When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2014, Vice President Joe Biden pressed President Barack Obama to take decisive action, and fast, to make Moscow “pay in blood and money” for its aggression. The president, a Biden aide recalled, was having none of it.
Biden worked Obama during their weekly private lunches, imploring him to increase lethal aid, backing a push to ship FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kyiv. The president flatly rejected the idea and dispatched him to the region as an emissary, cautioning him “about not overpromising to the Ukrainian government,” Biden would later write in a memoir.
So, Biden threw himself into what seemed like standard-issue vice-presidential stuff: prodding Ukraine’s leaders to tackle the rampant corruption that made their country a risky bet for international lenders — and pushing reform of Ukraine’s cronyism-ridden energy industry.
“You have to be whiter than snow, or the whole world will abandon you,” Biden told the country’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, during an early 2014 phone call, according to former administration officials.
That message was delivered just as Biden’s son Hunter joined the board of a Ukrainian gas company that was the subject of multiple corruption investigations, a position that paid him as much as $50,000 a month and — in the view of some administration officials, including the ambassador to Kyiv — threatened to undermine Biden’s agenda.
Thanks to President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, that subplot has now swallowed the storyline. Their efforts to press Ukrainian officials to investigate unsubstantiated charges against the Bidens have propelled Trump to the brink of impeachment. They have also put Biden on the defensive at a critical moment in the Democratic presidential primary campaign. As the impeachment hearings go public this week, the Republicans are hoping to redirect the spotlight onto the Bidens.
A look at what the former vice president actually did in Ukraine (he visited six times and spent hours on the phone with the country’s leaders) tells a different story, according to interviews with more than two dozen people knowledgeable about the situation. It casts light on one of Biden’s central arguments for himself in the primary: his eight years of diplomacy as Obama’s No. 2.
Biden dived into Ukraine in hopes of burnishing his statesman credentials at a time when he seemed to be winding down his political career, as his elder son, Beau, was dying and his younger one, Hunter, was struggling with addiction and financial problems. It turned out to be an unforgiving landscape — threatened by Russia, plundered by oligarchs, plagued by indecisive leaders and overrun by outsiders hoping to make a quick buck off the chaos.
Writing in his 2017 memoir, Biden said Ukraine gave him a chance to fulfill a childhood promise to make a difference in the world. It also came to serve a political purpose, as “a legacy project, something he could run on,” said Keith Darden, an associate professor at American University who studies Ukraine policy.
In the end, it was an unglamorous holding action, but one that suited Biden’s Mr. Fix-It approach to the vice presidency — and his view of Ukraine as the front line in a larger battle to contain the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
“People forget it now, but at that time period, 2014 and 2015, it wasn’t clear Ukraine would survive,” Darden said. “They were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. They had only 8,000 battle-ready troops.”
A key to Biden’s relevance as vice president was his willingness to take jobs nobody else wanted. In early 2014, as others on Obama’s team raced to finish big-splash deals with Cuba and Iran, Biden told the president he wanted to take on three of the most unappetizing foreign-policy tasks left undone: containing the Islamic State group, curbing immigration from Central America and keeping Russia from devouring Ukraine.
Biden had deep contacts in Europe, and as a senator in the 1990s had had some success persuading President Bill Clinton to take action in the Balkans. He considered himself to be among the few people in Obama’s orbit who understood Europe and were willing to challenge Putin — a counter to the national security adviser, Susan Rice, who repeatedly warned the president against escalating a conflict with Russia that the United States could not win.
Yet on Ukraine, as elsewhere, Biden was less an architect of policy than the empowered executor of Obama’s policy.
“He was the vice president, not the president,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers allied with Biden who pressured Obama to help Ukraine’s military.
Indeed, the drive to provide lethal aid to Kyiv was a group effort, pushed by senators and two powerful State Department officials: Geoffrey R. Pyatt, who was the ambassador in Kyiv, and Victoria J. Nuland, then the hawkish assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs.
Nuland was overheard telling Pyatt they needed Biden “for an attaboy” to encourage Ukrainian leaders to fulfill their promises, during a 2013 phone conversation about Ukraine, bugged and released to the media.
Bribes, shakedowns and ‘sweetheart deals’
Biden applied his Amtrak charm to local players like Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, with limited effect. Former White House aides recall watching an agitated Biden ducking in and out of a secure phone booth outside the situation room in early 2014, trying to reach Yanukovych on his cellphone.
“Where the hell is this guy?” he kept asking, before learning that Yanukovych had fled Kyiv, ultimately for Russia, as huge street protests erupted against his regime’s corruption and his pivot away from Europe and toward Moscow.
Putin then rushed in, annexing Crimea and backing paramilitaries who invaded the country’s east. While Biden’s pitch for missiles was rebuffed, he eventually helped sell Obama on sending about 100 U.S. service members to train Ukraine’s security forces.
Things seemed to be looking up in May 2014 with the election of Poroshenko, an oligarch who billed himself as a reformer. At first, the vice president’s hard-edged messages to him on corruption were coated with kibbitz — demands accompanied by Bidenesque inquiries like whether the puffy-eyed president was getting enough sleep, aides recalled.
Within months, though, the State Department began suspecting that the office of Poroshenko’s first prosecutor general was accepting bribes to protect Mykola Zlochevsky, the oligarch owner of Burisma Holdings, the gas company where Hunter Biden was a board member. In a February 2015 meeting in Kyiv with a deputy prosecutor, a State Department official named George P. Kent demanded to know “who took the bribe and how much was it?”
The prosecutor general was fired soon after. But it wasn’t long before the new prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was drawing allegations of corruption, including from State Department officials who suspected he was shaking down targets and intentionally slow-walking investigations to protect allies.
Giuliani has claimed, without evidence, that Biden’s push to oust Shokin was an attempt to block scrutiny of his son’s actions. In fact, Biden was just one of many officials calling for Shokin to go. Good-government activists were protesting his actions in the streets, as were eurozone power players like Christine Lagarde, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, along with Nuland and Senate Republicans.
“The position regarding getting rid of Shokin was not Vice President Biden’s position; it was the position of the U.S. government, as well as the European Union and international financial institutions,” said Amos J. Hochstein, former coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department and one of the few administration officials who directly confronted Biden at the time about his son.
Ukraine’s energy industry, the country’s geopolitically crucial economic engine, was a central point of contention between the Obama administration and Kyiv. Biden and Hochstein, echoing a similar effort by European officials, pressured Poroshenko to reform the operations of the state-owned natural gas company Naftogaz, which controlled about two-thirds of the country’s energy resources.
(Burisma, a smaller, privately owned company, played no role in Biden’s pressure campaign, and administration officials could not recall whether the company was even mentioned in meetings the vice president attended on energy matters.)
By late 2015, U.S. officials had grown so frustrated with Poroshenko’s sluggish response on all fronts that Biden was dispatched to make the case publicly for reforms to the Ukrainian parliament.
That December, in a speech that he later described as one of the most important he had ever delivered, the vice president told legislators they had “to remove all conflicts between their business interest and their government responsibilities.” He also singled out the natural gas industry, saying, “The energy sector needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles — not sweetheart deals.”
His words, like his work in Ukraine overall, were important but hardly decisive.
“A lot of good things would not have happened if Biden hadn’t been focused on Ukraine, but his work did not fundamentally change the overall institutional corruption,” said Edward C. Chow, an expert on geopolitics and energy policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “And having his son doing what he did was a distraction that undermined his message.”
Shokin was eventually fired, but only months later, after IMF officials threatened to withdraw funding.
In the intervening years, there has been much churn and less change. Putin, facing sanctions, has mostly stayed in check. Poroshenko was beaten at the polls by Volodymyr Zelenskiy in April, and remains bitter toward Biden for calling him out over his handling of Naftogaz during a meeting shortly before the 2016 elections, according to a person to whom he recently complained.
Some reforms have been put in place at the energy giant: Ukrainian officials agreed to appoint an international oversight board (Hochstein is now a paid IMF appointee to the panel), but the issue of sweetheart deals remains unresolved.
The battle over Naftogaz has also become wrapped up in the House impeachment inquiry. Two of Giuliani’s associates in his pressure campaign against the Bidens — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — were part of an effort to remove Pyatt’s successor as U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Marie L. Yovanovitch, who had called for reforms to the energy giant.
For his part, Hunter Biden remained on Burisma’s board until his term expired in April.
It was Trump, ironically, who signed off on Joe Biden’s request to send the Javelins.
Handling the story
Biden wants to move on.
“I carried out the policy of the United States government,” he said during the most recent Democratic debate. “That’s what we should be focusing on.”
But he did not take advantage of a chance to eliminate the distraction four years ago, when the threat resurfaced — in the form of questions from The New York Times and follow-ups from other news organization — as he flew to Kyiv on Air Force Two to deliver the anti-corruption speech to parliament.
Several aides recalled a surreal split-screen of activity onboard, as Biden’s team focused mostly on the speech (he urged them to make it tougher), but peeled off for intermittent huddles on how to handle the Hunter story (Biden dismissed the story as a distraction, and did not engage). The group defaulted to the pushback plan used the year before when the story had first emerged, issuing a statement that Hunter Biden was “a private citizen and a lawyer.”
They emphasized “private citizen,” many former aides said, because the vice president would not even discuss taking the step that could make all questions vanish: asking his son to quit the Burisma board, as editorial boards and Ukraine experts were suggesting.
Biden’s advisers say that he and his son had informally agreed years earlier not to discuss anything pertaining to the younger Biden’s business activities, as a way to insulate them both.
Bob Bauer, former Obama White House counsel and Biden adviser, said that even pressuring Hunter Biden to quit the board would have constituted a breach of that firewall, and suggested that was one of the reasons the vice president chose not to do it.
“The independent activities of an adult child simply don’t create a ‘conflict of interest’ for the parent who is a public official,” he said. “And as a matter of sound ethical practice, it is important for officials in this position to maintain that distance: to be able to show that, in doing their jobs, they could not have been affected by discussions or involvement with their adult children relating to private business matters. Their posture has to be, ‘Whatever you decide to do, I am going to do what I have to do.’ ”
Joe Biden has said he first learned of his son’s activities in Ukraine when the story broke in 2014. He told his son, “I hope you know what you are doing,” according to Hunter Biden’s account of their discussion in The New Yorker earlier this year.
If that settled matters between father and son, Hunter Biden’s activities struck many of the officials working on Ukraine policy as an unnecessary distraction, or worse. Biden’s own aides were so worried about the optics, they enlisted State Department officials to gather facts to determine how to handle the story, according to people who worked with his office.
Yet few, if any, had raised the issue with Biden directly when it first arose. Most viewed the revelation — unseemly, but not illegal or a violation of ethics rules — as simply not worth risking a scolding from Biden, who had reacted angrily when Obama’s aides raised the issue of his son’s lobbying during the 2008 campaign. One person who briefly discussed the matter with Biden said he was anguished by his son’s personal problems and unsure how to help him recover.
Hochstein, reflecting the concerns of State Department officials, including Pyatt, tried to get several of Biden’s aides to broach the subject with him in 2014. When they declined, he took matters into his own hands, according to three Obama administration officials with knowledge of the situation. It is not clear how Biden responded; Hochstein did not disclose details of their interaction.
But former administration officials involved in the response to the story, speaking on the condition of anonymity, cited one reason above all others for backing off: the vice president’s shaky emotional state over Beau’s illness and death. Kent, now the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told House investigators that his concerns had not been addressed by a White House official, who told him that Biden lacked the “further bandwidth to deal with family-related issues at that time.”
Biden’s mood in 2019 is no longer grief but anger. His aides accuse the news media of abetting Trump by aiming the story, now the catalyst for impeachment, back at the former vice president.
“Let’s not forget that this was covered on A22 of The Times in 2015, because it did not fall outside the White House’s ethical guidelines and was simply not a major story,” said Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s communications director.
She added: “What’s different now? It’s that Donald Trump is aggressively lying about it every day in the hopes that it winds up on the front page.”