Ukraine’s top prosecutor said he plans to launch an “audit” of old cases closed down under his predecessor, including several related to the natural gas company that employed former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.
Any step toward investigating the Bidens might look like Ukraine is bending to the will of President Trump, who publicly urged Ukraine to conduct “a major investigation” of his Democratic political rival’s family on Thursday.
But close Ukraine-watchers cautioned that Friday’s announcement by Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, stopped short of a new investigation, and looked more like an attempt to buy time to navigate a dicey political dynamic and keep from alienating either Republicans or Democrats completely.
“It looks like maneuvering to stay neutral and not take any side,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a former Ukrainian lawmaker who previously advised Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky, told VICE News.
Ryaboshapka said his team plans to review cases that were closed or dismissed by his predecessors, including some touching on a natural gas company called Burisma Holdings and its oligarch founder, Mykola Zlochevsky. Biden held a paid position on Burisma’s board starting in 2014.
A statement posted to the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s website on Friday said that 15 criminal procedures involving Zlochevsky, a former government minister, are up for review.
“If it is found that the proceedings have been closed in violation of the law or other procedural violations have been committed, then we will take appropriate decisions,” the statement said. “No procedural decisions related to the proceedings against the aforementioned person or any persons related to Mykola [Zlochevsky] or his companies have been taken at this time.”
Ukrainian officials have said that earlier probes focused on a time period before Hunter Biden joined the company, and that there’s no evidence that the former Vice President’s son broke any laws.
House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry last week against Trump over his push for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, after Trump’s actions were flagged by a still-anonymous intelligence community whistleblower who warned Trump seemed to be soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election.
Friday’s announcement suggests Ukrainian officials are struggling to find some kind of middle ground in a deep political crisis, said Volodymyr Fesenko a veteran political analyst in Kiev and head of the Penta think tank.
“This is a flexible reaction to a very tricky situation,” Fesenko said, adding that the announcement doesn’t yet show Ukraine is yielding to Trump’s demands, “for now.”
“The key word is audit and not investigation,” said David Szakonyi, an expert on the former Soviet Union at George Washington University in Washington DC. “The expected timeline or possible outcomes of such an audit are being left intentionally vague.”
Szakonyi said the Zelensky government appears to be calculating that the appearance of action, even if it’s a half-measure, may buy room to maneuver from Trump’s White House.
Ukrainian officials worry that leaning too far in favor of Trump or his opponents could disrupt the bipartisan American support Ukraine has relied on to continue fighting its bloody war with Russian-backed separatists on its eastern border, analysts said.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky took office this year promising to fight his country’s legacy of endemic corruption, and the prosecutor’s statement appears in keeping with that broader campaign promise, analysts said.
“As I understand it, it's an audit — they’re not reopening cases,” said Olga Oliker, European Program Director for the International Crisis Group. “They're trying to figure out just what their predecessors left them with.”
Cover: President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)