IVANO-FRANKIVSK, Ukraine — His voice crackling over what he complained was a “terrible” sound system, Donald J. Trump in September 2015 heaped praise on the oligarch who had invited him to speak by video link from New York to a conference in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian oligarch, Victor Pinchuk, had secured 20 minutes of Mr. Trump’s time — and a heap of flattery from the future president, who described him as “a very, very special man” — with a donation of $150,000 to Mr. Trump’s now defunct foundation.
The same oligarch, a steel magnate long enmeshed with Ukraine’s business and political elite, had earlier donated more than $10 million to the Clinton Foundation and been invited to dine at the Washington home of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
The equal opportunity largess of powerful Ukrainians like Mr. Pinchuk helps explain why so many of the most dimly lit and hazardous roads of American politics keep leading back to Ukraine, a poor, dysfunctional country on Europe’s eastern fringe.
[Read more about how Ukraine landed in the middle of an American political drama.]
Caught between the clashing geopolitical ambitions of Russia and the West, Ukraine has for years had to balance competing outside interests and worked hard to cultivate all sides and also rival groups on the same side, no matter how incompatible their agendas, with offers of money, favors and prospects for career advancement.
Paul Manafort, Rudolph Giuliani, Joe Biden’s son Hunter and Hillary Clinton have all, at one time or another, found their way there, escorted by Ukrainian guides with deep pockets and a keen sense of how to appeal to their vanities, ambitions and greed.
President Trump met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodomyr Zelensky, in New York on Wednesday.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
“The fact is Ukraine is an amazing place,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Pinchuk’s conference in 2015. “I’ve known so many people over so many years in the Ukraine.”
He told Ukraine’s new president, Volodomyr Zelensky, much the same thing this week when they met in New York, though the only specific person from Ukraine he wanted to tell Mr. Zelensky about was a former Miss Universe contestant.
Ukraine, said Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian whose books include “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine,” has for centuries been tugged in different directions by rival suitors, and became a “battlefield” between Russia and the West when it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
“The front lines are always places that attract both heroes and villains who go there from world capitals to make a name, advance a career, make a fortune, etc. — and then carry back home legacies, memories and skeletons for their closets,” Mr. Plokhy said.
Ukraine’s allure for American carpetbaggers, political consultants and adventurers has put it at the center of not just one but now two presidential elections in the United States and a host of second-tier scandals.
Before becoming Mr. Trump’s campaign manager before the 2016 election, Mr. Manafort made millions of dollars in Ukraine, working as an adviser to the country’s leadership out of an office in Kiev. Mr. Giuliani has repeatedly looked to the same city and a new set of Ukrainian leaders for dirt on Mr. Trump’s political foes ahead of the 2020 poll.
Yevhen Hlibovytskyi, a lecturer in philosophy at the Ukrainian Catholic University, said Ukraine’s pivotal position in geopolitical struggles had made Kiev, a picturesque capital of cobblestoned streets on the Dnepr River, into the 21st century’s equivalent of Cold War dens of intrigue like Vienna and Berlin or Casablanca during World War II.
“Ukraine is the country that hosts the Berlin Wall at the moment,” he said. “Ukraine is the country where the clash between the free and unfree world takes place. It’s only natural that some players will be seeking protection in the West,” sometimes by crossing palms with silver.
Put upon over the centuries by more powerful neighbors claiming their land, notably Russia, Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ukrainians have rarely had firm allies or even their own functioning state, a situation that has encouraged a highly transactional approach to foreign and also domestic affairs.
Unlike Russia, ruled since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century by a single, strong leader, usually a tyrant, Ukraine has always been a land of competing power centers. This has made it a fertile ground for democracy but also left it a highly fractured nation with an ever shifting constellation of feuding power-brokers who often look to foreigners for help in their internal struggles.
The whistle-blower’s complaint released on Thursday revealed how Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, played into this dynamic, focusing his efforts to get Joe Biden and his son investigated on a group of senior law-enforcement officials in Ukraine who had been locked for months in a bitter turf war with rival factions within the same state structure.
The officials Mr. Giuliani sought out in the name of fighting corruption were engaged in a long feud with Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. The bureau, which has worked closely with the F.B.I. and was set up in 2014 with strong support from the Obama administration, is one of the few government agencies in Ukraine that Western diplomats in Kiev view as reasonably honest and competent.
Political survival in Ukraine has for centuries often hinged on finding a strong patron abroad. This sometimes led to disaster, most famously in the case of Ivan Mazepa, the Cossack leader of an embryonic state in eastern Ukraine in the 17th century. Initially an ally of Peter the Great of Russia, Mazepa, worried by the rise of powerful Cossack rivals, switched sides to ally with Russia’s great enemy at the time, Sweden, which he thought would offer protection. Instead, it led him to crushing defeat by Russia at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.
“Ukrainians all the time tried to form an alliance with the stronger side,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor in chief at Ukraine World, an online magazine. Mazepa, despite his defeat, is revered as a national hero in Ukraine for trying, albeit with catastrophic consequences, to hold Russia at bay by finding a powerful patron in the West.
Mr. Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager and now a convicted fraudster, made a fortune in Ukraine by convincing its since toppled pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, that he could, for a hefty fee, help woo Europe and blacken the reputation of his main political rival, Yulia Timochenko, who had been thrown in jail.
Mr. Biden’s son Hunter earned at least $850,000 for serving on the board of a Cyprus-registered Ukrainian gas company that needed help in cleaning up its image after falling foul of anticorruption investigators in Ukraine. The company insisted it was the victim of internal score-settling.
Yevhen Mahda, director of the Institute of World Policy, a research group, compared Ukraine’s recruitment of people like Mr. Manafort to the medieval practice of paying the Catholic Church for “indulgences,” which were supposed to reduce God’s punishment for sinful behavior.
“A lot of Ukrainian politicians have this stereotype that you pay an influential figure in the West, from Europe or America, and they will cleanse you of your sins,” he said.
The pursuit of foreign protectors and patrons has been a common feature of Ukraine’s political and business elite, no matter what their own political leanings.
Ukraine’s former president Petro O. Poroshenko, elected after street protests toppled his pro-Russian predecessor in February 2014, made good relations with the Obama administration his top foreign relations priority and then invested heavily in wooing the Trump administration, despite having favored Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 election.
Mr. Poroshenko’s eagerness to win over Mr. Trump and his growing fears that political rivals would thwart his re-election opened the way for Mr. Giuliani to press Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, who has since been fired, to help Mr. Trump’s own re-election by investigating Joe Biden and his son.
How Mr. Poroshenko expected the Trump administration to help lift his sagging fortunes ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election, held in two rounds in March and April this year, is unclear. He got trounced anyway, losing emphatically to Mr. Zelensky, whose own officials quickly became the Trump team’s new targets in its drive to damage Mr. Biden.
While Democrats want Mr. Trump impeached over his dealings with Ukraine, the president and his allies have counterattacked with their own Ukraine-focused scandals. They have revived a debunked theory that the country colluded with the Clinton campaign to hurt Mr. Trump’s chances in 2016 and asserted, with little evidence, that Mr. Biden used his position as vice president to prevent Ukraine from investigating his son.
Ukrainians, jaded after years of watching their own leaders trade the power and privileges of office for personal financial or political gain, have mostly shrugged off what, for Mr. Trump, is possibly the most serious scandal to buffet the White House since Watergate toppled President Richard Nixon in 1974.
That a country few Americans paid much attention to in the past now commands center stage in Washington has stirred mostly bemusement in Ukraine. Those feelings are also tinged with a touch of pride that, after centuries in the shadow of Russia, its giant neighbor to the east, the nation is no longer seen as a backwater but a pivot around which the fate of the world’s most powerful country implausibly turns.
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister under Mr. Poroshenko, said in a caustic Twitter message this week that going down in history “as the country that led to the impeachment of the U.S. president” was “not a very fun prospect.” But, he added, “Now everyone understands what we are capable of.”
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