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What We Learned From the Testimony of the Former Special Envoy to Ukraine
7 November, 2019
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Former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker about to testify to a House of Representatives committee, Washington, DC, USA, October 3, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

Last month former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified before Congress, stating that U.S. President Donald Trump was skeptical of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and that the country was full of “ terrible people” who tried to “take him down.”

Trump’s assessment was influenced by former Attorney General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko, who added fuel to the debate about the “corruption” of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. embassy. In the end, the head of the White House agreed to meet with Zelenskyy, but only on the condition that he, in an official statement, mention the company Burisma, where Biden’s son worked. Zelenskyy’s team managed to evade this requirement.

READ MORE: What Trump’s New Scandal Means for Ukraine

Hromadske learned more about Trump’s attitude to Ukraine and Lutsenko’s schemes – who in spite of everything wanted to maintain the position of Attorney General under the new president – from Volker’s testimonies. The transcript of his testimony in Congress was released on November 5.

The Characters

Volker testified on October 3 as part of an investigation into the possible impeachment of President Trump. Congressmen questioned Volker behind closed doors for 10 hours. The full version of his testimony became public only a month later.

In addition to 360 pages of testimony transcripts, there were another 60 pages of telephone correspondence transcripts. They were between U.S. diplomats Volker, US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, U.S. permanent representative William Taylor and Ukrainian officials. They included Zelenskyy’s aide Andriy Yermak, Vadym Prystaiko – at that time Deputy Head of the Presidential Office, and then Minister of Foreign Affairs – former Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Danylyuk and others. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was also a participant in the correspondence.

The materials also discuss negotiations with Moscow and details of meetings of Ukrainian politicians with U.S. officials.

US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland heads to Congressional House of Representatives Committee, Washington, DC, USA, October 17, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW

The Ghost of Burisma

Volker’s testimony is pretty monotonous. Congressmen tried to extract information about how Zelenskyy’s meeting with Trump, and then the provision of military assistance to Ukraine, would come under the condition that Kyiv agreed to investigate conspiracy theories related to Ukraine.

This is about Ukraine’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the “corruption” of Biden, Trump’s potential rival in the upcoming presidential election. Trump's lawyer wanted Ukraine to investigate the activities of the Burisma oil and gas company, whose board member in 2014-2019 was Biden's son, Hunter.

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

Volker explained that before Zelenskyy’s victory this spring, the Ukrainian team tried to arrange a meeting with Trump. And although on May 29 Zelenskyy received an invitation to visit the White House, there was no date on it. Then, for two months, negotiations were held.

Giuliani made it clear that the condition for the meeting was a public mention of Burisma from Zelenskyy, as well as “interference with the elections”. This condition was subsequently picked up by Volker himself, as well as the US ambassador to the EU, Sondland. The Ukrainian side – Yermak was most involved in this discussion – agreed to general phrases about investigating corruption without mentioning the company where Biden’s son worked. This was not enough for Sondland. Negotiations started before the scandalous Trump-Zelensky phone call on July 25 and continued after it.

From the transcript of the telephone correspondence, it can be seen that in August, after meeting with Giuliani and talking with Trump, Yermak did not agree that Zelenskyy should mention Burisma, and agreed on the wording with Volker. Yermak sent the text of the president’s statement to Volker on August 12. This was the only phrase in Russian in the correspondence between Yermak and Volker, which was generally conducted in English.

Photo: Screenshot of Kurt Volker’s testimony released to the US Congress as part of an investigation into the impeachment of Donald Trump.

Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, which in turn will prevent a recurrence of this problem in the future.

Volker discussed this text with Sondland and he noted that Giuliani considered this unconvincing. Then he added that Trump's lawyer needed a very specific mention of Burisma and Ukraine’s interference in the elections. Volker eventually wrote to Sondland that he considered this to be a bad idea. 

The next day, on August 13, Volker sent Yermak the following text:

Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent a recurrence of this problem in the future.

Photo: Screenshot of Kurt Volker’s testimony released to the US Congress as part of an investigation into the impeachment of Donald Trump.

According to Volker, Yermak was not happy with the idea of ​​mentioning specific companies. Therefore, in the final version of the text from Yermak, the words “Burisma” and “election” were not mentioned. 

Volker tried to explain to the congressmen that he did not see a big problem in mentioning the company, because Burisma itself was corrupt and there were no problems investigating its activities and no one demanded mentioning an investigation into the Bidens. Even referring to the notes from a phone call between the presidents, Volker points out that Zelenskyy said that it was an investigation into the "company."

From left to right: Aide to the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak, President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko. Photo: Screenshot of Kurt Volker’s testimony released to the US Congress as part of an investigation into the impeachment of Donald Trump.

Congressmen constantly asked whether Volker thought that when speaking of Burisma, Ukrainians understood that the conversation was about Biden. 

During August and September Ukrainian politicians asked when the date of the visit will be set every day, and every day Taylor, Sondland or Volker had to explain that there were no news.

Release of Transcript

In September 2019, an anonymous whistleblower revealed the details of a telephone conversation between Trump and Zelenskyy (held on July 25). Within a few days it became known that the White House would be publishing the transcript of this conversation. Yermak asked Volker to provide this document to the Ukrainian side before its publication.

READ MORE: What the White House Memo Reveals About the Zelenskyy/Trump Phone Call

The advisor to the President of Ukraine also suggested meeting earlier. In the end, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally said that this “unfortunately” is impossible. Volker explained to the congressmen - he personally believed that it would be better if the Ukrainian side saw the notes in advance.

Lutsenko’s Conspiracy Theories

In his testimony, Volker emphasized: the big problem was that Trump did not like Ukraine. According to him, the U.S. President’s “negative attitude” was evident even during former President Petro Poroshenko’s first visit to Washington. The visit took place in June 2017. Volker noted that Giuliani strengthened this negativity. Subsequently, Lutsenko, then Prosecutor General of Ukraine, began to play along with him.

His surname is mentioned in the transcript often. Repeatedly and using the same words, Volker describes Lutsenko as an unreliable person who spreads fabrications in order to remain in his post under President Zelenskyy, and also avoid investigations into his work as Prosecutor General. This concerns public statements and an interview with Lutsenko “on Ukrainian interference in US elections in 2016.”

My opinion of Prosecutor General Lutsenko was that he was acting in a self-serving manner, frankly making things up, in order to appear important to the United States, because he wanted to save his job. He was on his way out with the election of a new President. You could read the writing on the wall. This was before Zelensky was elected, but you could see the wave of popularity. He had been put in place by the former President, Petro Poroshenko. I think there were a couple motivations to this, but I think most important was that he would stay in office probably to prevent investigations into himself for things that he may have done as prosecutor general.

Volker told Congress that at Yermak’s request, he helped him meet with Giuliani in August in 2019 in Madrid. He explained this assistance by saying that he hoped in this way Lutsenko would cease to influence Trump's team and disseminate information in his own interests.

Volker told Giuliani personally that Lutsenko could not be trusted during a personal meeting in August. This breakfast was also attended by Lev Parnas, an American businessman of Ukrainian origin, who was subsequently detained. 

READ MORE: Former Ambassador Decries ‘Concerted Effort’ Behind Her Removal

Volker also explained his actions and active communication with Giuliani with that he allegedly wanted to convince Trump and his entourage that Zelenskyy is a real reformer and that they should help the Ukrainians.

60 Whatsapp Chat Pages

There are 100 pages of telephone correspondence that contain more details of the discussions between U.S. diplomats and the Zelenskyy team through Giuliani's mediation.

  • In July 2019, Volker met with the head of the President’s Office, Andriy Bohdan. During this period, Volker also met with a number of Ukrainian officials in Toronto, where the Reform conference was held. And if Zelensky was ready for Trump’s call and to discuss the fight against corruption as well as investigating the election (without reference to "election"), Bohdan was worried that the call would replace the Ukrainian President’s visit to Washington.

  • Yermak helped Volker organize a meeting in Moscow with Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of the Russian government, who oversees occupied Donbas and Crimea.

  • In his correspondence with Yermak, Volker raised the question of relations with Giuliani. He discussed Issues relating to the conflict in the Donbas (Volker's area of responsibility) with Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko. He also explained that there are certain results in relations with Russia. In particular, that Ukraine wants to agree on a “renewal of Minsk” with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that Paris is still ready to host the summit in the Normandy format in mid-September 2019.

  • A separate topic discussed was the delay in the provision of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. U.S. diplomats tried to hide the fact that something odd was happening with the aid from the Ukrainian side. They would assure that everything was in order. But at the end of August, Prystaiko sent Volker a link to an article in Politico magazine, which reported that there really was a delay. Only then does Volker acknowledge this. A few days later, the suspension on the aid was lifted after Trump's letter to U.S. senators.

There is also a moment in which Volker offers excuses to Prystaiko with regard to a situation in June 2019, when he commented on Russia's decision not to extradite sailors. A small scandal broke out when Pavlo Klimkin, who was then the Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent a note to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs without coordinating this with the presidential administration. Some media outlets perceived Volker’s comment as being in support of Klimkin, which Volker himself denied.

Former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko and Ambassador William Taylor. Photo: Screenshot of Kurt Volker’s testimony released to the US Congress as part of an investigation into the impeachment of Donald Trump.

From the correspondence of the former United States Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Volker, it appears that in May 2019, after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was recalled, Volker had been persuading Taylor to come to Ukraine. Although, he recalled, that this was very difficult to do if there was a "snake pit” in both Washington and Kyiv. 

In all these documents, Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi is only mentioned a few times in passing. But Taylor and Volker do discuss a meeting with the then Deputy Heads of the Presidential Office, Oleksiy Honcharuk and Rouslan Riaboshapka, at which Volker and Taylor should have suggested looking at a document on the fight against the oligarchy in Ukraine. However, diplomats clarify that it is important that proposals are not imposed.

The concept of “failure of the oligarchic system through antitrust reforms” is outlined across two pages. There, it’s discussed how the key could be parliament’s adoption of strict anti-monopoly legislation based on a European model, the prohibition of one player in the market controlling the whole sector, and a possible amnesty related to the acquisition of such assets if all requirements are met, but not exemption from prosecution of criminal offenses.

In general, the evidence is more focused on the conversation between Trump and Zelenskyy, and the role of Giuliani. Congressmen want to find out if there are grounds for impeachment. In his answers, Volker allows himself frankness in the characterization of certain politicians, for example, Lutsenko. But he in every possible way avoids saying anything under oath that would indicate criticism of President Trump and his team. The ex-envoy is trying to create the impression that for a long time he did not connect Giuliani's mention of Burisma with Biden, but agreed to maintain an alternative communication channel (Yermak-Giuliani, Sondland-Giuliani), as he believed that Trump's categorical hostility to Ukraine could be shaken in this way.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk, Maxim Kamenev, Angelina Kariakina

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov