On the last night of a trip to Kiev, back in May 2014, I had dinner with some of the foreign correspondents flooding into the country to cover the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. It had been a heady few months. What started off in the fall of 2013 as a youth-led protest had spiraled into larger demonstrations over corruption and its human embodiment, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych—who was closely aligned with Moscow. Then, in February 2014, Yanukovych shot the protestors in the streets, fled to Russia, and watched Vladimir Putin seize Crimea and invade the eastern part of Ukraine. That May, fighting was just heating up. After spending a couple of days near the front line with my friend, a photographer, I was heading back to Washington. The last night we were in Kiev, my friend, in true photographer fashion, showed up to dinner with two impossibly willowy young women who, I was told, worked at a high-end fashion store in town. That fact made me wonder about the local luxury economy—and I asked my dinner companions who exactly is buying swank fashion in Kiev right now. Ukraine has a variety of natural resources, but the income-inequality gap there is massive, and its population is quite poor. The escalating war and tanking national currency weren’t helping things.
Oh, all kinds of people, the young women told me. One regular client, they said, was a local state prosecutor of middling rank. She was a middle-aged woman whose silhouette had come to resemble that of an apple, but her daughter still had that long, svelte look of young Russian and Ukrainian women. The mother-and-daughter duo came in often. When they did, the store’s employees would offer champagne and platitudes as the mother dressed the daughter up in sumptuous designer clothes. It was strange only if you weren’t used to it—a civil servant making at most a couple thousand dollars a month going on regular shopping sprees that would cost several times her monthly salary—and the young women who worked there settled into a routine with the prosecutor and her daughter. One day, the mother had her daughter try on an elaborate evening gown, encrusted with sequins and crystals. When the daughter emerged from the fitting room, the mother was overcome by the beauty of it—until she looked at the price tag. “Wow,” she said, according to the women who worked at the store. “That’s so expensive.”
She grew hushed and pensive.
“That’s okay,” she finally said, suddenly upbeat. “Mommy will steal some more!”
I’m reminded of this story whenever I see Ukraine pop into the domestic political scandals here in the U.S.—which, for a small Eastern European country, happens more and more these days. After the Russian invasion settled into a bloody stalemate, most Americans stopped caring about Ukraine. But then it appeared in our news cycles again because Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had to resign mid-campaign in the summer of 2016, when it was discovered that he had made off with $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from Yanukovych. Now it’s Hunter Biden’s board seat at a Ukrainian gas company and President Trump’s obsession with a roundly discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.
Whenever Ukraine appears in our news cycle, it is talked about as if it’s a simpler place than it is. The political dynamic gets reduced to neat binaries—the forces there are either pro-Russia or pro-West; leaders are either corrupt actors or laudable reformers; the good guys versus the bad guys. But that framework belies the moral complexity of the place, which is why it pops up in our domestic political scandals in the first place.
One main reason for Ukraine's outsize presence in our news cycles is money: There’s a lot of it sloshing around, and, as the ladies selling at the designer store know, it tends to find its way into all kinds of crevices.
Ukraine would like America and Europe to think of it as a promising young democracy, the good little country struggling to fend off the gravitational pull of evil Russia. There is a lot of truth in that. But it is also an oligarchy where a very small number of people control the country’s natural resources, a legacy of its Soviet past. Around each of these people is a clan vying for influence, resources, and political power. They sponsor media outlets and politicians. Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for example, has promised to fight corruption but is also closely linked with one of the country’s most powerful oligarchs.
“It’s a pay-to-play democracy, or has been in the past,” says Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who was Obama’s last assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy, and labor. “At its most corrupt, you can get very rich, but you need permission to get very rich, so politicians and oligarchs are linked in all kinds of ways. In some ways, it’s very similar to Russia. But Ukraine is a country where you’re more likely to get rich without getting killed if you’re a Western businessman or political consultant.”
Indeed, plenty of American political operatives find there’s a lucrative market for their services in the country. Ukrainians see Americans as being really good at what in that part of the world is known as “political technology”: using data, polling, consulting to win elections. One candidate in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election, for example, made the American political consultants working on his campaign a major selling point. It didn’t work, but Ukrainians still pay top dollar for any associations with the American political elite. “It was a part of the world where there was a lot of money to be made,” says Andrew Weiss, who oversees Russia and Eurasia research at the Carnegie Endowment. “These are people getting paid in a way that is totally out of proportion to how you would be paid elsewhere.” Consider, for instance, the $12.7 million that Manafort made in just five years. Bernie Sanders’s chief 2016 strategist, Tad Devine, was handsomely compensated for work he did for Yanukovych, too. When Devine was contemplating working on the 2014 Ukrainian election, he stipulated that his rate would be $10,000 per day—not including travel.
Much of the money that works its way into politics in Ukraine comes from the energy sector—perhaps the most lawless corner of the economy. “Ukraine is below Nigeria on the anti-corruption scale,” says one former Obama administration official. “In part, it’s because of natural resources. That’s the most corrupt sector of the economy, and that is the one most closely tied to Russia.” Burisma, the natural-gas giant that put Hunter Biden on its board—and paid him as much as $50,000 a month—is, in some ways, the perfect example. It was founded by Mykola Zlochevsky, who then went on to become Yanukovych’s environment minister, the guy who handed out drilling licenses. Zlochevsky, who was alleged to have used his post to enrich himself and consolidate his holdings in the natural-gas sector, fled Ukraine when his patron, Yanukovych, was ousted from power. (He has since returned to the country.) Burisma is an extremely opaque company, but one with international ambitions. In that part of the world, the best way to launder one’s shady reputation and shine for international investors is to hire big-name Western consultants—as Burisma did. The Russians do this all the time, too, hiring big Western law firms and the Big Four auditing firms to provide window dressing to soothe Western investors. Would the American vice president’s own son, the thinking goes, sit on the board of a bad company? Of course not!
“It’s a country where there’s a lot of freelance money and a lot of competing interests,” says Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council, who, when he was at the State Department, helped engineer sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. “The Russians are there, the Ukrainian factions are there, and they’re all trying to gather American and other kinds of supporters, and they can spend a lot of money. Not all can offer money. Some offer clean money or no money at all, and they are clean, but the bigger the paycheck, the more you gotta start wondering. You always gotta know who’s buying the drinks in Ukraine.”
The main reason Ukraine is in our news feeds so much is that the country marks a border—the word “Ukraine” means borderland—a point of friction between two competing empires and geopolitical visions: Russia versus the West, led by America. The two sides have been fighting over which camp Ukraine joins for the past two decades. A great way to fight that war of geopolitical influence is with money. There is a lot of Russian money in Ukraine and a lot of Western money, in the form of IMF loans and American and European aid. “Ukraine is a weak country; it’s got a weak civil society. They are used to looking to outside forces for help,” says Evelyn Farkas, who served as Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine. “People feel like there’s money to be made, and it happens to be an easier place because it’s in Europe.”
Like the inhabitants of all borderlands throughout history, many Ukrainians have learned to play one side against the other in securing money and power for themselves. Lavishing money on an American consultant with deep ties to the Republican establishment (like Manafort) or to the Democratic one (like Hunter Biden or Devine) can go a long way in securing influence in Washington and, hopefully, still more money in the form of American aid. The same can be done to secure the flow of Russian funds.
But people’s affiliations are often less than clear. Determining which oligarchic clan a politician or journalist is associated with is difficult, as is pinning down a person’s true geopolitical leanings. In the years after Yanukovych’s ouster and the Russian invasion, the easiest way to knock out a rival was to tarnish them as an agent of Moscow, whether the claim was true or not. “It’s very difficult because of the level of distrust,” says the former Obama administration official. “You don’t know whom you can trust in Ukraine. Everyone accuses everyone else in Ukraine of being a Russian puppet, and getting to the bottom of it is extremely difficult to do.”
On top of all of that, to survive in Ukraine’s cutthroat political competition, politicians have had to molt many times over, and we Westerners don’t care enough to keep track. We just want to know who is pro-American and anti-Russian and therefore a good guy. Case in point: Yulia Tymoshenko, the woman with the golden crown of braids who helped unseat Yanukovych the first time around, in the pro-democracy uprising of 2004. She became an easy symbol of the valiant Westernizing forces seeking to break Ukraine out of Russia’s dark orbit. But Tymoshenko, who was later imprisoned by Yanukovych on trumped-up charges, was herself an incredibly shady figure with close ties to the Kremlin. She had worked for years in the murky energy sector, earning her the title of “Gas Princess,” and was at one point charged with illegally transferring $1 billion out of the country and paying millions in bribes to government officials. (The charges were later dropped.) When she was running for president in 2010, Tymoshenko used her position (she was then prime minister in the pro-Western government) to drum up fears of a swine-flu epidemic in Ukraine so that she could ride in and save the day. Her campaign manager had no problem telling me as much.
Ukraine pops up in our domestic political scandals because it is in the middle of a tug-of-war between Russia and the West, and because Westerners go there to enrich themselves doing questionable work. But in our minds, it is a small country somewhere over the horizon, full of people with funny Slavic names. Ukraine is much easier to think about if we cram it into our own political dichotomies, even if that distorts what’s really happening on the ground. The problem in doing so, however, is that we become unwitting participants in someone else’s games.
Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.
Originally Appeared on GQ