Prosecutor Mueller and his “deoligarchization”

Mykhailo HONCHAR: “The American justice system has long been interested in individual Ukrainian oligarchs”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who heads the investigation into Russia’s interference in the latest US presidential election, has taken an interest in a donation made by Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk. This is stated in a piece published by the American newspaper The New York Times, reports Ukrinform. Pinchuk’s contribution has turned out to be the largest the Trump Foundation received in the whole of 2015 from any outside donor.

“Investigators subpoenaed the Trump Organization this year for an array of records about business with foreign nationals. In response, the company handed over documents about a $150,000 donation that the Ukrainian billionaire, Viktor Pinchuk, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance by Mr. Trump that month through a video link to a conference in Kyiv,” says the article.

The payment from Pinchuk “is curious because it comes during a campaign and is from a foreigner and looks like an effort to buy influence,” the publication quoted a former head of one of the tax divisions overseeing tax-exempt organizations. He called the donation “an unusual amount of money for such a short speech.”

Pinchuk is the son-in-law of a former president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, who was criticized for corruption, nepotism, and the murders of dissident journalists, the article clarifies. Pinchuk himself has been involved in illegally dumping steel on the US market at artificially low prices, and made multi-million contributions to the Clinton Foundation since 2006.

We asked president of the Strategy XXI Center for Global Studies Mykhailo HONCHAR:

What does Pinchuk’s name appearing in Mueller’s investigation mean?

“The American justice system has long been interested in individual Ukrainian oligarchs. The first person to be directly affected was Dmytro Firtash. We saw this long fight for extradition to the US, and even after the administration has changed, the demands have remained. Another such oligarch is Viktor Medvedchuk. Yes, he may be of lower caliber than Rinat Akhmetov, Pinchuk or Firtash, but he has also been in the sights for a long time and on the sanction list since 2014. I think the American administration noticed long ago that among those known as Ukrainian oligarchs, a number of them are only nominally such, as they are, so to say, only listed as resident here. In fact, they are in the orbit of the Kremlin. And through them, Russia exercises proxy influence both upon Ukraine and upon the West. Akhmetov, of course, is in this orbit.

“In this case, Pinchuk stands out due to the fact that, unlike other oligarchs, he, besides remaining in the Kremlin’s orbit, is the most active one in the American direction. For example, his annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) provides for close interaction with the American political establishment. We know that every YES meeting is accompanied by arrival of Western high-ranking officials, with the event’s guests including the Clintons, Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice, et al. on many occasions. It is clear that this program was created in order to build up a certain political capital for his oligarchic empire, that is, to protect his interests. But, I think, not least, having such an extensive network of communications, someone in the Kremlin thought of it, or Pinchuk himself offered them to take advantage of his opportunities and services to address some issues in the US. Proceeding from this, one can assume that during the presidential campaign, eggs were put in different baskets, that is, contributions were made to various funds. Mostly to the Democrat fund, which has already been covered, but they also put a little into the Trump Foundation. This was done with the understanding that, of course, it would serve Pinchuk’s needs, and, possibly, in the event of some extreme situation, also the needs of someone in the Kremlin.

“Let us remember one thing that we have already started to forget about. I mean Pinchuk’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, where he essentially suggested solving the Donbas problem by sacrificing Crimea. It was precisely an attempt to act as a servant of two masters. First of all, he aimed to serve his Kremlin master, but also to subsequently come to the aid of the Washington master who had some sympathy for Vladimir Putin. With this article, Pinchuk not only upped his profile, but also attracted additional attention. And one does not need to be a great political analyst to come to the conclusion that Pinchuk plays a game that is not in the national interest of Ukraine, but fits Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space. Therefore, taking into account the proximity of the top layer of the Ukrainian oligarch class to the Kremlin, Mueller is ‘digging’ in this direction. And he has obtained some results.

“Also, we must not forget that here we are talking about elegant forms of corruption as well, which at first glance do not look like corrupt acts at all. But it is our oligarch class who sees it that way. For example, Firtash is trying to prove through his lawyers in the US that he has not committed corrupt acts in the US, has no businesses in the States, and has not even visited that country much, but the American justice system still believes that it has grounds for bringing him to account. When acting through such methods, the Kremlin probably thinks that few people would pay attention to peripheral players from other countries. After all, the focus of Americans and Europeans’ involvement in the post-Soviet space has always been on Russia. In fact, we deal here with a network communication system in which the Kremlin acts as a puppet master. Often enough, it activates those tentacles which are far from the Russian orbit and are thus overlooked at first. But now people have started paying attention.”

 Recently, the US introduced new sanctions against Russian oligarchs and officials. Given the situation, can Ukrainian oligarchs also be affected? And in general, what are the likely consequences?

“I do not think that this will have consequences for Ukraine as a nation, as a whole. But, of course, the image of Ukraine, which the Western establishment still sees as a corrupt oligarchic country, will not benefit from it. If certain things are found that will have serious consequences in terms of corruption or the pursuit of the interests of the Kremlin through one or another oligarch, such as Pinchuk, then of course, his firms may be subject to serious US sanctions. We already know that certain anti-dumping duties have been imposed, which are not directed specifically against Ukraine, but rather related to the general US policy of ensuring the growth of its own industry. And our oligarchs have suffered as well. But if it turns out that they crossed the line somewhere, the blow will be more powerful than they can imagine. Then they will spend a lot of money and time defending their interests in American courts. The Firtash story is a case in point.

“In fact, Americans are still identifying Putin’s entourage. They have already hit members of his inner circle, both earlier and lately. Ukrainian oligarchs are not part of Putin’s inner circle, they are simply in the orbit and under the influence of the Kremlin. If we recall dirty gas trading schemes, or those in other industries, then Firtash, Pinchuk, and Akhmetov’s involvement will be visible at once... US presidents may change, but American institutions do not suffer from short memory. If any Ukrainian believes that something has been forgotten, they are wrong. They remember everything in the US.”

 You said that Pinchuk was active in the American direction. One can recall the most recent presidential campaign in the US, when our elite effectively bet on one of the candidates, namely Hillary Clinton. Does not it seem to you that Ukrainian foreign policy needs to be nationalized in order not to depend on one or another oligarch?

“Of course, this is a danger to the country. So far, we have survived it with minimal losses, so to say. But, at the same time, one can observe how slow is the progress on delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine, even when the decision appears to have already been made. The outright support for the Democrats during elections is, firstly, unacceptable, and secondly, it brings some negative consequences for the country, especially when it is in a vulnerable state. Of course, we see privatization of foreign policy here. In a country with a corrupt state apparatus, where all actions are determined by the interests of oligarchic economy instead of the national interest, it turns out that oligarchs act as providers of services at least in strategic directions. Pinchuk is a shining example of it. Then we have to pay a price including defeats of our policy, image damage, and potential accusations, which we see, for example, in the Manafort case, where some figures attempt to channel the Trump Russian dossier investigation into one focused on domestic Ukrainian events. They claim it was Ukrainians, not Russians, who tried to interfere with the American election. This is precisely the reverse side of the medal when our foreign policy is outsourced, in this case, to the oligarch Pinchuk.”

 The article in The New York Times, by the way, emphasizes that Pinchuk is the son-in-law of former Ukrainian president Kuchma, who was widely criticized for corruption, nepotism, and the murders of journalists.

“The mega project called the Yalta European Strategy is designed to create an illusion that the Ukrainian oligarch class, at least the portion represented by Pinchuk, is a Western-modeled big business elite that can be a partner for the West, although in reality it is a corrupt, extortionary, and opaque business elite that parasitizes on the country’s residual technical resources. It can create an illusion in the West, showing that despite the fact that Ukraine is a corrupt country, there is allegedly a progressive oligarch faction, and Pinchuk is the first of them. It is with this in mind that Pinchuk has been investing money in similar projects, because both he and Kuchma have their own skeletons in the closet, and their activity can serve as a kind of shield or reason for granting an indulgence, an act of wide-ranging forgiveness. But this is also an illusion, because it is politicians who can be forgiven for many infractions, as was the case with Kuchma himself, when he was engulfed in the Gongadze case and Kolchuga scandal. In essence, what saved him, as Kuchma was forgiven for a lot of things, was Ukraine sending its soldiers to Iraq, which was in line with US interests. But if the American justice system takes a different view of it, then neither YES events nor Ukrainian lunches in Davos or Munich will help. Ukrainian oligarchs do not yet understand it.”