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Opinion | America Exports Its Corruption to Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine — In 2014, Ukraine’s wildly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia after mass protests on the Maidan, Kiev’s central square. During what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity, police snipers killed dozens of demonstrators. In the revolution’s aftermath, a number of young idealists decided to plunge into politics, hoping to reform their troubled country from the inside. One of them was Serhiy Leshchenko, at the time perhaps the country’s most famous investigative journalist.

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had encouraged Leshchenko and some of his friends to run for Parliament. He’d met Leshchenko in 2013, when the journalist took part in a three-week summer course run by Fukuyama at Stanford that aims to teach activists from around the world about building democratic institutions. “After the Maidan revolution, I thought that it was particularly important that all these people in civil society actually go into the government,” Fukuyama said.

Many of them did. That October, Leshchenko, a lanky, bearded hipster with a passion for rave culture, became part of a cadre of Western-oriented newcomers elected to Parliament, even as he continued to work as a journalist exposing corruption. This year, after Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidential election, Leshchenko advised him during the transition.

Then Rudy Giuliani began attacking Leshchenko as a conspirator against America.

In 2016, Leshchenko had helped expose the “black ledger,” an accounting book of hundreds of pages found in Yanukovych’s former party headquarters. Among its many entries, it showed $12.7 million in secret payments to Paul Manafort. At the time, Manafort was running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but before that, he was one of Yanukovych’s most important advisers.

One of the reasons Manafort is in federal prison is that he failed to disclose or pay taxes on millions of dollars from Ukraine. But if you believe Giuliani, the black ledger was part of a plot to damage Trump.

During a Fox News appearance on May 10, Giuliani described the ledger as a “falsely created book” and Leshchenko as part of a group of “enemies of the president, in some cases enemies of the United States.” Last month, in an epic, ranting interview on CNN, he accused Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption organization, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, or AntAC, of developing “all of the dirty information that ended up being a false document that was created in order to incriminate Manafort.”

In Giuliani’s fevered alternative reality, Ukraine’s most stalwart foes of corruption are actually corruption’s embodiment. Deeply compromised figures with vendettas against the activists — particularly the ex-prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko — are transformed into heroes.

This addled, through-the-looking glass fantasy came to drive American foreign policy in Ukraine. Trump withdrew the American ambassador to the country, Marie Yovanovitch, whom reformers saw as their champion. He withheld military aid that Ukraine desperately needed, while asking Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate deranged fictions about Ukrainian interference in American elections, as well as Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Given how much Ukraine depends on American support, Giuliani’s smears made it politically impossible for Leshchenko, who left Parliament in August, to continue advising Zelensky. Now, with Ukraine at the center of a world-historical international scandal, he is stupefied to find himself defamed by powerful forces in the United States, once the world’s strongest backer of those fighting for democracy in his country.

“I could imagine that maybe some Ukrainian prosecutors will create a fake case against me, or some criminals will attack me, or I could be attacked by trolls on social media,” Leshchenko told me when I met him in a Kiev cafe. “But I never imagined before that my real problems will appear because of the statement of the personal attorney of the American president.”

If America can be said to have a foreign policy at this debased stage of the Trump administration, it mostly consists of sucking up to strongmen while betraying everyone who ever believed in America’s putative ideals. Trump has given Turkey his blessing to assault the Syrian Kurds, America’s crucial allies against ISIS. In June, he reportedly promised China that he wouldn’t speak out in favor of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, some of whom have been carrying American flags, as long as trade talks progressed.

Here in Ukraine, a country locked in a proxy war with Russia, coping with a deluge of disinformation and propaganda and struggling to transcend a history of corruption, reformers are trying to figure out what it means when the American president sides against them.

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Pro-Western reformers, the Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko told me, had seen the United States as a “a perfect democracy functioning very well,” with an admirable system of checks and balances. “And now this image is crumbling and that’s very dangerous.”

The Ukrainians I spoke to aren’t naïve; they understand that America, like any other country, generally acts from self-interest rather than high principle. But there was a time when America at least viewed the projection of democratic values as being in its self-interest. That gave liberals in countries like Ukraine leverage against recalcitrant officials.

“The majority of the reforms, especially on anti-corruption, were passed because there was a very strong demand from civil society, and there was the I.M.F. and the U.S. Embassy pushing it hard,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, a former board member of AntAC who was elected to Parliament this year.

The U.S. also provided a degree of protection to local activists and journalists. When Lutsenko was prosecutor general in Ukraine — a position roughly equivalent to our attorney general — he would, said Ustinova, harass anti-corruption campaigners with spurious criminal investigations. “The U.S. ambassador and the E.U. ambassador were going out publicly saying you cannot do this,” Ustinova said.

Now that’s all changed. As The New York Times reported, after Trump recalled the U.S. ambassador, Lutsenko gloated to the head of AntAC that he had “eliminated your roof,” using Russian mafia slang for guardian.

“We’ve been exporting our corruption to them, rather than trying to export good governance,” said Fukuyama.

When he said that, Fukuyama may not have known how right he was. A few hours after I met Leshchenko, news broke that two Ukrainian-born clients of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had been arrested on charges of campaign finance crimes as they were preparing to leave the United States with one-way tickets.

According to an indictment, the two “sought to advance their personal financial interests and the political interests of at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working.” (In one of those preposterously on-the-nose details that make the Trump era feel like a computer simulation on the fritz, Parnas had a company called Fraud Guarantee.)

As soon as news of the indictment broke, I messaged Leshchenko, who guessed that the unnamed Ukrainian official was Lutsenko. It was a natural assumption; it had already been reported that Parnas and Fruman connected Giuliani with Lutsenko, who had been feeding Trump’s lawyer conspiracy theories about the journalist, the former American ambassador and Joe Biden.

Sure enough, on Saturday NBC News reported that Lutsenko was the official in the indictment. Yovanovitch might have been referring to Lutsenko when she said, in her Friday congressional testimony, that “individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”

Thanks to Giuliani’s escapades, the domestic grudges of a crooked Ukrainian prosecutor have blossomed into a scandal that’s likely to lead to the impeachment of an American president. Federal prosecutors are now investigating whether Giuliani himself broke the law.

Lutsenko has since left Ukraine for London, and Ukrainian authorities have opened a criminal case against him for allegedly abusing his authority in an unrelated matter. In a recent interview, he told reporters for The Times that in speaking to Giuliani, he sought to tell Trump’s lawyer what he wanted to hear. “I understood very well what would interest them,” Lutsenko said, adding, “I have 23 years in politics.”

He should be seen as wholly discredited, but in our polarized, frenzied media environment, lies never really go away. Trump’s defenders will continue to take Lutsenko’s stories at face value. Worse, long after America has forgotten them, these slanders, which Trump and Giuliani magnified to gargantuan scale, will linger in Ukraine, undermining the people our country once sought to help.

“This smear campaign circulates everywhere: in American media, then in Ukrainian media,” said Leshchenko. Those in Ukraine who want impunity for corruption, he said, can now say, “Look at these anti-corruption activists and journalists and members of Parliament. They are not welcome in the U.S., so don’t listen to them. So it suppresses our reputation here in Ukraine as well.”

Ukrainians are no strangers to post-truth politics. The first time I ever heard the term “fake news” was in 2015, when I learned about the Ukrainian fact-checking organization StopFake. It was created by a group of journalists to push back against the torrents of Russian disinformation sowing chaos in the country’s politics. At the time, it would have been hard to imagine that the United States would soon join Russia as a source of weaponized untruth in Ukraine.

“This is very new, because now it seems it’s not only Russia influencing Ukrainian politics, but Ukraine is also influencing the U.S., and things happening in the U.S. are greatly influencing Ukraine,” Yevhen Fedchenko, one of StopFake’s founders, told me. “So it becomes much more complicated.”

Here’s what’s not complicated. Throughout our history, America has committed many sins against democracy around the world, but we used to be on the right side in Ukraine. Not anymore. As one former U.S. diplomat said to me recently, “The beacon has gone out.” We’re with the oligarchs now.

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