Some Ukrainian Background.

The first “Russian” state was Kievan Rus, created by conquering Vikings.[1]  In the 13th Century the Mongols showed up and put a stop to that.  “Independent” Russia came to mean a small territory around Moscow.  Over the following centuries, Ukraine became a contested ground between empires: the “Golden Horde” of the Mongols, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the rising Austrian Empire, and an expanding Romanov Russia.  By the end of the 18th Century, the Austrians held Galicia, while the rest of the Ukraine belonged to Russia.

As was the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 19th Century, local nationalism began to burn.  Tsarist Russia repressed this just as it did every other form of non-Russian nationalism.  Still, Ukrainian nationalism survived.  When the First World War wrecked the Austrian and Russian Empires, Ukraine declared its independence (1917).

Tragedy followed for Ukrainians: the territory and its people were savaged by Poles with an expansive definition of “historical” Poland; and by “Whites,” “Reds,” and a variety of crazy people like the Anarchist anti-semite Nestor Makhno during the Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War.  Then Ukraine fell under the hammer during Josef Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s.  About 3.5 million Ukrainians were starved to death during this “Harvest of Sorrow.”[2]

During the drive for industrialization that followed close on the heels of the “terror famine,” Stalin moved in millions of Russians to eastern Ukraine.  Their descendants still form a large part of the population of Ukraine.  Then the Second World War brought both massive suffering and deep divisions, as Ukrainians fought on both side.

In 1954, possibly trying to make amends to the Ukraine for the whole unfortunate “terror famine” thing, the Soviet Union transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.  This remained something of a sore spot for the ethnic Russians of Crimea.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine held a referendum on independence.  Overall, 90 percent of those who voted supported independence.   However, voter participation varied a good deal throughout Ukraine.  The Russians weren’t happy with this secession, but there wasn’t much they could do about it because Russia itself was in massive turmoil.

The post-independence history of Ukraine has not been a happy one.[3]  Corruption is endemic.  Mismanagement is widespread.  Bureaucracy is pervasive and stifling.  Investment in productive capacity fell far short of needs.  Where banks did lend, they often made bad loans.  Business law and an incompetent (or corrupt) judiciary make property insecure.  Investors don’t want to risk their capital.  By 2014, Ukrainians were among Europe’s poorest people.

In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych won election as president amidst charges of massive fraud and interference by the Soviet Union.  An “Orange Revolution” turned him out of office.  His “Orange” successors then mismanaged things on a grand scale.  Eventually, in 2010, Yanukovych managed to win election as president without charges of massive fraud.  In late 2013 he suddenly rejected a long-prepared economic agreement with the European Union.  This act sparked a new round of demonstrations that ended with Yanukovych chased from office once again (February 2014).

After that, things got even worse.  By 2015, the conflict with Russia cut Ukrainian-Russian trade by half.  Inflation and unemployment both rose.  Foreign-exchanges reserves at the central bank sank to their lowest point in a decade.  Experts estimated that the country would need $40 billion in financial assistance over the next four years.  In early February 2015, the International Monetary Fund granted Ukraine a $17.5 billion credit.

It was against this background that the Obama administration, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund began pressuring Ukraine to root out corruption and address a host of other problems.

[1] “In Russia’s shadow,” The Week, 14 March 2014, p. 11.

[2] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986); Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on the Ukraine (2017).

[3] David M. Herszenhorn, “Economic Woes Will Test Kiev, Even if Truce Holds,” NYT, 14 February 2015

JMO 3 November 2019.

“Donald Trump is a terrible person.”—Mick Mulvaney.  Agreed.  I voted against him the last time and I plan to vote against him the next time.   (Unless Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee.  I don’t care to have my hard-earned retirement savings destroyed.)

Donald Trump was right to confront China in a forceful way over its trade practices.  Some Americans had suffered from those practices for many years.  Many of them lost jobs.  No one else cared very much.  “Capitalism is creative destruction.  Lump it.”  It’s ludicrous now to say that Trump’s tariff policies are illegitimate because they are forcing up prices of some consumer goods.  Lump it.

Donald Trump was right to open negotiations with North Korea over the nuclear weapons issue, and he was right to meet with Kim Jong-loon.  Severe economic sanctions have been imposed on North Korea for a long time without any sign that they of forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs.  If we’re willing to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, then why shouldn’t we negotiate with North Korea?  Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Joseph Stalin and Richard Nixon met with Mao Zedong.  Why shouldn’t Donald Trump meet with an arguably less evil and less insane foreign leader?

Donald Trump was right to support cutting the corporate tax.  The American tax was much higher than international norms.  It deterred foreign companies from investing in America and it encouraged American companies to keep their foreign earnings over-seas, where they paid a lower tax rate.

Donald Trump is right to try to end the “endless wars” and to avoid becoming involved in new ones.  The invasion of Afghanistan had to take place.  It was the only fast way of getting hold of Osama bin Laden in revenge for 9/11. Having missed our punch in 2003-2004, the United States made the fatal error of staying in Afghanistan in hopes of transforming a primitive society into a modern democracy.  Endless disaster have followed.  Nothing—Nothing–can justify the attack on Iraq in 2003, let alone the botched occupation policy that followed.  A long chain of human and foreign policy disasters have unspooled from that crime a decade and a half ago.

Recognizing the destructive futility of these wars, President Barack Obama claimed he wanted to get out of them.  He did reduce the American presence in Afghanistan—over the resistance of the Pentagon—but he didn’t end American participation in a war that the Taliban is fated to win.  President Obama did manage to end the American military presence in Iraq.  He then allowed the country to be partially sucked back in to prevent Iran—our “enemy” in all things other than the nuclear agreement—from crushing ISIS and expanding its influence.  President Obama, at the price of considerable personal humiliation, managed to keep the United States from being drawn directly into the Syrian civil war.

Donald Trump has done some important things right.  Yes, he’s done them in a ham-handed way.  He has done them in violation of long-standing policies, bureaucratic procedures, and norms.  Those policies, procedures, and norms were the very things that got the country into these messes in the first place.

Even if he is impeached, it is unlikely that Trump’s successors will reverse course.  They’ll just try to break less china while criticizing Trump as a terrible person.

An Innocent Abroad 2 November 2019.

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1996, Hunter Biden[1] went to work for MBNA.  MBNA is a bank-holding company based in Wilmington Delaware.  It was reportedly a major contributor to the political campaigns of Joe Biden.  Within two years, Hunter Biden had become an executive vice president.  From 1998 to 2001, he worked for the Department of Commerce during the second Clinton administration.  From 2001 to 2009, he worked as a lobbyist, and served for two years on the board of Amtrak.  From 2009 to 2019, Hunter Biden was busy on several fronts.  He worked for the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner; he founded an investment firm with Christopher Heinz, the step-son of John Kerry; and he formed an investment firm focused on China (2013-2019).

In April 2014, Hunter Biden was recruited to a five year term on the board of Burisma Holdings, a major Ukrainian natural gas company.  The company is run by Mykola Zlochevsky.

It is fair to ask why Hunter Biden was invited to join the board.

In 2014, the prosecutor general for Ukraine began investigating Burisma.

It has been reported that Hunter Biden himself never was under investigation, let alone charged with anything.  Similarly, the investigations of Burisma were wound up after the payment of back taxes and penalties.

Nevertheless, then and later, Hunter Biden’s position raised eyebrows.  Reportedly, Christopher Heinz opposed his business partner joining the board because of the risk to their firm’s reputation.[2]  Biden went ahead.  Heinz then ended his business relationship with Biden.[3]

Others also questioned the decision.  In June 2014, the Associated Press wrote that “Hunter Biden’s employment means he will be working as a director and top lawyer for a Ukrainian energy company during the period when his father and others in the Obama administration attempt to influence the policies of Ukraine’s new government, especially on energy issues.”[4]

In December 2015, Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Wall Street Journal that “If an investigator sees the son of the vice president of the United States is part of the management of a company … that investigator will be uncomfortable pushing the case forward.”

In late 2014, Mykola Zlochevsky hastily left Ukraine after it was alleged that he had illegally enriched himself during his time as Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources in 2010-2012.  In December 2017, the government’s investigation of Burisma ended with no charges filed against Zlochevsky.  In February 2018, he returned to Ukraine.

Did Burisma bring Hunter Biden on board not to entangle him personally in corrupt acts, but rather to put up a shield against prosecution by Zlochevsky’s Ukrainian enemies?

It would be useful to know what–if anything—the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Central Intelligence Agencies reported on Hunter Biden’s time with Burisma.  Or, like Joe Biden and his son, did they also have a “don’t ask-don’t tell” relationship?

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_Biden

[2] Paul Sonne, Michael Kranish, and Matt Viser, “The gas tycoon and the vice president’s son: The story of Hunter Biden’s foray into Ukraine,” The Washington Post, 28 September 2019.

[3] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7519043/Chris-Heinz-split-business-partner-Hunter-Biden-board-seat-Ukrainian-energy-company.html

[4] https://www.factcheck.org/2019/09/trump-twists-facts-on-biden-and-ukraine/