It’s a diplomat’s job to stay all smiles and keep the business of international relations chugging along, no matter how bad things look. But sometimes, even diplomats lose their cool.
This week, US Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Kiev to tell Ukrainians they still have Washington’s support in their fight against Donbass citizens in the country’s east. But his message may be overshadowed by the US ambassador to Kiev, who hasn’t been acting very diplomatically lately.
At the end of September, Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt got up in front of a group of businessmen and investors at a conference in the city of Odessa and told them that Ukrainian prosecutors were protecting the corrupt owner of an energy company that employs Biden’s son, Hunter, instead of prosecuting him.
“We have learned that there have been times when the Prosecutor General’s Office not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” Pyatt said in Ukraine’s main port city.
He then pointed specifically to a case involving former Ukrainian Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, owner of the Burisma Holdings energy firm, which hired Hunter Biden to its board of directors shortly after the Euromaidan revolution overthrew Zlochevsky’s former boss Viktor Yanukovych.
Burisma likely hired Biden’s son in the hopes that some of the family prestige would rub off on the company in the uncertain times that followed the revolution, Daria Kaleniuk, director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, told VICE News.
“They want there to be less suspicion that they’re involved in corrupt under-the-table dealings and are instead seen as operating in line with international standards,” Kaleniuk said, adding that Burisma received gas production licenses in questionable circumstances under the former regime.
Burisma insists it hired the vice president’s son to its board because he is an experienced lawyer. “This is totally based on merit,” the company’s chairman, Alan Apter said when the younger Biden was hired.
According to the US ambassador, Hunter Biden’s boss Zlochevsky stole $23 million from the Ukrainian people. But when a British court seized the money and asked Ukrainian prosecutors to send documents to confirm the funds were illicit, they stalled, forcing the court to release the assets back to the former ecology minister.
The elder Biden arrives in Ukraine at a time when there is no bigger issue than corruption. With the war in the east stabilized for the time being, the media have nominated graft as the country’s number one enemy — not Russia.
The vice president also lands after months of acrimony between reformers and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko over the prosecutor general, who Poroshenko has refused to dismiss despite numerous allegations about abuse of authority.
But the White House wants the focus of Biden’s visit to be Ukraine’s close alliance with the US. One senior administration official, who asked not to be named, said a major goal was to remind people that Ukraine was not forgotten despite the fact that attention has shifted toward Russia’s involvement in Syria.
‘That’s going to be a major theme of the trip — that nothing that’s going on in the Middle East has changed one iota of our commitment to the Ukrainian people.’
“That’s going to be a major theme of the trip — that nothing that’s going on in the Middle East has changed one iota of our commitment to the Ukrainian people and to their security,” the official said in a briefing for journalists.
The official also acknowledged that the administration has had to fall into line with the ambassador’s now public views.
“The Office of the Prosecutor General itself is in desperate need of reform,” the official said. “And so [Biden] has made this very clear to President Poroshenko in previous conversations… So I think we are largely in line with Ambassador Pyatt’s sense that much more needs to be done.”
But Biden’s meeting with Poroshenko may be a bit awkward, given that the US backs Ukraine on the presumption that it wants to have a Western-style democratic system with checks and balances — not an oligarchic autocracy where anyone who is friends with top officials gets a free pass.
Ukrainian reformers will be watching closely to hear what Biden tells the president.
“We have been very happy with the criticism the embassy has been bringing against the prosecutor’s office,” said Kaleniuk. “It has been very direct. So if Biden continues in the same vein and highlights the activities of the prosecutor’s office in defending people associated with Burisma, then it will be clear that he is doing his job fairly and is not beholden to narrow family interests.”