President Joe Biden dismissed the possibility of an early entry for Ukraine into NATO on Monday, claiming the nation has to “clean up corruption” for the military alliance to trust it.
Biden himself, and his son Hunter, have been the focus of years of investigation into the younger Biden’s affiliations with Ukrainian oligarchs, particularly his hiring by the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma that leaked emails appeared to indicate was directly the result of those oligarchs seeking influence with then-Vice President Biden.
Burisma hired Hunter Biden in 2014 — an extremely tumultuous time for Ukraine as Russia invaded and colonized Crimea and aided separatists with launching a still-ongoing war in its eastern Donbass region. Anti-Russian protests resulted in the nation having three presidents that year: the incumbent Viktor Yanukovych, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, and successor Petro Poroshenko, who became president on a vow to take a hard line against Russia. Ukrainians removed Poroshenko from power in 2019, replacing him with sitcom star Volodymyr Zelensky in response to mounting corruption allegations against Poroshenko.
Zelensky, the current incumbent, baffled the world Monday with a post on Twitter claiming that NATO had agreed to accept Ukraine as a member.
“NATO leaders confirmed that [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance,” the president alleged. Leaders at the ongoing NATO summit, confronted by the message, appeared confused.
Commend @NATO partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face. NATO leaders confirmed that 🇺 will become a member of the Alliance & the #MAP is an integral part of the membership process. 🇺 deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) June 14, 2021
The post prompted a reporter to ask Biden for a “clear ‘yes’ or ‘no'” on Ukrainian entry into NATO.
“It depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption,” Biden replied. “The fact is they have to meet other criteria to get into the Action Plan.”
“They have to convince, and it’s not easy,” he continued. “I made a speech, years ago, to the Rada saying that — that Ukraine had an opportunity to do something that’s never occurred in the history of Ukraine: actually generate a democratically elected and not corrupt — led by oligarchies in any of the regions — nation.”
Elsewhere in the same press conference, Biden went on to praise Russian leader Vladimir Putin, responsible for the colonization of Crimea and fueling the Donbass war, as “bright” and “tough” and refused to repeat his description of Putin as a “killer” made in an interview in March.
Biden is set to meet with Putin on Wednesday and rejected a request from Zelensky for an in-person meeting with him prior to engaging Putin. Zelensky has previously described himself as “confused” and “disappointed” by Biden’s Russia policy.
Zelensky nonetheless appeared to receive the message on Tuesday, starting the day by vetoing a bill that would have allowed Ukrainian lawmakers to avoid disclosing their relatives’ financial assets, allowing them to hide their wealth. Zelensky addressed the danger of oligarchs and corrupt business interests influencing the country in a speech later that day.
“The oligarchs influenced decision-making in parliament, the appointment of ministers and heads of state-owned enterprises, and entire sectors of the economy,” Zelensky said. “Parties, the media, civil servants at all levels, judges, law enforcement, and the supervisory boards of state-owned enterprises must all function without the influence of oligarchs’ capital.”
The elimination of oligarchs’ influence in Ukraine is at the heart of the plot of the comedy show that elevated Zelensky to the presidency, Servant of the People. In the sitcom, Zelensky, a middle-class schoolteacher, becomes president after a video of him ranting about how corrupt the country has become goes viral on social media and the faceless oligarchs who typically choose who the president decide not to tamper with the election results for once and allow Zelensky’s character to win. In real life, Zelensky named his political party after the TV show.
Reporters during the press conference Monday did not ask Biden about his personal experiences with Ukrainian oligarchs. Concerns began mounting about Hunter Biden’s ties to Kyiv since he became a board member of Burisma in 2014, but the Obama administration never clarified questions about the apparent conflict of interest that the hiring created. A year later, a Senate investigation warned Biden that the conflict of interest had generated corruption concerns; no evidence exists that either Biden heeded the warning.
Hunter Biden reportedly made “as much as $50,000 a month” in his Burisma gig — despite no prior experience in the energy sector, according to the New York Times. President Barack Obama had tasked Joe Biden with running Ukraine policy at the time.
The issue did not directly surface for years, but in 2018, Biden made a bizarre public comment boasting that he had pressured then-President Poroshenko to fire his top prosecutor.
“I’m desperately concerned about the backsliding on the part of [Kyiv] in terms of corruption,” Biden said during remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations that year. “I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor. And they didn’t.”
“I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. … If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired,” Biden said, laughing. Legal and government documents surfacing during the 2020 presidential election indicated that the prosecutor in question, Viktor Shokin, was leading an investigation into Burisma at the time. Biden’s team has insisted that Shokin was corrupt and impeding the kinds of investigations in question.
The 2020 election cycle also yielded the discovery of emails on an abandoned laptop, presumably belonging to Hunter Biden, that indicated his hiring on Burisma’s part was a clear attempt by the company to gain access to the vice president. According to the New York Post, which broke the story, one email listed expected “deliverables” to Burisma including “meetings/communications resulting in high-ranking US officials in Ukraine (US Ambassador) and in US publicly or in private communication/comment expressing their ‘positive opinion’ [of Burisma].”