy Derkach. The Daily Beast has called Derkach ‘a Ukrainian politician with a KGB background (his father was also a KGB officer), a penchant for conspiracy theories, and a friendly relationship with Rudy Giuliani’. Giuliani, the 9/11 New York Mayor and former Republican presidential nominee is Trump’s personal lawyer. He is one of the few names attached to the conspiracy who aren’t active in the government.
Watch: Ukraine lawmaker releases leaked Biden – Poroshenko phone call
Furthermore, the allegations of a quid pro quo also hang loosely. In the phone talks, Biden appeared to tell Poroshenko that an American loan worth $1 billion would be provided to Ukraine once the then Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin was removed. It has been alleged that Biden wanted Shokin removed to avoid a possible probe into controversial energy company Burisma where his son Hunter was a board member. The official narrative in Ukraine around Shokin’s removal is that he was an impediment to the government’s anti-corruption efforts. Alongside the US, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Ukraine’s civil society also saw Shokin through the lens of suspicion. Moreover, no mention of either Hunter or Burisma has been reported in the leaked tapes. Poroshenko has also come out and said that Biden never spoke to him about those two names.
Both Poroshenko and Biden have claimed the tapes are fabricated. Poroshenko, a vocal anti-Russia president who lost the power last year, claimed the leaked tapes was a special operation scripted by Russia.
The leak was carried out by the ‘fifth column of the Kremlin’ which ‘has launched a full-fledged special operation against Ukraine. By means of pulling Ukraine into the electoral struggle in the U.S. they are trying to undermine the U.S. bipartisan support of Ukraine’.Former Ukraine President Poroshenko in a Facebook post on Wednesday, May 22
Biden’s campaign refused to attach much importance to the phone call saying the Democrat did it for good reason. Campaign manager Andrew Bates said the audio was ‘heavily edited’ and an issue was being created out of nothing.
From Russia with love… and Ukraine too
The Ukrainian leadership, however, has taken the leaked tapes seriously. Zelensky has already launched a probe, telling media the phone talks ‘might be perceived, qualified as high treason’. The tapes were leaked on the eve of the comedian turned president’s first anniversary in office. The episode gives him an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – discredit his biggest domestic opponent Poroshenko and further solidify his relation with Trump. But even for the President, hiding the Russian angle is impossible.
Derkach is a former member of the ousted Russia-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in Ukraine. In 2017, he sought a probe into Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election — something President Trump has spoken about in the past. In 2019, Derkach met Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, even as top officials of Kyiv stayed away. The closeness was perhaps too close to overlook. Yet while Trump’s opponents essentially view him as Russia’s stooge, the president and his camp are trying to cement the theory that the Barack Obama administration has a corrupt foreign policy. Trump’s PAC is pushing a narrative that a Democrats-Kyiv nexus that tried to derail the Republican’s 2016 campaign is trying it again in 2020.
Before moving further, it is important to understand Ukraine’s backstory in the East-West power game. Not only rich in natural resources, but Ukraine is also a key geostrategic location for both Russia and the West. The US and Russia are in an ongoing tug-of-war over Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 made Ukraine a prominent theater of the power struggle between Moscow and Washington. Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia. The likes of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former VP Biden are known critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine needs the West specifically to thwart the threat it receives from its eastern neighbor and accordingly, the West also tries to make the maximum out of it. Biden’s ‘quid pro quo’ on Shokin played to the same script.
The leaked tapes lack an honest foundation to trouble Biden
Poroshenko’s political deterioration directly benefits Russia. The former leader has said in the past that Putin hates Ukraine and Ukrainians and warned Zelensky against appeasing the Kremlin. Furthermore, certain aspects make the accusation against Biden hold no water.
Firstly, Biden was not the one who initiated the demand for Shokin’s removal.
According to a Financial Times report in October 2019, European Union officials were trying to see the back of Shokin since April 2015 much before Biden entered the picture in December 2015. The EU effort was seen as part of an international endeavor to make Ukraine’s institutions strong after Russia’s Crimean annexation and armed conflicts in eastern parts of the country.
Secondly, no new shocking details have surfaced in the tapes. The effort to dismiss Shokin was not confidential with plenty of demands outside and withing Ukraine. To see an American vice president taking up the role to communicate with the Ukrainian present and think that he is doing it all for his son is a sort of over-simplification. American vice presidents have acted as the main interlocutors in the inter-state relations since the days of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s second president (1994-2005). The US-Ukraine Commission came to be known as Gore-Kuchma Commission, featuring former US vice president Al Gore besides Kuchma.
But what about the loan? According to a report from Ukraine’s Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the massive loan was also not meant for Poroshenko’s personal gain but for Ukraine. It also cited James Sherr, Senior Fellow of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, who said:
“The United States is not obliged to provide loans to Ukraine, and Ukraine is not obliged to accept them. There is no surrender of sovereignty involved.”James Sherr, Senior Fellow, Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
Instead, the leak should worry Trump and Russia alike
The Biden – Poroshenko tapes scandal seems like just another poll-time headline distracting from the crisis at hand. On Wednesday, the GOP-led Homeland Security panel voted to subpoena records from a consulting firm in Washington that represented Burisma. The revived controversy also gives Zelensky a much-needed opportunity to showcase his own variety of nationalism — even if moderate compared to his immediate predecessor — after it was suspected that he could go softer on Putin.
But the overall impact of this tape-leaking instance proves less favorable for Trump and his backers home and abroad.
It brings the focus back on the allegations that he misused his presidential power abroad to defeat a domestic opponent. Particularly in times of Trump administration’s dismal handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, if Biden is accused of employing a strategy of ‘quid pro quo’ against Ukraine, Trump is twice as guilty. Trump sought a ‘quid pro quo’ on two occasions. First, his administration agreed to host the newly elected Zelensky only if Ukraine carried out the investigations. Second, Trump also threatened to hold back substantial military aid to Ukraine if the probe was not done.
From the perspective of Russia, also, the leaked Biden-Poroshenko tapes might not help. A report in the Russian media has called Ukraine effectively one of America’s ‘client state’ after the tapes came out. But the Kremlin will have to keep into consideration the fact that Poroshenko could regain some of his lost grounds as a result of this. The leader is known for his pro-West and nationalist stances and if Zelensky fails to impress the people of Ukraine with his Russia policy in the medium and long run, the populist-nationalist Poroshenko can always come back into prominence. Russia, his foe, would not like such a situation to emerge soon.