Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House on Wednesday will complete a circle of politics and intrigue spanning three U.S. administrations.
President Biden has put Ukrainian corruption near the top of the agenda when he sits down in the Oval Office with Mr. Zelenskyy. It’s the same issue that has imbued both Washington’s and Mr. Biden’s relationship with the Eastern European country for nearly a decade.
Mr. Zelenskyy, a comedian, actor and political neophyte who was elected Ukraine’s president in 2019, wasn’t always at the center of the U.S.-Ukraine circle. But when he was, it was a doozy.
It was the now-infamous phone call with Mr. Zelenskyy in July 2019 in which President Trump pressed him to investigate Biden family corruption in Ukraine that lead to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment.
The episode also brought to the fore the far-flung and conspicuously profitable business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
Documents found on Hunter Biden’s laptop late last year raised more questions about how deeply the Biden family was entrenched in Ukraine’s murky business world.
Mr. Biden said in 2019 that he never spoke with his son about overseas business dealings. But documents on Hunter’s laptop show that he introduced his father to a visiting Burisma executive in 2015.
Emails on the laptop indicated that Mr. Biden attended a dinner at a posh Washington restaurant with Hunter and business associates from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Mr. Zelenskyy never launched an investigation of corruption involving the Bidens. He also said in 2019 that he was not being pressured by Mr. Trump, though Congress’ impeachment probe pointed to a diplomatic push for a Biden investigation.
The pressure, according to testimony at the House impeachment probe, included dangling a prized White House visit for Mr. Zelenskyy.
Now that Mr. Zelenskyy will get his White House session, the talk will turn decisively toward Russia.
“The visit will affirm the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in Donbas and Crimea; our close cooperation on energy security; and our backing for President Zelenskyy’s efforts to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda based on our shared democratic values,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
Mr. Biden has said preventing government corruption is key to Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, which tops Mr. Zelenskyy’s agenda for the meeting.
“The fact is, they still have to clean up corruption. The fact is, they have to meet other criteria to get into the action plan. And so school’s out on that question. It remains to be seen,” Mr. Biden said at a NATO summit in June.
NATO and the EU keep mum about when Ukraine can become a member, despite Kyiv’s persistence. The EU only went as far as to sign a landmark Association Agreement with Ukraine in 2014, which stipulated free trade and visa-free travel between the two.
Ukraine‘s Western allies expect Kyiv to keep pushing reforms, including in the judiciary, and the creation of effective anti-corruption mechanisms that would stem the endemic graft in the country.
“Ukrainian democracy is a work in progress which yet to learn the lessons of fighting corruption and to limit the influence of the oligarchs,” Ukrainian political analyst and head of the Penta Center think tank Volodymyr Fesenko told The Associated Press.
“Western partners directly link the speed of [Ukraine‘s] integration into Euro-Atlantic blocs with success in reforms and the fight against corruption,” he said.
Mr. Zelenskyy also is expected to press for support in ejecting Russia from Crimea, a peninsula extending into the Black Sea that Russia annexed in 2014.
Russia’s control has been decried by the Western world as illegal, though little has been done to force Russia to return it to Ukraine.
At the recent Crimean Platform summit in Kyiv, Mr. Zelenskyy pledged to “do everything possible to return Crimea, so that Crimea, together with Ukraine, becomes part of Europe.”
“For this, we will use all possible political, legal and first and foremost diplomatic means,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, adding that Kyiv needs “effective support at the international level.”
It’s another subject close to Mr. Biden.
As vice president in the Obama administration, Mr. Biden was in charge of Ukraine policy in 2014.
He is known to have pressed President Obama to take strong action during the Crimea crisis. He also offered tough talk against Russia when visiting Kyiv in 2014. But U.S. material support for Ukraine, which also was fighting pro-Russia separatists in the East, was tepid at best.
At the same time, Hunter Biden landed an $83,000-a-month job on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that was in the crosshairs of a corruption probe.
In 2015, a Ukrainian prosecutor looking into corruption, including at Burisma, was abruptly fired after Mr. Biden threatened to withhold some $1 billion in U.S. loans to the country if he was not terminated.
Former Obama administration officials and an anti-corruption advocate in Ukraine say that simply isn’t true, claiming Mr. Biden sought to fire the prosecutor because he wasn’t pursuing corruption.
A Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released last year showed numerous contacts between Mr. Biden, Hunter Biden, and Ukrainian officials while he was still vice president. The report, however, made no specific allegations of wrongdoing.
* (Correction: The original story had the incorrect date for the Ukrainian president’s visit to the White House. The story has been updated.)