Ukrainian Political Shake-up Involves Figures in U.S. Impeachment

MOSCOW — Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, fired his chief of staff Tuesday in a personnel shake-up affecting central figures on the Ukrainian side of the events leading to the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.The shuffle in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, offered fresh evidence of how deeply entangled Ukrainian and American politics have become.The new chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, negotiated last summer with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as Giuliani and Trump pressured Ukraine to start investigations that would benefit Trump politically. Yermak, who at the time was a senior presidential adviser on foreign policy, has sought to maintain good ties with the Trump administration.The man he replaced, Andriy Bohdan, a former lawyer for oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, reportedly became chief of staff last year over Giuliani’s objections. Giuliani was at odds with Kolomoisky at the time but later pivoted to working with Kolomoisky associates in his search for evidence against Trump’s political enemies.Yet the shake-up appears to have more to do with Ukraine’s internal workings — specifically, a growing clash between Zelenskiy’s administration and Kolomoisky, a billionaire with oil, television and real estate holdings who was implicated in a major banking scandal.Yermak’s name popped up often in the House impeachment investigation. In talks and text message exchanges with him, Giuliani and U.S. diplomats sought an announcement of Ukrainian investigations, including one into former Vice President Joe Biden and his family, while withholding a White House visit and military assistance.Yermak later sought to smooth relations during the impeachment hearings. After Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified that he had told Yermak that military aid was “likely” linked to the announcement of investigations — a key accusation in the Democrats’ case — Yermak told a journalist he didn’t remember this part of the conversation. The comment bolstered Trump’s defense.”Yermak tries to present himself as a person who can negotiate with the Americans,” Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor of Ukraine World magazine, said in a telephone interview, a stance that could help in his new role, he said, though Zelenskiy promoted him mostly for domestic reasons.Before running for office last year, Zelenskiy was a comedian starring in a television show on a station owned by Kolomoisky, and their relationship is seen as pivotal in Ukrainian politics. The president, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, has had to fend off allegations that he was a tool of the oligarch.Kolomoisky has annoyed officials in Zelenskiy’s government by opposing a land reform measure and an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The IMF deal promises to deliver billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, though it harms Kolomoisky’s business interests.His allies pushed back on social media, mocking supporters of the IMF deal and broad economic overhauls as “Sorosaty,” a word derived from billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ last name. In Ukrainian, it rhymes with piglet.”Kolomoisky is a toxic figure in the West,” Yermolenko said, and Zelenskiy seems to be inching toward easing his allies out of government.One sign of this conflict came into view this month, when agents of the domestic intelligence agency searched the office of a close ally of Kolomoisky, Oleksandr Dubinsky, in relation to a scandal involving electronic eavesdropping.Separately, Yermak and Bohdan, the Kolomoisky associate, were reportedly at odds over appointments to the Kyiv city administration. And some in the Zelenskiy team had grown dissatisfied with Bohdan’s handling of reform legislation in Parliament, which has become bogged down, magazine Novoye Vremya reported.Though the reasons for sidelining Kolomoisky may be domestic, they could also resonate in American politics. Kolomoisky has been an on-again, off-again ally of Giuliani in his efforts in Ukraine.Last spring, they were at odds, and through an associate, Lev Parnas, Giuliani asked Zelenskiy to refrain from hiring Bohdan as chief of staff, according to Parnas’ lawyer. Parnas later became a key figure in the impeachment inquiry.By December, Giuliani had swiveled to cooperating with the oligarch’s allies in a continuing effort to gather information against Biden, who is running against Trump, and other Democrats.Among those whom Giuliani met on a trip to Kyiv for example, was Dubinsky, the Kolomoisky associate whose offices were later searched by the domestic intelligence agency. It was not clear whether that search and the firing of Bohdan indicated that those who had been aiding Giuliani were being pushed aside.On Monday, Attorney General William Barr said that the Justice Department would consider, but carefully vet, the information Giuliani was turning up in Ukraine and had established a channel for the president’s lawyer to provide it to a U.S. attorney outside of Washington.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company