How Ukraine Became The Center Of Attention
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Paul Manafort, Hunter Biden, Rudy Giuliani and Chelsea Clinton have all been drawn to the charms of Ukraine in recent years, and probably didn't come to Kyiv just to see St. Sophia Cathedral. How did Ukraine become so central to the impeachment scandal that now engulfs America?
Reporter Andrew Higgins of The New York Times has been trying to answer that question and joins us now. Mr. Higgins, thanks so much for being with us.
ANDREW HIGGINS: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: You've compared modern day Kyiv to Berlin during the Cold War. How so?
HIGGINS: Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is really at the fracture between east and west at the moment, at least between the Russian vision of how the world should be organized and what used to be the American conception of the world order. So it's caught between two very big competing powers - Russia on the one hand and the West on the other - which has made it - it turned it into a frontline, when frontlines always attract lots of villains, heroes, carpetbaggers and others who want to make their mark or make their money. So the place is crawling with foreigners who are pursuing their own careers, their own financial interests, their own political ambitions.
And the problem for Ukraine is that political survival has always depended on finding a strong outside patron. And so the Ukrainians are very happy to play into what has become this American political game in pursuit of their own political ambitions back at home in Ukraine.
SIMON: The word corruption has gotten thrown around a lot in sentences with Ukraine, sort of the same way we do, oh, corruption in Chicago or corruption in Louisiana. Is that fair?
HIGGINS: Yes, it is. Ukraine has been chronically corrupt since the collapse of the Soviet Union and no doubt before the collapse of the Soviet Union. What happened was all the Soviet ways of conducting business, politics survived into the post-Soviet world. And everything is up for sale, including political power, access to privileges and government contracts. And it's pretty much a swamp of corruption.
SIMON: And that also draws Americans and others.
HIGGINS: Well, wherever there's corruption, there's lots of money floating around. And there are lots of Ukrainians who want to hire Americans, in many cases to sort of - as an act of, like, the old Catholic Church. You buy an indulgence. You hire a respected foreigner - American, European - who comes over and you hope will relieve you of your sins, or at least the punishment for those sins that will be listed on you by God. And Ukrainians look to foreigners in a similar way.
SIMON: Is there any concern in Ukraine among people with whom you spoke that this series of scandals breaking in America will make Ukraine, which has many urgent needs that are real, just too hot to handle for U.S. political figures?
HIGGINS: Well, I think that's exactly the fear. And, you know, we see from these text messages that were released last week communications between the Trump administration's Ukraine envoys. I think one of the most extraordinary thing about these messages - you know, dozens of them - is that the most pressing problem in Ukraine, which is the war with Russia in the east of the country, is not even mentioned.
In all these discussions, it's all about how we can get them to issue a statement on Biden or the corruption investigation into Biden and the origins of the collusion investigation, which the Trump camp believes is based in a - sort of some sort of conspiracy in Ukraine, that that is all they're interested in. There's nothing about the most pressing and urgent problems facing Ukraine, which is a war which has killed thousands and thousands of people. And it's been going on for five years now.
SIMON: I gather this week President Zelenskiy made a decision to try and restart a peace process of a kind with Russia. There are many reasons for that. Is that in any way responsive to what's been going on in the U.S.?
HIGGINS: Well, he's clearly been under pressure from the Trump administration. The problem is while President Trump seems to regard President Putin as a sort of honest broker in this conflict, the Ukrainians take a very different view. And they view Putin as the cause of the conflict, not really an honest mediator who can help solve it. So Zelenskiy's under tremendous pressure to show that he's willing to do a deal with Putin. The question is, how do you define Putin's role? Is Zelenskiy going to talk to him as the guy who started the conflict or, as the Trump administration seems to imagine, talk to Putin as a man who could be a broker in this conflict?
SIMON: New York Times reporter Andrew Higgins in Moscow, who's been travelling around Ukraine and joins us via Skype, thanks so much for being with us.
HIGGINS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.