As the corruption of the Trump administration is exposed, I keep two questions in mind: Why Ukraine? and Why energy? The simple answer is that they are where the money is. The more extended answers will be more interesting.
Natural gas seems to be the current focus in energy, but Michael Flynn had a bizarre plan to partner with the Russians to sell nuclear reactors in the Middle East and continues today in Rick Perry’s dealings with Saudi Arabia.
Information on Ukraine seems to be coming together now, although we almost certainly don’t have the final word. And energy plays a part.
Russia has always wanted buffer areas between its heartland and its neighbors. Ukraine is more than that, though. An origin story of the Russian empire put it in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin played up that story earlier on in his quest to bring Ukraine back into Russian influence. Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, being further south than most of the Russian Republic and thus more effective at growing wheat. Its factories built Soviet missiles.
Ukraine’s proximity to Europe and other markets made it the center of natural gas distribution for the Soviet Union. That centralization also made it easy for Vladimir Putin to cut off natural gas to Ukraine, although the cutoff had the unwelcome side effect of keeping some of Russia’s gas from being sold to Europe. So Russia is building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to bypass Ukraine.
For Ukraine to be a buffer for Russia, it must be a weak state, subservient to Russia. But part of Ukraine’s value to Russia is also what could give it independent strength: its farming and industrial sectors, along with Black Sea ports for trade.
Ukraine was one of the fifteen independent countries to emerge from the Soviet Union. Although it is close to Europe, its path since 1991 has been less successful than that of the Baltic states. That is largely because of corruption in its government.
The Ukrainian people since then have moved against corruption in fits and starts. Viktor Yushchenko became president in 2005 on a reform agenda. During his campaign, he was poisoned, probably by Russia, but survived. His presidency was unsuccessful and followed by that of Viktor Yanukovych, who leaned toward Russia and brought back corruption in a big way.
In February 2014, Yanukovych was run out of office by popular demonstrations and fled to Russia. A few months later, Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and started a war in the eastern provinces of Ukraine, known collectively as the Donbas.
If Ukraine couldn’t be kept down by corruption, Russia would act more directly.
The next president, Petro Poroschenko, managed the loss of Crimea and the war in the Donbas while introducing anticorruption measures. But Russia’s military actions necessarily slowed down his ability to deal with corruption.
Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in April of this year. Russia still occupies Crimea, and the war in the Donbas continues. To that has been added an American president who uses military aid as a lever to force Zelensky into a corrupt scheme for his advantage in the American elections. David Ignatius speculates that Poroschenko may have been subjected to this kind of corruption too. Maksym Eristavi, a Ukrainian journalist, points out that this American behavior looks a lot like the bad old Ukrainian behavior.
From the American side, the connections are not clear. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, now in prison, has been rumored to have connections to Ukrainian and Russian organized crime through his father in law, but this has not been proved.
Two middlemen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, have been working for both Rudy Giuliani and Dmytro Firtash. Firtash is under house arrest in Austria and has been involved with both natural gas companies in Ukraine and Russian organized crime.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has urged the Ukrainian government to put a couple of Americans on the board of the state natural gas company.
Paul Manafort, also in prison, worked for Viktor Yanukovych before he worked for Donald Trump. And, like Rudy Giuliani, he charged Trump nothing for his services. Firtash has been connected to Manafort.
Not all these dots are connected yet. It’s possible that people simply saw a weak state with illicit money flowing into it from Russia and decided to take advantage. Or we may learn more as Congressional hearings continue.
Cross-posted to Balloon Juice