Envoys pushed to oust Ukraine prosecutor before Biden
European and US officials pressed Ukraine to sack Viktor Shokin, the country’s former prosecutor-general, months before Joe Biden personally intervened to force his removal, people involved in the talks said.
Mr Biden, who was serving as vice-president, did not act unilaterally nor did he instigate the push against Mr Shokin, despite suggestions to the contrary by supporters of President Donald Trump, people familiar with the matter said.
The circumstances of Mr Shokin’s sacking, which took effect in March 2016, have become a flashpoint in the impeachment saga enveloping Mr Trump.
Democrats accuse Mr Trump of putting pressure on Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who served as a board member of a prominent Ukrainian gas company for several years, to benefit the president’s own re-election campaign in 2020.
Mr Trump and his allies, including Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, have retorted that the request was entirely legitimate, arguing that Mr Biden had forced Mr Shokin’s removal by withholding a $1bn loan guarantee, to protect his son from an anti-graft investigation.
EU diplomats who were working on Ukraine at the time have, however, told the FT that they were looking for ways to persuade Kiev to remove Mr Shokin well before Mr Biden entered the picture
The push for Mr Shokin’s removal was part of an international effort to bolster Ukraine’s institutions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in the eastern part of the country.
“All of us were really pushing [former Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko that he needs to do something, because the prosecutor was not following any of the corruption issues. He was really bad news,” said an EU diplomat involved in the discussions. “It was Biden who finally came in [and triggered it]. Biden was the most vocal, as the US usually is. But we were all literally complaining about the prosecutor.”
Mr Shokin had been appointed prosecutor-general of Ukraine in February 2015, but the discussions in Washington and EU capitals about pushing for his removal started as early as April after he failed to follow through on a burst of expected early anti-corruption moves, one former US Treasury official said. Mr Biden entered the fray in December 2015, placing Mr Shokin’s removal at the top of his agenda on a visit to Kiev.
“I know how the idea to have Shokin fired came up, and it wasn’t Biden. His direct involvement came late in the game,” the former US Treasury official said.
Even once Mr Biden did take up the issue, former Obama administration officials said he did not mention his son’s business or the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. “I had never heard of the company”, the former official said. “I didn’t even realise there was a nexus — it never came up.”
Another senior Obama administration official at the time added: “The idea that Shokin was investigating Burisma, I learnt that theory for the first time from Rudy Giuliani.”
In addition to the US and the EU, senior IMF officials, including Christine Lagarde, the former managing director, also forcefully called on Ukraine to boost its reform efforts, including anti-corruption measures, in early 2016, before Mr Shokin was ousted. The fund’s focus was on institutions rather than individuals, IMF officials said.
Prominent Republican senators, including Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, were on a similar push at the time, calling for “urgent reforms to the prosecutor-general’s office and judiciary” in an early 2016 letter to Mr Poroshenko.
Ukrainian officials have said its anti-corruption authority had been investigating Burisma for the company’s actions between 2010 and 2012, which predated Hunter Biden’s arrival on the board in 2014.
They say he was never accused of any wrongdoing and the inquiry was dormant at the time Mr Shokin was removed in 2016. Hunter Biden earned $50,000 per month for his position as a Burisma director.
“Is there a problem in my view that while Biden was Mr Ukraine his son was anywhere near it and getting paid for it? Yes, that’s a problem,” the EU diplomat said. “But [they allege] that he tried to push out Shokin [because of that]. That’s a complete fabrication and has been debunked several times — but Giuliani keeps repeating it.”
A Poroshenko government adviser added: “Everyone was pushing for Shokin’s resignation, not just Biden. The difference was Biden came with an amount of money Ukraine found hard to ignore. If the Europeans had had that leverage, they would have used it.”
Yet Mr Trump has not shied away from the accusations. Mr Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign released an ad called “Biden corruption”, suggesting it could emerge as a big theme in the presidential contest should the former vice-president win the Democratic nomination.
“Joe Biden promised Ukraine $1bn if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” the narrator in the ad said. “But when President Trump asked Ukraine to investigate corruption, the Democrats want to impeach him,” it went on.
The ad includes a video clip from an appearance by Mr Biden at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, in which he boasted of how he handled the firing of Mr Shokin. “If the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money,” Mr Biden said as he recalled the episode. “Well son of a bitch, he got fired.”
“Donald Trump’s presidency is in freefall after he tried to bully Ukraine into lying about the candidate he’s terrified of running against next year,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign. “Viktor Shokin was a major barrier to fighting corruption in Ukraine, which is why there was bipartisan agreement in the United States — bolstered by the EU, IMF, and Ukrainian reformers — that it was imperative he be removed from office.”