MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Between the Bidens, the president's fixation on a conspiracy theory about Ukraine and the 2016 election hackings and former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort's dealings that led him to years in prison, Ukraine just keeps popping up in U.S. political scandals. Julia Ioffe attempts to explain why in a new article for GQ magazine. She has reported on the region extensively, and she's here in the studio now.
JULIA IOFFE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So I want to get to the why in a second. But start just by reminding our listeners of what drives the economy and politics in Ukraine. I know that there are a lot of oligarchs. There's a lot of oil.
IOFFE: There's a lot of gas. There's a lot of coal. There's a lot of agriculture. It's kind of the breadbasket of Europe. But when the Soviet Union fell apart, a lot of these very centralized industrial gems fell into the hands of a very small amount of people who became the oligarchs and who developed these oligarchic clans around them. But unlike in Russia, where there was a Vladimir Putin who came in and centralized everything under himself, in Ukraine, there continues to be a lot of economic competition, a lot of political competition. And these oligarchic clans are constantly vying for both economic and political power.
KELLY: So a lot of money concentrated in a small number of hands.
KELLY: All right, so what's been the lure for Americans? Why do so many American political operatives seem to find a market for their services in this tiny or small, at least, East European country?
IOFFE: Well, unlike Russia, Ukraine actually has a competitive political system. And there is a very significant faction or factions of political forces who want to drift toward the West, who want to be a kind of Western-style democracy. So they bring in, you know, political consultants who help them run presidential campaigns, who help them with polling and data and voter targeting. Then there is a segment of business consultant board member - you know, these oligarchs who want to maybe go global, want to maybe get an IPO or want to branch out into other markets. And they need some kind of window dressing to dress up the really opaque, murky operation they have going, so they'll put a big name on the board to say, well, you know, the former vice president's son wouldn't be on our board if we were such a shady company, now would he?
KELLY: All right. I'm getting how this works from the Ukrainian side. Having Americans can help burnish your reputation, at least prestige. Particularly if there's a big, recognizable name, Americans help kick open doors. What's the path look like in reverse? What's the allure of Kyiv if you're an American?
IOFFE: Well, you can make funny money because they really...
KELLY: Meaning crazy amounts of money.
IOFFE: That's right. I mean, if you look at some of the names - American names that have popped up vis a vis the Ukraine in the last few years - you know, Paul Manafort, who made off with nearly $13 million in off-the-ledger cash in just five years, Hunter Biden, who was making as much as $50,000 a month for just sitting on a board. Tad Devine, who was Bernie Sanders' chief strategist in 2016, when he was negotiating working in Ukraine, he asked for $10,000 a day. Like, there's no way you can get paid that in Washington.
KELLY: You have a great line in your article that I want to quote, and then I want you to tell me what it means. You attribute this to Daniel Fried. He was at the State Department. And he told you, you always got to know who's buying the drinks in Ukraine. What was he getting at?
IOFFE: What he was getting at is the chain from the drink to who bought it is often so long and has so many shell people and shell companies, and it's really hard to decipher who is really standing behind whom. You know, I've had former Obama administration officials tell me that it was very hard to tell who was telling the truth, who was in the pay of which oligarch, who was aligned with which clan. These allegiances were constantly changing. But when there's money involved, it's often really hard to tell where it's ultimately coming from.
KELLY: I want to point out that some of the names we've referenced have not been convicted of doing anything wrong. No evidence has emerged against Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden of any wrongdoing, for example. But I'll close by asking if you were counseling an American contemplating doing business in Ukraine, should they proceed with caution?
IOFFE: Well, I would just quote back to them the quote you said. You know, make sure you know who's buying your drinks.
KELLY: Julia Ioffe - she's a correspondent with GQ magazine. Her latest article is called "Why Ukraine Pops Up In So Many U.S. Scandals."
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