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What George Kent's Testimony Revealed About Ukrainian Officials' Role in US Scandal
14 November, 2019
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Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent (C) on his way to testify at the US Congress in Washington D.C., US on October 15, 2019. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

“I had the prime minister, and three ministers, and a former prime minister tell me that Poroshenko authorized the attacks – let me be careful. He authorized Lutsenko to share the information with Giuliani that led to the attacks on Ambassador Yovanovitch.”

This is a snippet of the U.S. Congress testimony by George Kent, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. He testified as part of an investigation into the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Kent is one of the best connoisseurs of Ukraine among American diplomats. He worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv after the Orange Revolution of 2004. From 2014 to 2015, he was the senior anti-corruption coordinator in the State Department's European Bureau and from 2015 to 2018, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Kyiv, Ukraine. In January 2018, Kent returned to the United States continuing to handle Ukraine affairs at the State Department.

During a closed speech in Congress, Kent mentioned in detail numerous Ukrainian officials, politicians, activists, and cases from the so-called "diamond prosecutors" to the lack of investigation into the murder of activist Kateryna Handziuk. And most importantly, Kent revealed what role Ukrainian politicians and law enforcement officials played at the beginning of the story that may end with the resignation of the U.S. president.

Alcohol and Conspiracy Theories

The Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, suffered the most from Kent's testimony. According to the U.S. diplomat, since May 2018, Lutsenko started flying to the United States to meet with Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Their cooperation resulted in a massive information campaign that began with Lutsenko's spring 2019 interview to The Hill and was conducted in four directions all at once:

  • against U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Through spreading the message that she refused to provide financial assistance to the Prosecutor General's Office (PGO) and created a "list of untouchables" – people whom the PGO shouldn't prosecute;

READ MORE: US Denies Giving Ukraine's Lutsenko "Do Not Prosecute" List

  • against NABU Director Artem Sytnyk. As if he is involved in the 2016 publication of the so-called "black ledger" of the Party of Regions. And as a result of that, the allegation that Ukrainians interfered in the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign;

  • against Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States and a likely rival to Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and his son, Hunter. Through accusing the Bidens of corruption and protecting the interests of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma;

  • against anti-corruption civic organizations in Ukraine. Through accusing them of defending the interests of American billionaire George Soros.

The Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko during a session at the Ukrainian parliament on May 24, 2017. Photo: Oleksandr Kosariev / UNIAN

Asked about the motive behind Lutsenko's actions, Kent mentioned the conversation he had with the first deputy chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), Gizo Uglava, at the U.S. Embassy on the eve of the publication of Lutsenko's interview. Uglava said that a day before the visit to the embassy, he had a conversation with the "completely drunk" Prosecutor General of Ukraine.

READ MORE: The Power Games Inside Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office

And he [Uglava] came into the embassy and described his conversation the night before with a completely inebriated, drunk, Yuriy Lutsenko, and Lutsenko was angry. He said he'd given an interview with an American journalist 2 weeks prior and that interview that he had accused the embassy of undermining him, and that was his motivation, and that the embassy had been supportive of the Democrat party, and was not supportive of the Trump party and that so basically the lines of attack that then came out in the subsequent articles, Lutsenko shared with this other law enforcement individual.

The Passport Сase

Kent believes that Lutsenko wanted revenge on the U.S. Embassy for supporting anti-corruption institutions in Ukraine – in particular, NABU, as Lutsenko was pursuing the resignation of its director Artem Sytnyk in the fall of 2018.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Officials Exchange Corruption Accusations

Kent recalled how Lutsenko at the time exposed an undercover NABU agent. The agent was investigating corruption in the State Migration Service that concerned illegal sale of Ukrainian passports. And Lutsenko tried to get the parliament to dismiss Sytnyk.

But this never happened. On the eve of the vote, the ambassadors of the G7 states met with Ukraine’s top leadership and, among other things, stated that changing anti-corruption legislation and dismissing Sytnyk can cost Ukraine its visa-free regime with the EU.

Kent confirmed that NABU was investigating corruption in the field of passport issuance on the recommendation of the United States, because the Americans did not rule out that terrorists could try to enter the U.S. with a Ukrainian passport. Europeans were worried by the same problem.

So we were very angry and upset because this threatened our security, and it potentially also threatened their ability to retain their visa free status in the European Union.

Kent noted that later he had, in his conversation with President Poroshenko, raised the issue of Lutsenko's dismissal.

READ MORE: 5 High-Stakes Cases of Ukraine’s (Outgoing?) Prosecutor General

In the end, Americans and Europeans defended NABU and Sytnyk. And Lutsenko himself reconciled with the NABU director in public. Yet he did not forget the passport story and in a few months, as Kent testified, tried, together with Giuliani, to eliminate Ambassador Yovanovitch from Kyiv.

From left to right: Head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office Nazar Kholodnytskyi, NABU Director Artem Sytnyk, and Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko. Photo credit: Volodymyr Hontar/UNIAN

The statements made by Lutsenko (as well as his predecessor Viktor Shokin) about the "black ledger" and their version of why Joe Biden demanded Shokin's dismissal had consequences – Trump asked the new President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy to "investigate the Bidens" and Ukraine's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It is this information about Trump's demands – without the execution of which the U.S. President would not agree to provide military aid to Ukraine – that eventually led to the impeachment hearings in the Congress.

Just like Yovanovitch, Kent testified that he learned the information about the communication between Lutsenko and Giuliani, as well as their intentions, from Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Avakov told Kent about it during their meeting.

Kent's testimony reveals that the United States, both under Obama and Trump, was dissatisfied not just with Lutsenko's work, but also with some other law enforcement officials, as well as lawmakers.

In particular, the diplomat named Lutsenko’s deputy, chief anti-corruption prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytskyi, as the weakest of the three candidates for this post. After that, he tells in detail that he personally met with Kholodnytskyi after the U.S. Embassy learned about the so-called "fish tank case" – the recordings of conversations in Kholodnitskyi's office.

Kholodnytskyi was invited to come to the U.S. Embassy, ​​where Kent personally advised Kholodnytskyi to step down. As in, that wouldn’t ruin Kholodnytskyi’s career thanks to his young age. However, the U.S. government would no longer be able to cooperate with him. And if Kholodnytskyi decided to stay, they wouldn’t cooperate with him all the same.

And he stood up, walked out, and you know, tweeted, you know, before he left the embassy compound that he was going to have a defiant attitude. So we stopped cooperating with him once presented with evidence that he was actively suborning a witness and obstructing justice. 

READ MORE: 6 Need-To-Know Things About Ukraine’s Controversial Prosecutor General

With Poroshenko’s Permission

According to Kent, Lutsenko cooperated with Giuliani with the consent of the then President Petro Poroshenko. He refers to conversations with the former prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk (Hromadske sent a request to Yatsenyuk asking whether he had communicated with Kent on this topic -ed.) and three unnamed ministers.

Several Ukrainians at the time told me that they saw what Lutsenko was trying to do was get President Trump to endorse President Poroshenko's reelection. This was happening in March before the election. That did not occur. It would not have made a difference either because Zelenskyy, as noted before, won with 73 percent.

The President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko (R) congratulates Yuriy Lutsenko on his appointment as the Prosecutor General on May 12, 2016. Photo: EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

As further proof that the information campaign against the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Yovanovitch was taking place with Poroshenko's consent, Kent mentioned that the messages advantageous to Lutsenko and Giuliani in Ukraine were spread by the so-called “porokhobots” – Poroshenko supporters who in fact are often internet trolls.

The diplomat defined them as “trolls on the internet, particularly Facebook, in support of then-President Poroshenko and against the people that are to be Poroshenko's opponents”.

Why Biden Demanded Shokin’s Dismissal

Most often members of Congress questioned Kent about why Joe Biden, then vice president of the United States, demanded in 2015 that Poroshenko dismisses Viktor Shokin, Lutsenko's predecessor at the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine (PGO).

According to Biden himself, in December 2015, during his visit to Kyiv, he told Poroshenko that he would not approve the $1 billion financial assistance unless Shokin is fired.

“I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time,” Biden told in 2017.

Members of Congress wondered if Biden's actions were related to the fact that his son, Hunter, was a member of Burisma's board at the time. This company belongs to Mykola Zlochevsky, Minister of Ecology under President Viktor Yanukovych. After the Euromaidan revolution, Zlochevsky left Ukraine. The PGO has reported at various times that Burisma is featured in several criminal proceedings.

READ MORE: US Ambassador to EU Admits Military Aid to Ukraine Was Contingent on Investigation Biden and Burisma

Kent testified that Biden himself insisted on investigating the activities of Zlochevsky and Burisma, while Shokin's subordinates failed to investigate any corruption cases, including this one.

Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden makes a speech at the Ukrainian parliament on December 8, 2015. EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

Kent explained why Biden, State Department, and the U.S. Embassy paid scrupulous attention to prosecutorial reform in 2015. According to him, in 2015, Petro Poroshenko personally asked the Americans to help reforming the PGO.

READ MORE: Biden, Shokin, and Zlochevsky: How the Burisma Case Unfolded

According to Kent, Poroshenko at the time was pleased with the start of reform within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in particular, the launch of the new patrol police. American law enforcement officials participated in its creation as consultants and trainers. NABU had not been established yet, so the Americans decided to focus on creating a unit within the PGO that would investigate corruption cases. Viktor Shokin appointed two of his deputies, David Sakvarelidze and Vitaliy Kasko, to manage it.

However, they felt resistance from Shokin as soon as the work on the first case began. Kent described in detail the vicissitudes of the so-called "diamond prosecutors’", Volodymyr Shapakin and Oleksandr Korniyets, case. He noted that Shokin personally tried to obstruct the investigation of the bribery case of the two prosecutors, since one of them was Shokin’s personal driver in the past.

A court hearing regarding the so-called "diamond prosecutors" – Volodymyr Shapakin (C) and Oleksandr Korniyets (R) at the Holosiyivskyi court in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 10, 2016. Photo: Vladyslav Musiyenko / UNIAN

READ MORE: Shokin's Last Revenge

Kent claims that he, along with Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, asked Vice President Joe Biden to raise the issue of Shokin's dismissal, because Shokin was blocking the U.S.-funded prosecutorial reform.

As for Biden's threat to not provide U.S. guarantees of financial aid to Ukraine if Shokin is not fired, Kent believes that it was invented by the then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in 2013–2016.

My understanding is that the conversations that were near-daily between Ambassador Pyatt and Toria Nuland regarding what to do on the way forward then included pitching the Office of the Vice President to push President Poroshenko to remove Shokin.

Kent also explains that in the winter of 2015, he raised the issue of Vice President Biden's son, Hunter, being on Burisma's board because it could be a conflict of interest. It was at that time that Biden's other son, Beau, was critically ill – he died of brain cancer in May 2015 – so the White House said that raising another personal issue was extremely difficult.

Kent argues that there is no reason to believe that Joe Biden acted in the best interests of his son, demanding Shokin's dismissal.

The fifth President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko (L), ex-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin (C), and Shokin's ex-deputy David Sakvarelidze in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 5, 2015. Photo: Mykhailo Palinchak / POOL / UNIAN

New Faces

Kent complements the general timeline of events. He has been to Ukraine more than once and has been in charge, in particular, of bringing matters under control in the embassy in Kyiv after Yovanovitch's recall and finding a new head of mission, William Taylor.

For instance, Kent mentions that, even though not authorized by the State Department, in the winter and spring of 2019, Ambassador Gordon Sondland started speaking with Poroshenko. After Zelensky's victory, he and Giuliani communicated with the team of the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In May 2019, Kent met with Ivan Bakanov, who headed the Servant of the People party and was not yet the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Bakanov asked for advice – he said that he had met a man named Fruman and "another one whose name he forgot". He later sent business cards of the so-called "Giuliani's attorneys", Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, and asked Kent if he should be in contact with them. The diplomat explained that Bakanov could contact anyone he wanted, but did not make any promises, because President Zelenskyy better avoid contacting individuals.

READ MORE: What We Learned From the Testimony of the Former Special Envoy to Ukraine

Kent warned U.S. diplomats that they should not communicate with Rudy Giuliani. In particular, he warned Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations, against this. Kent noted that Giuliani knowingly and systematically disseminates questionable stories, for example, about U.S. diplomats. In response, Volker said that Giuliani has influence on the U.S. president.

READ MORE: Drugs, Lobbying and Family Tragedies: What Is Known About Joe Biden's Son

The most important thing to come out of George Kent’s testimony – something that Andriy Yermak, President Zelenskyy’s advisor, has all but admitted to – that the White House did indeed pressure the Ukrainian authorities and that it wanted them to open a politically motivated investigation into Trump's opponent.

Kent relayed the words of Charge d'affaires William Taylor, who was present at a meeting between Yermak and Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker on September 14. At the time, Volker noted that it would be"unwise to start investigations against ex-president Poroshenko." In response, Yermak said "What? Do you mean an investigation of the type like you forced us to do against Biden and Clinton?" Volker didn't answer. At the same meeting, Volker told Yermak that it was "important for Zelenskyy to announce what we've talked about," while Taylor warned Yermak "not to do this." 

/By Maxim Kamenev and Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Translated by Vladyslav Kudryk