A dysfunctional 24-hour news industry which has morphed into a civic poison is manufacturing an equivalence between Joe Biden and a man who runs a mafia family. Accusations being leveled by the Trump Administration are muddled nonsense. Joe Biden himself is making matters worse.
It’s not that Joe or Hunter Biden are innocent. They aren’t. Their handling of this matter reflects a serious, prolonged decline of ethics in our system. The problem with the coverage is that the scale, importance and severity of the Bidens’ actions are being distorted by a political entertainment complex which has abandoned its interest in journalism.
A far more significant story is being obscured by Trump’s babbling and the television media’s car-chase coverage of this mess. What the Bidens did and didn’t do in Ukraine is dull, complex, entirely legal, but indicative of the long rot in our democracy. As a result, you’ll never hear it explained on TV.
Joe Biden’s wayward son Hunter, took a token job on the board of a Ukrainian holding company, Burisma in 2014. Hunter was (is) the family wash-out, a struggling addict trapped in the shadow of his late brother. His only qualification for this $50,000/month gig was his last name. Burisma is owned by a Ukrainian oligarch named Mykola Zlochevsky, who owed his fortune to his ties to the old Russian-allied Ukrainian dictator, Viktor Yanukovych.
Burisma is one of those post-Soviet corporate monsters, a predatory front-company used to swallow formerly state-owned natural resource entities and carve them up among a group of friends. These entities have defined the new Russian political system, organizations engineered to meld the remnants of the Russian mafia and the KGB into a new shadow-government of Kleptocrats.
These companies don’t do anything beyond collecting rents. Most of their interests outside oil and gas have died of entropy and neglect. They don’t innovate. They don’t compete. They sit atop an existing complex of resources or factories growing fat as rentiers, funneling a percentage back to the government officials who protect their position. Business today in the Russian political and economic orbit is just like Communism, but without all the sharing.
This model spread across Russia, Belarus and much of Central Asia, crushing the development of market economies and feeding the rise of new, regional super-mafias. A democratic movement in Ukraine, close enough to Europe to benefit from proximity to liberal governments, has tried to fight the spread of this vampire squid. A careful destabilization effort from the Kremlin has thus-far fought them to standstill, gradually slicing up the country and thwarting reform with waves of outside money.
In 2014, Ukrainian reformers ousted the Kremlin’s puppet dictator, Victor Yanukovych. His exile left Russian-allied oligarchs like Zlochevsky in a dangerous bind. That’s when Zlochevesky recruited Hunter Biden to the board of his company, Burisma. That same month, prosecutors in the UK froze $23 million in Burisma’s assets in connection with a money laundering investigation. For a while, it appeared that a new democracy in Ukraine might successfully crack down on the Russian Kleptocratic machine. At the end of ’14, Zlochevesky fled Ukraine to Russia to escape prosecution.
Zlochevsky badly needed access to his loot in London. The keystone of his effort to regain it was Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s new Prosecutor General. Shokin was appointed to pursue the corrupt businesses that had been raping the country. He didn’t do that. Instead, he dragged his feet on high-profile corruption cases while harassing anti-corruption activists.
A UK court in 2014 sent a summons to Ukraine for information supporting the case against Burisma. Shokin’s office refused to cooperate. A faction in the prosecutor’s office, led by anti-corruption crusaders, David Sakvarelidze and Vitaly Kasko, were pushing Shokin to pursue the case. They were also making progress on their own in high-profile anti-corruption cases that angered Shokin and Ukraine’s remaining pro-Russia bloc. It is likely that Shokin was being bribed to stonewall the case against Burisma, but in the absence of transparency it’s tough to make this case.
The Obama Administration put enormous pressure on the Ukrainian government to take action against kleptocrats like Zlochevsky, eventually making Joe Biden the Administration’s point-man in Ukraine. Shokin’s office did nothing, and in January 2015 the UK court was forced to release the embargoed funds. Zlochevesky immediately moved the money to Cyprus, where current US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was still running a money-laundering operation through a Cypriot bank.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador to Ukraine, in September 2015, went so far as to call out Shokin directly in a speech and praise the work of Sakvarelidze and Kasko. A few months later Slokin responded by firing Sakvarelidze and framing him for corruption. Kasko resigned and was also accused of corruption. Kasko’s apartment was seized in March 2016 as part of the Prosecutor’s harassment campaign against reformers.
In February, Republican Senators Portman and Johnson joined several of their colleagues expressing concern about corruption in a letter to the Ukrainian President. The next month, Vice President Biden took matters into his own hands, threatening to withhold a billion dollars in US aid if the Ukrainian government failed to fire their corrupt Prosecutor General. They did. Things still haven’t changed much.
In 2018, Zlochevsky was finally able to return to Ukraine. With a Russian proxy in the White House and most of the anti-corruption pressure removed, Burisma had no more need for Hunter Biden. He resigned his lucrative position in February, 2019.
How does Trump even know about this episode and why does he care? Someone came away from this exchange very, very angry. Vladimir Putin.
Efforts to establish a responsible, accountable democracy in Ukraine are a threat to Putin’s plans for Russian expansion. Joe Biden’s riverboat gambler bluff to force reforms in Ukraine briefly dented Putin’s Ukrainian network. Biden’s efforts were almost universally welcomed across both parties in the US at the time, because in 2016 Putin still had no foothold on our political system.
Our President is once again taking Putin’s side in a battle between liberal democracy and Kleptocracy. Just a few years ago, Republicans were siding with the good guys in this battle. Now they have surrendered, forming America’s Vichy bloc in a campaign to undermine democracy. It’s unlikely that the Trump Administration would even know about this issue if it wasn’t being raised by the Kremlin.
What Joe Biden did in Ukraine was entirely appropriate. What he failed to do in his own family is a serious, though not-criminal problem. Americans, especially in the heart of Trumpistan, are facing a lethal wave of addiction. While their children died in McDonalds bathrooms, Joe Biden’s drug-addict son was collecting a 1% income from the enemies of liberal democracy. Biden’s role as America’s lead negotiator in Ukraine further cemented his son’s value to our enemies. This difference in outcomes between ordinary Americans, and politically powerful Americans, is hard to ignore.
It might have been possible for Biden to repair the damage from his earlier indifference to graft, right up to yesterday. He could have acknowledged the obvious – that his failure to either rein in his son or remove himself from leadership on this foreign policy effort created a disturbing conflict of interest. Instead, he demonstrated the indifference to basic ethics that helped create our culture of impunity for the wealthy and powerful.
Confronted by a reporter yesterday, he flatly denied that his son’s Ukraine payments created any conflict of interest. Pressed on this absurd evasion, he snapped, “I’m not going to respond to that.”
Biden could have opened up about his son and the challenges of his addiction. He could have acknowledged the undeniable skeevyness of his son’s role in Ukraine. Instead, he showed us the attitude of our powerful representatives that helped place us in this mess. Biden embraced the denial, evasion, and insistence on impunity we have come to expect from Donald Trump.
Liberal democracy didn’t find itself in crisis suddenly one night in November, 2016. This monster grew over decades, feeding on our leaders’ growing indifference to graft. Joe Biden hasn’t profited from a corrupt system in the manner of Donald Trump, but he’s done nothing to fight it. His response to this incident is his promise to do nothing about public corruption if elected. Joe Biden is the friendly smiling face of a coin whose other side is Donald Trump