Vice President Mike Pence was about to finish a routine joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw last week, when he got two astutely specific questions about his meeting the previous day with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

“Number one, did you discuss Joe Biden at all during that meeting yesterday with the Ukrainian President? And number two, can you assure Ukraine that the hold-up of [U.S. security assistance] has absolutely nothing to do with efforts, including by Rudy Giuliani, to try to dig up dirt on the Biden family?” Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin asked.

Pence answered the first question directly: “Well, on the first question, the answer is no.” His response to the second question was more interesting. He essentially demurred. But to decode the significance of Pence’s reply, it’s important to understand the recent history of Ukraine and U.S. policy toward the country. From there, we can unpack what’s at the bottom of the Trump-Giuliani efforts.

Those efforts yesterday became the focus of a new joint investigation by three House committees – Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform. In letters to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeking “any and all” related records and a list of personnel involved, the three Democratic committee chairs outlined a litany of meetings, phone calls, tweets and other threats, including the withholding of the $250 million of security aid the reporter had referenced in the question to Pence.

“President Trump and his personal attorney appear to have increased pressure on the Ukrainian government and its justice system in service of President Trump’s reelection campaign, and the White House and the State Department may be abetting this scheme,” the chairmen wrote.

The Biden “Connection” 

The reporter’s questions to Pence struck at the heart of a controversy roiling U.S.-Ukraine relations since even before Zelenskyy’s election win in April. Starting at least late last year, President Donald Trump and his personal attorney and advisor, Rudy Giuliani, have agitated for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden, the current frontrunner in the Democratic presidential race and the candidate they apparently think could be Trump’s biggest rival for a second term.

Trump and Giuliani allege, contrary to evidence, that Biden improperly pressured the Ukrainian government in 2016 to fire then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in the midst of a corruption investigation of one of Ukraine’s biggest gas companies, Burisma Group. Biden’s youngest son, Hunter, was serving on the company’s board at the time.

But the prosecutor, in fact, was the target of pressure by Ukrainian anti-corruption advocates and a host of international supporters of Ukraine, who argued he should be fired for failing to pursue major cases of corruption. And it was the widely known and publicly espoused position of the U.S. government, across a half dozen agencies, that the prosecutor’s ouster was among crucial anti-corruption measures that the Ukrainian government needed to take to move forward economically and politically. As President Barack Obama’s point man on Ukraine, Biden dutifully relayed those messages at every opportunity.

Yet Trump and Giuliani have turned that real-life scenario on its head, falsely alleging that Biden sought to corruptly influence a Ukrainian prosecutor’s decisions in his son’s favor. The Trump camp’s steady volley of tweets, interviews and supportive articles by pro-Trump authors echoes the persistent Republican accusations against Hillary Clinton related to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on Benghazi, Libya, when she was Secretary of State.

At the very least, because of the complexity of the issue and the again-distant locale, the hammering on the Bidens’ roles in Ukraine could at least serve up enough disinformation to confuse American voters about what really is true. The anti-Biden campaign may be designed in no small part to make voters believe that, as disinformation expert Peter Pomerantsev has said of current-day Russian propaganda, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”

Prosecutors General Ousted in Anti-Corruption Drive

Ukraine’s latest popular uprising in late 2013 and early 2014, called the “Revolution of Dignity” or the “Maidan Revolution” after the square in central Kyiv where protesters set up camp for months, ultimately forced out the corrupt and inept government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s previous political consulting and lobbying work for Yanukovych, an acolyte of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and for Kremlin-connected oligarchs expanded the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia and helped fuel Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort was sentenced in March to 7 ½ years in federal prison for charges unrelated to the election interference but including tax fraud, failing to properly disclose his foreign lobbying work, and obstructing justice by encouraging others to lie to cover his misdeeds.

The 2013-2014 Maidan demonstrations against Yanukovych’s government had been triggered specifically by his decision to renege on an association agreement with the European Union and make a deal with Moscow instead. Ukrainians demanded a European future, not one akin to already-backsliding Russia.

The U.S. government, European leaders and officials of the International Monetary Fund quickly joined Ukrainian reform advocates in pressing the new government of Yanukovych’s successor, Petro Poroshenko, to make sweeping changes, especially in anti-corruption measures. Advocates often referred to the urgency as the country’s “other war” after the military battles it was waging against Russia’s incursions in the east.

But Poroshenko made only slow, reluctant changes that didn’t come close to achieving the kind of clean system of governance and enterprise that Ukraine’s economy needed to attract serious foreign investment.

The most promising anti-corruption development under Poroshenko was the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), an independent agency established at the urging of the United States and the European Union to investigate and prosecute graft. But the bureau’s work was severely hampered by pressure from Poroshenko, his supporters in Parliament, corrupt elements of the security services and the courts, and, most important to the Trump-Giuliani allegations against Joe Biden, from the country’s Prosecutor General.

The Prosecutor General during much of the time Biden was pressing the Ukrainian government to step up anti-corruption efforts was Shokin, appointed by Poroshenko in February 2015.

“Shokin has stood out as the most obvious obstacle to judicial reform,” Swedish economist Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council wrote in March 2016, when Shokin finally was forced to resign after a vote of no confidence in Parliament. “Most strikingly, Shokin failed to prosecute any single prominent member of the Yanukovych regime. Nor did he prosecute anyone in the current government.”

Shokin has since made comments to journalists that have helped fuel Giuliani’s and Trump’s conspiracy theory about Biden, telling the Washington Post this July that a potential investigation of Burisma and Hunter Biden were “the only motives for organizing my resignation.” Considering the no-confidence vote in Parliament was supported by an overwhelming 289 members, including most of Poroshenko’s party, that seems a far-fetched claim.

In May of this year, Shokin’s successor as prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Bloomberg News that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens. What’s more, another former official, Vitaliy Kasko, said Shokin had opened an investigation of Burisma, but that it was long dormant by the time Biden and the U.S. government pushed for anti-corruption measures in Ukraine, including the ouster of Shokin.

Lutsenko also contradicted a claim by Trump supporters that Lutsenko was investigating Burisma. Lutsenko explained to Bloomberg News that he was conducting an unrelated investigation of a different company involving transactions that occurred months before Hunter Biden even joined Burisma’s board in 2014.

“Biden was definitely not involved,” Lutsenko said. “We do not have any grounds to think that there was any wrongdoing starting from 2014.”

New, Powerful Mandate

With his brand new party sweeping the parliamentary elections in Ukraine this July, Zelenskyy has a powerful-enough electoral mandate to “truly clean out the [Prosecutor] General’s Office in ways that could establish it as a model of jurisprudence and not politics,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst during a July 29 discussion at the Atlantic Council. “He could begin a similar process, though it would be harder, with the courts.”

Overhauling the Prosecutor General’s Office and an economic-crimes unit in the security services, and abolishing immunity from prosecution for members of Parliament, are critical steps to advance Ukraine’s economic growth, said Åslund, the economist, at the same event. “It was wonderful to see all these awful, crooked businessmen now being kicked out of the Parliament, which means that they no longer have immunity. They can be sued, and they can be prosecuted.”

Similar reforms are needed in the gas industry, defense manufacturing and customs. While the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) does an admirable job in its counterintelligence mission against external threats and in the war against Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine, the department that handles economic crimes is “a giant monster,” said Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky. The SBU has 30,000 employees, compared with Britain’s MI-5, which has 4,000, though admittedly not at war, he said.

And Zelenskyy, a former television satirist who played an unexpected president but now is in the position for real, is making quick progress with his party’s unprecedented parliamentary majority.

In a breathtaking move this past week, Parliament voted to take the step that Åslund and so many others had recommended – it stripped itself of immunity from prosecution, meeting a major demand of anti-corruption campaigners. The government is launching a long-awaited anti-corruption court that was established because regular courts are too corrupt or inefficient to handle such cases. Zelenskyy also named respected former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius to chair the supervisory board of UkrOboronProm, the state-run defense-manufacturing behemoth, and ordered a comprehensive audit of the conglomerate. And Zelenskyy has put in place a new prosecutor general to replace Lutsenko, who himself had been criticized for moving too slowly on anti-corruption investigations.

Enter Team Trump’s Backchannel

Despite such sweeping changes that the United States has urged for so many years, Ukraine’s new, reform-minded government now finds itself getting the cold shoulder from its onetime partner. The Trump-Giuliani campaign against Biden includes hardball tactics that put Ukraine’s new, reform-minded government in a particularly tight spot.

In May, Giuliani — who himself has had business interests in Ukraine – planned a trip to Kyiv to pressure President-elect Zelenskyy to investigate the Bidens’ roles in Ukraine. After a public uproar over the impropriety of a key advisor to Trump seeking a foreign government’s help against a potential election opponent, Giuliani canceled the trip.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, which broke the original “Panama Papers” stories, reported that two Soviet-born Florida businessmen Giuliani has publicly identified as his clients, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are “at the center of Giuliani’s back-channel diplomacy.”

“Since late 2018, the men have introduced Giuliani to three current and former senior Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss the politically damaging information” about Biden, OCCRP reported with BuzzFeed. “The effort has involved meetings in at least five countries, stretching from Washington, D.C. to the Israeli office of a Ukrainian oligarch accused of a multi-billion-dollar fraud, and to the halls of the French Senate.” (Yes, that’s billion with a b, not million.)

The Ukrainian oligarch is Ihor Kolomoisky, who reportedly is close to Zelenskyy and whose television channel hosted the former comedian’s hit show. Their links and Zelenskyy’s hiring of Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer as head of the new presidential administration is giving anti-corruption advocates pause about Zelenskyy’s intentions in office, but so far the new president has taken promising steps. Furthermore, Kolomoisky told OCCRP that Parnas and Fruman wanted him to help set up a meeting between Zelenskyy and Giuliani, but that he (Kolomoisky) angrily rejected the overture and the implication that he was a go-between for Zelenskyy.

Giuliani also continues to tweet regularly, and recently resumed his pressure on the new Ukrainian government via telephone calls and a meeting with a Zelenskyy aid. He also met in New York in late July with Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, whom he has known since at least 2008 and who is engaged in a power struggle with Zelenskyy over his dual-hatted position in Kyiv. (Voters select the mayor, but Klitschko also has served as head of the city administration, a position appointed by the president. On Sept. 4, Zelenskyy stripped Klitschko of that authority, apparently in a move to restore checks-and-balances in the capital.)

Withholding Aid – Extortion?

Trump is exerting his own pressure from the Oval Office. Despite a July 25 telephone call with Zelenskyy, in which the two heads of state reportedly agreed to a White House visit, no such trip has been scheduled.

And late last month, Trump ordered his administration to review $250 million in U.S. security assistance that helps Ukraine’s military stave off the Russian-backed forces fighting for secession in the country’s east. Politico reported that the aid includes “money for weapons, training, equipment and intelligence support,” and that the U.S. Defense Department continues to support the spending as necessary to keep Russia’s incursions in check. CNN confirmed that “the Pentagon has already recommended to the White House that the hold on military assistance to Ukraine be lifted.” On Sept. 3, Republican senators joined Democrats in a letter calling for the administration to release the funding.

But the previous day, Pence had suggested in his remarks in Warsaw that such a turnabout might be a long way off, suddenly calling on European nations to provide more assistance. It’s an argument that could find receptive ears among American voters long-inclined to question U.S. spending on foreign aid.

“The simple fact is that the United States has carried the load on most of the security investments in Ukraine,” Pence said. “And we have been proud to do that, but we believe it’s time for our European partners to step forward and make additional investments to stand with the people of Ukraine as they assert their territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

With the drama over assistance to Ukraine unfolding alongside Trump and Giuliani’s months-long drumbeat for an investigation into Biden’s role there, the clear impression is that the United States is extorting a partner country for political gain.

Asked directly about such a scenario in Warsaw, Pence didn’t deny it. In fact, his wording could be seen as an implied confirmation.

After answering a simple “no” to the question of whether he and Zelenskyy discussed Biden, Pence continued, almost as a caveat to the denial and with repeated references back to Trump: “But we … discussed America’s support for Ukraine and the upcoming decision the president will make on the latest tranche of financial support in great detail. The president asked me to meet with President Zelenskyy and to talk about the progress that he’s making on a broad range of areas. And we did that.”

“The United States has stood strong with Ukraine and we will continue to stand strong with Ukraine for its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Pence said. “But as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.”

So, after years of U.S. support to strengthen Ukraine as a potential democratic example in the former Soviet Union, that country finally has a president and a majority of members in Parliament who seem serious about tackling corruption. Is the U.S. president really sending a signal now that he will turn his back on Ukraine because its new leaders refuse an American invitation to corruption?

IMAGE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Cabinet members in Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 1, 2019. (Photo courtesy of President of Ukraine official website.)