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The Atlantic Council's John Herbst on Biden 2020 and Burisma Controversy
16 May, 2019

“What's happened is that Ukrainian issues have gotten tied up with very emotional American domestic politics,” says John Herbst, Direct of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Herbst is referring to the recent political drama surrounding accusations against former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. In 2014, his son, Hunter Biden, was acting as the director of Ukraine’s largest private gas firm, Burisma. Some experts say this posed a conflict of interest for the then Vice President.

In response, President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, planned a visit to Ukraine. He told the New York Times that he was going to “pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Trump.” Then he cancelled the trip.

Incidentally, Burisma is one of the many backers that fund the Atlantic Council’s work in Ukraine. But Herbst insists that they have been “good partners” and is not concerned about corruption allegations.

Herbst, a retired U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan, believes that anyone who buys Giuliani’s story is “ignorant of Ukraine.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real issues to be considered when it comes to U.S.–Ukraine relations.

Hromadske talks to the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center Director John Herbst, about the Burisma controversy, U.S.–Ukraine relations, and America’s foreign policy towards Russia.

Explain to us how people like Hunter Biden and Aleksander Kwaśniewski happen to be on the board of the Burisma Company.

I think you need to ask them.

You don't know? What do you think about it?

I think you probably know the Atlantic Council receives support from many funders for our work in Ukraine, including from Burisma. So if you want to ask me about that, that's appropriate. I don't think it's appropriate for you to ask me about others who are on the Burisma board. 

If I am right, you are the one to take part in making decisions about whether to cooperate with Burisma on behalf of the Atlantic Council. Can you tell me how this happened?

It's very simple. I am very proud of the work we do on Ukraine. The work we do on Ukraine is to achieve two large objectives: One, to help Ukraine defend itself against Kremlin aggression, two, to help Ukraine reform. In order to do this work, to hire professionals of high quality, we need resources. So if there are companies that want to support my work, if those companies are not doing anything that I know to be illegal or unethical, I'll consider their support. As long as they accept our intellectual independence. That's true of the many funders we have that support the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Burisma is now accused of corruption, will you keep cooperating with them? 

I know that there are questions regarding Burisma activity in the past. And when the idea was first presented to me about working with Burisma I referred to those questions and specifically, I know that one of our ambassadors to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, was very critical of the old Prosecutor General, Mr. Shokin. One of Pyatt's complaints or criticisms was that Shokin did not provide information to Forbes of London, for a case between the Ukrainian government and Burisma and that had something to do with the failure of that court case for the Ukrainian government. So I had that in my mind when the idea of Burisma working with us came up. Someone brought to me the decision of the London judge on that case and he dismissed the case, according to his written decision, because the government to Great Britain did not provide exculpatory evidence for the case. Once I saw that, then I was unaware of any specific charges against Burisma which were, you might say, very very disturbing. And that's how the decision was made. 

I read that the U.K. could not make this decision because the Ukrainian prosecutor's office could not provide them with the necessary information.

Well maybe there were two factors, but I was given this court decision along the lines that I just described.

With all the situation around Burisma right now, the accusations from Giuliani and so on, do you think the Atlantic Council will keep on cooperating with Burisma?

At this point, I would say they've been good partners. You can't speak forever [...], but they've been good partners. And the events were done in coordination with Burisma I think have been in the national interest of Ukraine, of them, not the United States. We just did an event in Kharkiv this week about Kremlin cyber operations against Ukraine. To do an event like that in the east of Ukraine is self-evidently a good thing. 

So we can expect an Energy Forum in Monaco to take place as usual, it's an annual event held by Burisma.

I suspect it will take place.

How should we interpret Rudy Giuliani's accusations against Ukraine? What stands behind it?

I think this is all very, very sad. In some ways there's no logic to it. I know the charges against our ambassador and our embassy here in Ukraine are not based upon real information or solid analysis. And the same is true about the charges against Vice President Biden and Burisma. For example, regarding the second question, we know that Biden was a strong proponent of reform in Ukraine and that's why he criticized Shokin, and that's why our embassy criticized Shokin. And I personally criticized Shokin, you can go back and see a talk I gave at the American Chamber of Commerce's Business Association back in 2016. So the notion that Shokin was a reformer and that Biden was criticizing him in order to protect Burisma just makes no sense. And anyone who knows Ukraine understands that. So what's happened is that Ukrainian issues have gotten tied up with very emotional American domestic politics. That's what you're seeing here.

How do you think it will affect Biden's reputation in the 2020 campaign? Will it harm it?

Because there's not real substance to I don't think it will have a major impact.  There may be some people who accept the story that has been developed by some articles... and say this makes sense. So for them this will seem to be true, but that's only because they are ignorant of Ukraine. 

Why do you think Giuliani cancelled his visit to Ukraine?

My understanding is that the president-elect's party and his group said that the president- elect [Zelenskiy] sees no reason to have a meeting about an issue which is so transparently an American domestic political issue.

Are there any other channels the Trump administration contacts in the team of the president-elect of Ukraine?

Keep in mind, Mr. Trump is the president of the United States. The State Department reports to him, the National Security Council reports to him, and there are officials there who have contacts with the government of Ukraine and others in Ukraine at the highest level. But of course, again, the issue that you're discussing is so much a domestic political issue as opposed to an American foreign policy issue that those channels have not been involved. And that's proper because this is not, as far as I know, a foreign policy issue.

How will the situation then impact Ukrainian–American relations, given that it's a domestic issue for America? How will it impact in general?

My hope is, my prayers are, that it will have no impact. Of course I'm not just someone who hopes and prays, I'm someone who thinks. And so I am a little bit concerned that this could have a negative impact on U.S.–Ukraine relations. This cannot be ruled out and that's why I think the whole raising of this issue was a mistake, unfortunately. But certainly I will try to lessen any possible impact because this is bad not just for Ukraine but for the United States. The United States has compelling interests in Ukraine: one, to help defeat Moscow's aggression in Donbas and two to help this country truly move in a reform direction. And of course there has been some serious progress over the past five years, but not as much as there should have been.

With the case of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, she was withdrawn several months before she was supposed to leave. Was it in connection to these concerns by the Trump administration? Can you explain? 

It was clear that there are some parts of the current government that were unhappy with her very strong support for reform. And those concerns among some parts of the current government connected with Giuliani, and that's how you got this very bad situation. And that's unfortunate for Ukraine, unfortunate for the United States and completely unfair. If you look at what's happened in Ukraine over the past five years you have to credit President Poroshenko for the good progress we've seen on issues like the bank reforms, like Prozorro procurement reforms, and perhaps the most important goal, the Naftogaz gas reforms. But it's also true that he did not drive these reforms. He was sort of pulled along as reformers within the government, in the Rada, the IMF, the EBRD, the U.S. government, the E.U. were pushing hard for this. So the work of our ambassadors here, Pyatt and Yovanovitch was critically important and they have been real heroes. Not just for the United States, but for Ukraine. And we know vested interests pushed back against this and that's how you got this very nasty situation. Completely unfair to Masha (Marie Yovanovitch, -ed.) who did a great job in a very difficult situation. Same is true for Geoff Pyatt.

Do you know who is going to be the next ambassador to Ukraine?

I don't, I hope it will be someone as smart and as strong as Masha and Geoff. 

Can you tell us a bit more about Russian-American relations, in regards to the meeting with Pompeo and Lavrov, and then with Putin? Can we say that relations are going to get a bit better after this?

The short answer is I don't know. The longer answer is, there is a clearly established pattern of U.S.–Russian relations under President Trump. And that pattern goes something like this: President Trump has an unexplained affection for the Kremlin and for Mr. Putin, which he expresses from time to time. His senior advisors see Mr. Putin as a dangerous political actor, who flouts international law and commits aggression. Congress share that view, the view of the political advisors to Mr. Trump, regarding Putin. So President Trump says something somewhat positive about the relationship with Moscow and his advisors in Congress move American policy in the direct of a tougher response to Kremlin aggression. I think this pattern will continue to hold. I believe that the Pompeo trip to Russia was not in any way a problem. I think Secretary Pompeo spoke in sober terms that reflect our interests. He looked and sounded much better than his predecessor [John] Kerry going to Moscow, because Kerry always sounded weak and like he didn't know what he was doing. Now we're talking about a meeting between Trump and Putin at G20, there's a good chance President Trump will say something soft, but I don't think that the policy will be soft, but I can't be certain.

Are there any or can we expect any other bilateral meetings apart from the G20 summit in the future?

I don't rule it out. After the very strange summit in Helsinki, President Trump was talking about Vladimir Putin's Washington. That sort of died in the whole fuss, the whole controversy that followed that summit. I don't think we should rule out the possibility of Putin coming to Washington at some point. But I can tell you that the political [climate] in Washington regarding a Trump–Putin visit is not gonna change a deep skepticism in Congress about Putin's policies – both among Republicans and Democrats – and again, concern among Trump's advisors that he not make it easier for Putin to commit aggression and to trample on American interests.

This situation with Giuliani's accusations, how will it impact Russian-American relations? 

Again, the short answer is I don't know. But right now it's clear to people who know Ukraine that there's very little substance, very little evidence for the charges that are being made about Ukraine's quote, unquote interference in the American 2016 presidential election, about the alleged misdeeds of our embassy in Ukraine, and there's very little evidence or no evidence to the charge that Vice President Biden's activities here were related to protecting Burisma, on the contrary. So since this seems to be the case, I don't think that the con-controversy that surrounds Mayor Giuliani can last for a long period of time. He may continue to raise it, maybe some journalists will continue to write about this, but they will not produce a great deal of attention because the facts and the logic don't support it. 

/Interview by Sashko Shevchenko

/Text by Eilish Hart