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Ukrainian President 'Trying Hard To Stay On The Fence' Regarding Impeachment


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A curious feature of the impeachment drama unfolding in Washington is that so much of it has to do with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that's been independent for just 28 years. President Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have sought to get Ukraine's government to investigate Joe Biden's son Hunter's business dealings. And Trump asked Ukraine's new president to investigate a discredited theory that Ukraine was involved in the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee's emails.

We're going to take a closer look at Ukraine and how players in its own turbulent politics have interacted with American actors in the impeachment saga. Our guest is Andrew Kramer, a reporter for The New York Times who's based in Moscow and has been reporting on Ukraine for several years. In 2017, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with his Times colleagues for an investigative series on Russia's use of covert means to exert its power. Andrew Kramer spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies yesterday from a studio in Kyiv.


Andrew Kramer, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, Ukraine's been an independent country just since 1991, and it hasn't exactly been a smooth transition. And reading about the events in recent years - gosh, lots of tales of corruptions, of oligarchs being connected to politicians, of prosecutions that, in some cases, maybe seem politically connected - everybody has an angle, it seems. And I wonder if you could just - could you talk a bit about Kyiv, what it's like and what it's like reporting there.

ANDREW KRAMER: Kyiv is a beautiful city. It has cobblestone streets, old quarters on bluffs overlooking the Dnieper River. It's also a city that, in recent years, has been the equivalent of some of the Cold War dens of intrigue like Berlin, or maybe you might compare it to Casablanca in World War II, a city that's in between two forces, between two struggling or competing political systems. So you have spies, agents, journalists of Russia and of the West all active in this city.

DAVIES: And it's got to be hard to figure out when you're getting the real story, I mean - right (laughter)?

KRAMER: Well, that's certainly the case. There's been a lot of misinformation in Ukraine, not least because Ukraine has been on the frontlines of some of the Russian disinformation activities in recent years. But it's also been a place for spin doctors from the West and Ukraine's own oligarchs and politicians who are presenting different narratives about this country's future and how this country should interact with the West. And it's actually these competing narratives which is part of the story behind the impeachment inquiry in the United States now.

DAVIES: Ukraine is a pretty large country - 42 million people - historically dominated by Russia, at least in recent decades, but in the past by other empires. And now there are connections with the West and ambitions among Ukrainian politicians for closer ties to the United States and Western countries. How does Ukraine's geopolitical position affect its domestic politics?

KRAMER: Well, that's really a pivotal issue in Ukraine's domestic politics, is the clashing geopolitical ambitions of countries around Ukraine. And it's not a new story for this country. When modern Ukraine was formed in the 17th century on the steppe land between the - Western Europe and the Russian Empire, it was already being pulled in both directions. We see this in the 20th century, and we see it again in the 21st century.

When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it was closely linked to Russia. There were industrial supply chains that linked Ukraine to Russia, energy pipelines. And Europe was pulling Ukraine away from the former Soviet Union, from the former Soviet space. And at the same time, Russia was pulling back. And it was this clash and this struggle for Ukraine that really defined its foreign policy and also its domestic policy of the past 30 years.

DAVIES: Right. And then it's, in recent years, moved more to the West and has looked for friends and allies in the U.S. and other countries. Does that help explain why operatives like Paul Manafort could become so active and Hunter Biden might end up on the board of a gas company?

KRAMER: Well, that's exactly right. You have ambitious actors in Ukraine, oligarchs and politicians who are looking for patrons in the West, particularly after the 2014 revolution but also before then, and willing to pay large sums of money to align themselves with lobbyists or politicians in the United States. And we saw this famously with Paul Manafort, but also Rudolph Giuliani has taken contracts from Ukrainian oligarchs, Hunter Biden. Donald Trump was paid $150,000 by a Ukrainian oligarch to give a speech in 2015. Hillary Clinton for the Clinton Foundation also accepted money from that oligarch.

So a lot of western figures have found a source of profit in Ukraine and have chosen these wealthy Ukrainians as their guides to the country and, in exchange for money, accepted some of their narrative and their ideas of - about what Ukraine should become. And this is the backdrop to what's happening today.

DAVIES: So let's talk about some of the recent history. In 2014, there were street demonstrations and clashes which resulted in the departure of the president then, Viktor Yanukovych. Tell us about him, what kind of a - what kind of regime he ran.

KRAMER: Well, certainly. Viktor Yanukovych was a politician who was allied with Russia but also, like many Ukrainian politicians, was trying to straddle the fence. He had entered negotiations on trade agreements both with Russia and with the European Union. And this came to a head in 2013 when he realized he wouldn't be able to sign these agreements with both camps, with both the European Union and with Russia.

And after initially promising his people, promising that he would integrate Ukraine economically with the European Union, at the very last moment he switched and made a trade agreement with Russia, which was part of a larger political project of Vladimir Putin to reintegrate parts of the former Soviet Union in what became known as the Eurasian Union (ph). Street protests broke out against this policy, and they snowballed into ever larger protests on Independence Square until February of 2014, when police opened fire into the crowd.

There was in fact shooting on both sides, but a lot of protesters bore the brunt of this violence. And about 70 people were killed in the space of an hour and a half or so on Independence Square, and thousands were wounded over several days. This resulted in Yanukovych fleeing Kyiv when his police deserted him and departing for Moscow and leaving a power vacuum in the Ukrainian capital that was only gradually filled first over weeks and then over months with a new government that was propped up by the United States.

DAVIES: And when demonstrators reached the residence that Yanukovych had inhabited and got inside, what did they find?

KRAMER: Well, I was with the demonstrators who came in. It was a foggy morning in late February. And some of them climbed over a gate and then broke it open. And you had a - really a view of opulence that was almost unimaginable for most Ukrainians - a private golf course, a collection of antique cars, a zoo with ostriches and a number of other luxuries.

But intriguingly, also what they found were documents floating in a river harbor and some documents which had been partly burned. And it was these documents that were never meant to come to the surface, never meant to be seen by the public, that really were a ticking time bomb for the intersection of Ukrainian politics and U.S. politics because hidden in this collection of documents, found not just at the residence but also on the floor of a sauna of a former prosecutor and in a safe in the former political party of Mr. Yanukovych, were details of Paul Manafort's work in Ukraine.

DAVIES: Manafort had helped Yanukovych get power and then was still active in Ukraine after Yanukovych left when remnants of his party remained active. Tell us about what these documents said and what impact they had on Paul Manafort and the Trump campaign.

KRAMER: Well, certainly - it turned out that the most extensive records of Manafort's activities in Ukraine were included in the handwritten accounting documents kept by the Party of Regions, the party of former President Yanukovych. And they included payments designated for Manafort for things like polling, for even overhead items like computers for his office, as well as payments for his consulting services over several years, totaling $12.7 million.

These were off-the-book payments and were considered illegal in Ukraine. And when we wrote about this in August of 2016, Manafort and his attorneys denied that this could be the case and suggested the documents were forged. But there was a lot of confidence that, in fact, they were not, and we published the story. And Manafort resigned from the campaign about a week later.

DAVIES: And just to kind of set the context here, this is Viktor Yanukovych, who lived in opulence in what was regarded as, you know, riches essentially stolen from the Ukrainian people. He was a pro-Russian president. He flees, and then it's in the records of his party that you find these secret payments to Manafort - not at all helpful to the Trump campaign. Is this part of the origin of Trump's belief that Ukrainians were always out to get him and help Hillary Clinton?

KRAMER: I think so. You saw now in the most recent episodes involving Ukraine, when Trump released the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president, he was talking about bad things that happened in Ukraine and things that our country, meaning America, went through because of Ukraine. Also, we know from some of the interviews and testimony of diplomats and aides to President Trump in the inquiry - the impeachment inquiry that Trump had said that Ukraine tried to take him down in 2016.

And most of this feeling, most of this impression, I believe is related to the disclosures of financial wrongdoing by his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, which was a blow to the Trump campaign in August of 2016.

DAVIES: You know, when you look at events in Ukraine, it seems that high-profile prosecutions are pretty common. Have they become just an accepted weapon in political competition there?

KRAMER: Well, when protesters took to the streets of Kyiv in 2014, the politicized use of the prosecutor's office was one of the issues that they were protesting against. One of the symbols of the uprising on Independence Square was a poster showing the face of a former prime minister. Yulia Tymoshenko is best known in the West for her long, blonde braid.

She was imprisoned by the president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych. Ms. Tymoshenko had run against Yanukovych in 2010 and lost. And then soon after the election, she was locked up in prison on charges which were widely seen as political and had been in jail for several years by the time that protests came about. But it was a poignant symbol of the type of problem in their government that was upsetting protesters.

DAVIES: What were the charges against Tymoshenko, this woman who ran against Yanukovych?

KRAMER: Tymoshenko was charged and convicted with exceeding her authority in negotiating a natural gas deal with Russia. The accusation was that, as prime minister, she could not give a direct order to the head of the government-controlled natural gas company but rather, this order needed to come via the energy ministry.

So it was a very technical administrative issue of Ukrainian governance that was used as a criminal case against her. And she was convicted to five or six years in prison on this issue, which was generally seen as political pretext for a political prosecution to remove her from political life and put her in jail.

DAVIES: And Andrew Kramer is a reporter for The New York Times based in Moscow. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about Ukraine, it's history, politics and its connections to the impeachment inquiry unfolding in Washington with Andrew Kramer. He's a reporter for The New York Times based in Moscow. He's covered events in Ukraine for the past several years.

So, Andrew Kramer, when did Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, start working in Ukraine to get authorities interested in investigating matters of interest to the president?

KRAMER: Well, to the best of our understanding, this began in 2018, perhaps late 2018, when he reached out to the prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko or alternatively, by another version, Mr. Lutsenko reached out to him, and they discussed two cases which could be politically useful to Donald Trump in the 2020 election in United States.

This was an investigation relevant to the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden and what's been called by Trump administration officials a look back at 2016, which is an investigation into whether Ukraine meddled in the U.S. election in 2016 to favor Hillary rather than Russia meddling to favor Trump.

DAVIES: Right. Now, while Giuliani is busy doing what he can to make contact there, there is an election this spring. The incumbent president then, Petro Poroshenko, found himself in trouble when seeking reelection. Why?

KRAMER: Well, Poroshenko was admired when he came into office. But patience had quickly run out with his stalling on reform and his embrace of a very hardline form of Ukrainian nationalism, which he ran on in the election. So Poroshenko came into the election with very low poll ratings and was searching around for, perhaps, some help and maybe even backing from the United States. Maybe he wanted an endorsement from President Trump before the election. And this outreach and interaction between Giuliani and his own prosecutor occurred with the backdrop of the Ukrainian election taking place.

DAVIES: Ukraine gets a new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an interesting character. Tell us about him.

KRAMER: Sure. Zelenskiy was a TV actor in Ukraine. And he emerged in the 1990s in comedy shows, which are called the "Club Of The Merry And The Inventive" (ph) - something like this - which are kind of a - something of a combination between "Jeopardy!" where you have to answer trivia questions and a standup routine. And then you're graded - each team is graded on how they do. And he was very successful, as a teenager and then as a young adult, playing in these competitions. And then he became a comedic actor, was popular throughout the former Soviet Union and in the entire Russian-speaking world for comedy sketches and also for movies and TV shows.

In maybe 2015 - not sure, exactly, when the show began or when the taping of it began, but he initiated a program which was a parody of post-revolution Ukraine about how the political system after the revolution had not, in fact, reformed, that the same trends of corruption were present that were there before the revolution. And he played a teacher who had become - almost by accident, become president of Ukraine.

And he played this through several series. It was very popular, playing a sort of a naive, everyman version of Ukraine's president before he became exactly that this year.

DAVIES: Yeah. And this is so remarkable. I mean, he was actually taping a new season of it while he was campaigning for president, right?

KRAMER: Yeah. That's right. That's what he was doing. Now, at this point, it looks a little bit less interesting and curious and more like a ploy to get around some restrictions on using TV advertising. Because this show was aired during the campaign and yet was presented as if it was an artistic product. And many of his ideas of the campaign were also included in the latest show.

But that's exactly what happened. He continued the show right up to the moment when he was actually elected president.

DAVIES: And the name of the show was "Servant Of The People." And there were campaign advertisements which incorporated the title of the TV series into the campaign material, right?

KRAMER: That's right. And his political party is called the Servant of the People.

DAVIES: Zelenskiy is Jewish. Is that significant in any way?

KRAMER: Yes. I think it certainly is. Zelenskiy ran on a different message about what it means to be Ukrainian. The previous president had promoted an idea of Ukrainian nationalism as tied to the Ukrainian language, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and Ukrainian identity as really one of faith and blood and soil. And Zelenskiy had a different view of what Ukrainian means, an understanding of Ukrainian in the current context as a country that supports freedom, that supports democracy, that is an inclusive identity about a political point of view rather than an ethnic or linguistic identity so that you could be Russian speaking, as Zelenskiy himself was. You can be Jewish, you can be Hungarian or any other minority in Ukraine and no less of a Ukrainian.

And this was a message that a majority of Ukrainians accepted when he came in. His political party, the Servant of the People, put on its party list the first black Ukrainian who won a seat in parliament, which is another view of what it means to be Ukrainian. It can be - you can be an immigrant and also be a Ukrainian.

DAVIES: Did Zelenskiy win by a large majority in the election?

KRAMER: He did. He won in a landslide, with more than 70% of Ukrainians voting for him in all regions, in the east and also in the west, in Ukrainian-speaking areas and in Russian-speaking areas.

DAVIES: Does he remain popular?

KRAMER: He is popular.

DAVIES: And why was he popular in Russian-speaking areas?

KRAMER: Well, he was popular because he wasn't denigrating their experience. He wasn't telling them that their beliefs, what they had in their head, the language they spoke, was mush and that they should become Ukrainian in the sense of speaking Ukrainian, the Ukrainian language, and not appreciating their own cultural identity. Perhaps as Russian-speaking Jews, for example, living in Ukraine, this would be valued. And this was a message which even Ukrainians in western Ukraine appreciated and also in Russian-speaking areas.

DAVIES: And the fictional character that he plays is successful in part because he confronts oligarchs and battles corruption, right, and promises to bring a new era of clean politics? So he wins office. How clean is he?

KRAMER: Well, a lot of the diplomatic community in Kyiv and analysts are looking closely at that question and are willing to give Zelenskiy the benefit of the doubt for now. His stated positions are positive. The real dramatic question which is hanging over the Zelenskiy administration now is his relationship with an oligarch named Igor Kolomoisky, who was the owner of the television station where his show had aired, and he was a business partner with Zelenskiy. Kolomoisky had been an exile until the election. He just recently returned to Ukraine and has now been involved in influencing the Zelenskiy government to the extent that the International Monetary Fund has declined to offer its latest aid package.

So in domestic politics, the question of whether the TV character is similar to the real-life president is really the open question here, whether he will confront the oligarchic class, in particular, somebody deemed his patron, or whether it won't be so much life imitating art as just life continuing on as usual in Ukraine.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Andrew Kramer, a reporter for The New York Times, based in Moscow. After a break, he'll tell us more about Ukraine's actor-turned-president and about visiting the frontlines of the war in Eastern Ukraine. Also, Ken Tucker will review the new album by country singer Jon Pardi, who Ken says is making excellent honky-tonk music. And Justin Chang will review Martin Scorsese's new film "The Irishman." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're listening to the interview Dave Davies recorded with New York Times reporter Andrew Kramer about Ukraine and the role the country and its politicians have played in the events leading to the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump. Kramer was in a studio in Kyiv. When they left off, they were talking about Ukraine's new president Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian and actor.

DAVIES: Actors getting into politics is not unheard of. You know, Ronald Reagan was an actor, although he had been governor of a large state before he entered the White House. Trump, of course, was a reality show host, although he had a business career before that. Zelensky really has just been an actor - right? - and a comedian.

KRAMER: That's right. He has no government experience before being elected president. He's 41 years old. There's one distinction here in Ukraine, which is that this is a country at war. It's not, perhaps, a time to be experimenting, or that's how Ukrainians view this. And so while Zelensky came in as a comedian, in office, he's been not nearly as lighthearted as he was as a character in his television show.

The war has now been going on for five years. At least 13,000 people have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. And this was - along with fighting corruption and freeing the country from oligarchic influences, finding a peace settlement in the war in eastern Ukraine was a priority of Zelensky when he came in and was the reason why he was so eager to have a White House meeting with President Trump - because he wanted the United States to take a more active role in the diplomatic settlement process with Russia to pressure Russia to end the war.

DAVIES: Right. And we haven't mentioned this in this interview, but yeah, that - around the time that Russia annexed Crimea, its agents were in - fighting in eastern Ukraine and have occupied parts of the country. And so there's an ongoing conflict there.

KRAMER: Well, that's right, and that's an interesting - also an interesting point because the West and Western governments have correctly been pressuring Ukraine to solve these problems of corruption. And it said that the country has two struggles - one against its internal dysfunctions, its feuds, its corruption, the sort of patronage that is run like any other former Soviet country; and the other struggle is the struggle for independence from Russia, which is the war in the East and the effort to avoid return - a resurgence of Russian influence in Ukraine.

DAVIES: Yeah. I just wanted to get your sense of President Zelensky. I don't know if you've spoken with him, but do you see him as someone of substance and conviction?

KRAMER: Well, I think that he's from a very difficult business environment - business and entertainment environment. He worked in Russia and also in Ukraine and, you know, in an environment where there really was no safety net, and he did well. So he's a man with a lot of street smarts coming into this job, and he's also somebody who doesn't have any baggage in Ukrainian politics.

So it's really turning a new page for Ukraine, and it's about hope that this individual will be different than those who came before. For now, we haven't seen much reason to doubt that. Obviously, the phone call with President Trump in which Zelensky eagerly agreed to pursue a politicized investigation of Joe Biden is cause for concern.

DAVIES: You know, he said that there was this prosecutor under the previous president, Lutsenko, who had opened investigations or had made legal moves in the direction of investigating Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, as well as the matters of 2016. What has been the posture of President Zelensky on these investigations? I mean, he seemed to be willing to sound cooperative with President Trump on the phone. What's actually happened in terms of initiating investigations, if anything?

KRAMER: Well, what's happened is that the new prosecutor has said he will audit these cases, which just leaves a big question mark over them. His audit - does that mean they'll soon be reopened, or does that mean they'll be closed? So Zelensky's really been trying hard to stay on the fence on this issue.

DAVIES: He really has to walk a fine line here, doesn't he?

KRAMER: Exactly. He may be dealing with a President Biden next year, or he may be dealing with President Trump.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about Ukraine, its politics, its history and its connection to the impeachment drama unfolding in Washington. Our guest is Andrew Kramer. He's a reporter for The New York Times based in Moscow, and he has covered events in Ukraine for several years.

Let's talk about the war in eastern Ukraine. This grew out of 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, and then Russian-backed troops are fighting there. Just generally describe the situation in this war. How much progress have the Russians made? What's - how much progress have the government forces made?

KRAMER: Certainly. The war had an active phase in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists and Russian activists and agents fomented an uprising in two provinces in eastern Ukraine. We had street demonstrations and then local officials being assassinated or driven out of towns and replaced by pro-Russian figures, all in rapid succession over several months, leading up to an actual military incursion by the Russians in the summer of 2014 - and then a response from the Ukrainian army, which was to deploy artillery and tanks and soldiers into the east in what became, really, a pitched battle in the flatlands of eastern Ukraine, fought over these - this farmland, sunflower fields and in the industrial cities of the country's east for August and part of September of 2014.

And then there was a peace settlement - first one in September called the Minsk agreement, followed by a second iteration of that agreement in February and March of 2015 called Minsk II. And after that, the war went into an abeyance. It was settled into a stalemate along a trench front of several hundred miles through the - this rural part of Ukraine.

And what's really striking about this war and something that I've really noticed is that the people on both sides of this frontline are the same. They came from the same either industrial cities or rural areas, mostly Russian-speaking, some Ukrainian-speaking. There's no ethnic, linguistic difference between them. This is a war about politics. It's a war about two different political systems that are clashing, and this is the frontline of that clash. It's something like the Berlin Wall where you have a wall dividing Germans with no distinction between them other than politics, and this new dividing line is the trench line in eastern Ukraine.

DAVIES: Did you say most of the forces on the government side are also Russian-speaking?

KRAMER: Well, many of them are. I don't think most now, but initially, the paramilitary organizations - the pro-Ukrainian paramilitary organizations, including the most significant, which was backed by Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the - now the patron of Zelensky - were Russian-speaking. Russian was the language of radio communication, of commands and of banter in the bunkers and in the trenches, and - just as it was on the other side.

DAVIES: But one side wants to ally with Russia. The other side treasures Ukrainian independence.

KRAMER: That's right. There was a difference of politics. It was about a view of what sort of governance the country should have. And it really began on Independence Square in the uprising in the capital in 2013 and '14 which became violent, and then it continued in the war.

In the struggle between authoritarianism and liberal democracy in Eastern Europe, the Ukrainians became the steel that didn't bend in the protests and also in the war. There's been this very stubborn ability of the Ukrainian paramilitary organizations, activists, the army to hold out for really political causes in this conflict.

DAVIES: You visited a unit on the frontlines in Ukraine, right? What did you observe?

KRAMER: Well, the war is fought in trench lines, like World War I. And there's a peculiarity of the eastern Ukraine war in that neither side uses aviation because the separatist groups have Russian-supplied anti-aircraft weapons that have cleared the skies of Ukrainian aircraft. And on their side, they have no airplanes, and Russia hasn't provided them. So they fight in almost a early 20th-century manner in trenches.

The Ukraine army is very poor. You see this even out at the front. They're making - they're cooking their own food from crates of potatoes and carrots and canned goods. They're fighting with Kalashnikov rifles with binoculars. Obviously, there's heavy equipment involved as well. But on the front, you see an army of - really of poverty and what looks like maybe 1960s-era technology.

DAVIES: You're working in an area where there - you know, there are a lot of very savvy players presenting different narratives, and it must be hard to figure things out. I'm wondering if you could talk about how you assess the credibility of the information you get. And also, are you ever concerned about being bugged or followed or harmed?

KRAMER: Well, it's obviously a constant struggle to navigate this world of shadows and half-truths that you see in Ukraine, with hackers providing stolen emails, stolen information, with activists coming up with evidence of corruption. And at times when we reported - I remember one incident in 2017. My colleagues and I spent actually weeks puzzling over one document that came to light before deciding that, in fact, it was most likely fake. So it can be a real struggle. And you have to triangulate with multiple interviews and be cautious about information that, in the war in Ukraine and in the broader struggle between Russia and the West, is sometimes a weapon.

DAVIES: Well, Andrew Kramer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KRAMER: Thank you.

GROSS: Andrew Kramer is a reporter for The New York Times based in Moscow. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by country singer Jon Pardi. This is FRESH AIR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.