KIEV, Ukraine — In 2014, Ukraine’s wildly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia after mass protests on the Maidan, Kiev’s central square. During what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity, police snipers killed dozens of demonstrators. In the revolution’s aftermath, a number of young idealists decided to plunge into politics, hoping to reform their troubled country from the inside. One of them was Serhiy Leshchenko, at the time perhaps the country’s most famous investigative journalist.
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had encouraged Leshchenko and some of his friends to run for Parliament. He’d met Leshchenko in 2013, when the journalist took part in a three-week summer course run by Fukuyama at Stanford that aims to teach activists from around the world about building democratic institutions. “After the Maidan revolution, I thought that it was particularly important that all these people in civil society actually go into the government,” Fukuyama said.
Many of them did. That October, Leshchenko, a lanky, bearded hipster with a passion for rave culture, became part of a cadre of Western-oriented newcomers elected to Parliament, even as he continued to work as a journalist exposing corruption. This year, after Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidential election, Leshchenko advised him during the transition.
Then Rudy Giuliani began attacking Leshchenko as a conspirator against America.
In 2016, Leshchenko had helped expose the “black ledger,” an accounting book of hundreds of pages found in Yanukovych’s former party headquarters. Among its many entries, it showed $12.7 million in secret payments to Paul Manafort. At the time, Manafort was running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but before that, he was one of Yanukovych’s most important advisers.
One of the reasons Manafort is in federal prison is that he failed to disclose or pay taxes on millions of dollars from Ukraine. But if you believe Giuliani, the black ledger was part of a plot to damage Trump.
During a Fox News appearance on May 10, Giuliani described the ledger as a “falsely created book” and Leshchenko as part of a group of “enemies of the president, in some cases enemies of the United States.” Last month, in an epic, ranting interview on CNN, he accused Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption organization, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, or AntAC, of developing “all of the dirty information that ended up being a false document that was created in order to incriminate Manafort.”
In Giuliani’s fevered alternative reality, Ukraine’s most stalwart foes of corruption are actually corruption’s embodiment. Deeply compromised figures with vendettas against the activists — particularly the ex-prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko — are transformed into heroes.
This addled, through-the-looking glass fantasy came to drive American foreign policy in Ukraine. Trump withdrew the American ambassador to the country, Marie Yovanovitch, whom reformers saw as their champion. He withheld military aid that Ukraine desperately needed, while asking Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate deranged fictions about Ukrainian interference in American elections, as well as Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Given how much Ukraine depends on American support, Giuliani’s smears made it politically impossible for Leshchenko, who left Parliament in August, to continue advising Zelensky. Now, with Ukraine at the center of a world-historical international scandal, he is stupefied to find himself defamed by powerful forces in the United States, once the world’s strongest backer of those fighting for democracy in his country.
“I could imagine that maybe some Ukrainian prosecutors will create a fake case against me, or some criminals will attack me, or I could be attacked by trolls on social media,” Leshchenko told me when I met him in a Kiev cafe. “But I never imagined before that my real problems will appear because of the statement of the personal attorney of the American president.”
If America can be said to have a foreign policy at this debased stage of the Trump administration, it mostly consists of sucking up to strongmen while betraying everyone who ever believed in America’s putative ideals. Trump has given Turkey his blessing to assault the Syrian Kurds, America’s crucial allies against ISIS. In June, he reportedly promised China that he wouldn’t speak out in favor of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, some of whom have been carrying American flags, as long as trade talks progressed.
Here in Ukraine, a country locked in a proxy war with Russia, coping with a deluge of disinformation and propaganda and struggling to transcend a history of corruption, reformers are trying to figure out what it means when the American president sides against them.
Pro-Western reformers, the Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko told me, had seen the United States as a “a perfect democracy functioning very well,” with an admirable system of checks and balances. “And now this image is crumbling and that’s very dangerous.”
Read the original text at The New York Times