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Trump And The Ukraine Controversy: The View From Kyiv


The Trump administration suspended military aid to Ukraine. This was aid Ukraine needed in its conflict with Russia. Now, also, President Trump spoke on the phone with Ukraine's new president, and in his own telling, he asked him to investigate a political opponent, Joe Biden. What we don't know is how all these elements fit together. Several media outlets today are reporting that President Trump personally ordered the aide suspended, just days before he made that phone call.

We're going to turn now to NPR's Lucian Kim, who is in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for us this morning. Hi there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So I guess start by telling me what Ukrainians think about being wrapped up in all this.

KIM: Well, unfortunately, Ukrainians are very used to corruption scandals and are also used to prosecutors doing almost nothing to go after that corruption. And that's one of the reasons why Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a professional comedian, was elected president this year. It was really a protest vote against the old way of doing business. As for Ukraine being in the middle of a partisan scandal in the U.S., that's very unpleasant for them, to say the least. People here see the U.S. as Ukraine's most powerful ally, and it puts them in a very uncomfortable position to be in the middle of this political firestorm back in Washington.

GREENE: Well, you mentioned corruption; you mentioned political firestorm Can you just step back and remind us some of the players here? A lot of this focuses on Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, his activities in Ukraine. What exactly was he doing?

KIM: Well, Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, showed up pretty much out of the blue in 2014 and joined the board of a Ukrainian energy company owned by a former environment minister. I talked to Brian Bonner. He's the editor of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine's English-language newspaper, and I asked him about Hunter Biden.

BRIAN BONNER: So without Hunter Biden, there would be no story here because Hunter Biden looks like he was trying to cash in and got himself a nice lucrative contract on the board of directors for Burisma, a company, energy company, run by a former ecology minister.

KIM: So hiring Hunter Biden, as well as a former president of Poland, was all part of an attempt by this company, Burisma, to get some more respectability. There were a lot of questions about its owner. He was being investigated for money laundering, and there were questions about how he had obtained his licenses. But these accusations of wrongdoing predate Hunter Biden, and hiring him was actually part of the company's cleanup effort. What was frustrating a lot of Western countries, as well as anti-corruption activists here in Ukraine, was that prosecutors were not investigating this company or any other allegations of wrongdoing.

GREENE: And then what about Joe Biden? How does he play into all this, and did he do anything wrong here?

KIM: Well, what's important to understand about Joe Biden and Ukraine is that, as vice president, he was the Obama administration's point man on Ukraine. He often visited here. It was part of his brief to monitor the reform process. Now, the accusation we hear is that Joe Biden tried to use his position to somehow protect the energy company where his son was on the board. Again, I asked Brian Bonner of the Kyiv Post about that.

BONNER: Joe Biden, as vice president, did not try to kill the investigation into Burisma; in fact, one of the reasons why the prosecutor general was fired was because he obstructed one corruption case after another. He prosecuted no one for corruption. He protected corruption.

KIM: So Biden's pressure to fire this prosecutor was completely in line with what other Western governments were also demanding. One anti-corruption activist here in Kyiv told me Ukrainian reformers were thankful for that pressure.

GREENE: All right. And all this is happening, of course, as Ukraine's president is going to be in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly and is scheduled to meet with President Trump, which is another thing to follow as part of all this.

KIM: Exactly. And given all this noise, Ukrainian officials are understandably not saying a whole lot about that right now. Ukraine's foreign minister has said that the main aim of this meeting with Trump is just to establish a personal relationship after the two have spoken on the phone.

GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim speaking to us from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Thanks so much, Lucian.

KIM: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.