VODIANE, Ukraine – In a muddy field 5,000 miles from Washington, D.C., are a set of gas wells that extend several thousand feet underground.
The wells are owned by Burisma, a Ukrainian company registered in Cyprus – a company no one outside the energy industry would have known a month ago.
Now this place is ground zero for a central claim – one with no credible evidence – in a scandal that has engulfed the Trump administration in an impeachment inquiry: that former Vice President Joe Biden forced the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor in order to protect his son Hunter Biden, who served on Burisma’s board.
Burisma’s gas fields are ringed by light woodlands and an assortment of post-Soviet tropes: crumbling factories and farm buildings, babushkas clutching bags of food as they ride bicycles, bored security officials in military fatigues who always seem to require permission to do anything – from a boss who can never be found.
“There’s no one here who will talk to you. Now go away,” a sullen-faced guard shouted at the entrance to Burisma’s small office in Vodiane, 300 miles southeast of Kyiv, last week.
“Hunter Biden? Never heard of him,” said Ludmila Rynovaya, 72, a resident of Vodiane’s nearby village – population 600 – who was chatting with a friend in a small grocery store. “We’re pretty good at corruption,” she said. “We don’t need Americans to help us.”
Over the course of about a week in Ukraine, the message from two dozen government officials and anti-corruption investigators quickly became clear: The allegations against the Bidens are entirely lacking in evidence.
But they persist, and not only because Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, keep repeating them.
What is true and what is false is exceptionally hard to pin down in this fledgling democracy, one riddled with regulatory loopholes, poor governance and never-ending budget shortages.
Ukraine is a place of great economic promise, with extensive natural resources and a highly educated, tech-savvy workforce.
But abuses of power and cronyism are rampant, reaching from the highest levels of government to everyday tasks like acquiring a driver’s license or paying a doctor’s bill, according to more than two dozen Ukrainians interviewed for this story.
“It’s not really corruption, but more a way of saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Vladimir Grigorishin, 49, a Kyiv resident and customs “broker” who stopped in the city’s picturesque Kontraktova Square on his way to work to describe what he does for a living.
He mediates fees between tax officials and private business owners who rely on foreign-made products. The process involves informally negotiating payments to officials.
Outside Ukraine, this is known as bribery. For Grigorishin, it’s business.
Perhaps one of the most incongruous aspects of Trump’s allegations is that he seems to believe that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, which has been fighting a costly war with Russian-backed separatists for the past five years 1, is conspiring with Democratic rivals in order to force him from office.
There is a problem with this theory: There are few, if any, trustworthy voices in Ukraine to back it up. Nor is there any credible evidence. Even Trump’s staff have repeatedly warned him that the claims are baseless.
That hasn’t prevented Trump from spreading false information, just as he once promoted the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory – the debunked claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
“Rudy Giuliani’s only interest in Ukraine was to push the idea of an investigation into Biden and then push that idea with the American media, to hype it, and to attack Biden’s son ahead of the U.S. election” next year, said Sergii Leshchenko, a former lawmaker who worked under former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Leshchenko has met Giuliani. He also helped spearhead anti-corruption efforts under Poroshenko, who lost reelection this spring to Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV actor turned politician.
“The whole thing is manufactured for Trump’s political advantage,” said Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist.
Allegations like this are not uncommon in Ukraine. Since gaining independence 2 from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has struggled to confront corruption and misinformation, said Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
“After Communism, we’ve had to build a completely new system – all new laws, judges, a constitution. This has created many legal loopholes,” he said.
Many hide in plain sight.
“Speeding tickets are easy to make go away,” said Orest Grigorishin, 23, a Kyiv musician. He views such activity, officially illicit, as essential to surviving in the faction-ridden country.
There are more egregious examples. Some involve people an arm’s length from Trump.
Yuriy Lutsenko is one of the former Ukrainian prosecutors who, according to a whistleblower’s complaint 3, peddled a series of baseless claims against the Bidens and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Lutsenko is a “lawyer” who has no legal training. He was appointed by Poroshenko, a close political ally.
To appoint Lutsenko, Poroshenko had to force a law through Ukraine’s Parliament so someone without legal qualifications could fill the post.
Lutsenko has served jail time for embezzlement and abuse of office. His supporters claimed the charges were politically motivated. You hear that a lot here.
“Lutsenko is a crook,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based organization that has led Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. “He basically used the general prosecutor’s office that he headed as a kind of public relations office for himself.”
Lutsenko did not return multiple requests for comment.
A Lutsenko representative told USA TODAY he traveled to London in late September for a month.
“It has nothing to do with what’s happening right now,” his assistant said. “It was planned a long time ago. He went to take some English lessons.”
“Ukraine is an extremely good place to be if you’re into making money illegally,” said Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.
The news outlet published some of the first investigations into Paul Manafort 4, Trump’s former campaign manager. Manafort is now imprisoned in the U.S. on convictions related to concealing millions of dollars he made in Ukraine.
His client: former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-friendly president who was ousted from office in 2014 and now lives in exile in Russia. Ukraine convicted him of treason in January.
Yanukovych abused his office in other ways. Today, his sumptuous estate outside Kyiv, called Mezhyhirya Residence, has been preserved as a kind of museum of corruption.
The estate is a national park, but its ownership is murky. An attendant accepted admission fees only in cash and wouldn’t issue a receipt.
Visitors can marvel at its former zoo, a pier for luxury yachts, a helicopter pad, a tennis court, horse stables, a rare-breed dog kennel, a boxing ring, a fleet of vintage cars, a spa and a shooting range.
Evidence, Ukrainians say, that Yanukovych ran Ukraine like a mafia boss.
The main house is decorated with paintings of his favorite ballerinas and elaborate mosaics of historical and religious scenes. Yanukovych built a private church at Mezhyhirya.
“Here, you can stand and look over your empire like a real czar,” a visitor remarked last week as he surveyed the view of the Dnieper River from the balcony of one of the master bedrooms. The entire estate is furnished in a manner that calls to mind the decadent court of France’s King Louis XIV. Even the planters are encased in expensive snakeskin.
“I supported the ostriches. What’s wrong with that?” Yanukovych said about his petting zoo in an interview with the BBC in 2015, a year after he fled to Russia.
In the interview, Yanukovych seemed incredulous that someone would question whether it was appropriate to spend $100,000 on chandeliers in a country where in 2018, the average monthly salary was about $350.
That’s partly where Hunter Biden comes in, according to Kaleniuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center – not as an example of American corruption, but of Ukrainian reputation management.
Hunter Biden joined the board in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s ouster, when some Ukrainian companies tried to distance themselves from pro-Moscow authorities. They invited Westerners and other high-profile figures to sit on their boards.
A former president of Poland joined Burisma’s board at the same time as Hunter Biden in 2014, according to the company. In 2017, a former CIA official under President George W. Bush joined, too.
“Ukraine is full of (people) who acquire wealth illegally through their connections to politics,” Kaleniuk said. “Then they try to whitewash this wealth and their reputations with the help of an army of Western lawyers and public relations types.”
Burisma is Ukraine’s largest private natural-gas company. It’s owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, a former energy minister in Yanukovych’s government who has been at the center of multiple corruption cases in Ukraine.
“I’m not sure that (Hunter) Biden understood the environment he was getting into” when he agreed to serve on Burisma’s board, said Musaieva, the Ukrayinska Pravda editor.
USA TODAY spoke with Musaieva in the publication’s tightly secured office in Kyiv. During the interview, a small dog named Justas roamed the hallways. His name, which sounds like “justice,” seems like a nod to the dangers journalists in Ukraine face when they expose corruption.
Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who founded Ukrayinska Pravda, was abducted and murdered in 2000. Ukrainian prosecutors blamed his killing on the country’s then-interior minister. Gongadze had exposed political corruption and was an outspoken government critic.
Pavel Sheremet, another journalist who covered political figures for the online publication, was assassinated with a car bomb in Kyiv in 2016. His death remains a mystery. No one has been arrested.
Kateryna Handzyiuk, a prominent anti-corruption activist, died in November last year after she was injured in an acid attack. She exposed corruption in her hometown.
“I know I look bad now. But at least I’m being treated,” Handzyiuk said in a video posted from her hospital bed a few months before she succumbed to her injuries.
“I definitely know that I look much better than justice in Ukraine. Because nobody is treating it.”
Trump has more than one conspiracy theory about Ukraine. They have two things in common: Their origins are murky and they lack evidence.
Trump and Giuliani, who was known as “America’s mayor” for his leadership after 9/11, have pushed unsubstantiated allegations that Joe Biden sought to help his son by persuading the Ukrainian government to dismiss a general prosecutor named Viktor Shokin.
In 2014, Shokin began investigating Burisma for money laundering and tax irregularities.
The core allegation from Trump and Giuliani is that Joe Biden intervened to have Shokin fired in order to halt a criminal investigation into Burisma. To help his son’s business interests, essentially.
But no one who spoke with USA TODAY said those allegations have any merit, and no credible evidence has emerged to support them – though several experts in the region said it seems clear Hunter Biden got the job because of his last name. Joe Biden has said his son did nothing wrong. “He’s a fine man. He’s been through hell,” he said last week.
Trump has also suggested that a hacked 5 Democratic National Committee server and 33,000 emails from Hillary Clinton’s tenure running the U.S. State Department “could be” in Ukraine. That’s a debunked conspiracy theory, one piece of an overarching conspiracy theory in which Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” Trump said in a July phone call with Zelensky. “I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on.”
Crowdstrike, a digital security firm, is not a Ukrainian company. It’s headquartered in California; one of its founders was born in Russia.
Ukraine has long insisted it stayed neutral in the 2016 election. A 2017 Politico investigation did conclude that several Ukrainian government officials may have tried to help Clinton’s presidential campaign by publicly questioning Trump’s fitness for office, but ultimately it found “little evidence of … a top-down effort by Ukraine.”
In fact, much of what these Ukrainians discussed related to Manafort.
No one disputes that Joe Biden wanted Shokin, the prosecutor, fired.
So did many European countries and international organizations. Not only did they believe Shokin undermined attempts to end Ukraine’s culture of graft, but his own staff accused him of being corrupt.
“The pressure to remove Shokin did not just come from Biden,” said Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs in Poroshenko’s administration. “The pressure also came from the European Union and others. I know. I was in the meetings about this.”
Hunter Biden had just joined the board around the time Ukrainian prosecutors opened their probe into Burisma in 2014. He wasn’t the subject of the investigation, according to Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an independent government agency that has worked closely with the FBI.
Investigators suspected Zlochevsky, Burisma’s owner, of various financial crimes, including not paying taxes. The case was settled out of court in 2017.
But the allegations against Biden seemed to gain traction last week when Ruslan Ryaboshapka, Ukraine’s newly appointed general prosecutor, announced his office would review the Burisma probe as part of an audit of cases that had been closed, settled or dismissed by his predecessors.
Ryaboshapka told USA TODAY the decision to review the Burisma case was not connected to the period Hunter Biden spent on the firm’s board.
Trump’s information, he said, is “not coming from me.”
So who is it coming from?
One source is Shokin, the prosecutor whom Biden has boasted of forcing out.
Giuliani has appeared on cable TV news shows in the U.S. waving an affidavit in which Shokin claims he was fired in 2016 because he was leading a “wide-ranging corruption investigation” into Burisma.
Vitali Kasko, the deputy to Ryaboshapka, has a simple response: “Shokin is not a reliable figure.”
Kasko once worked for Shokin but resigned, citing the total “lawlessness” of his boss. It’s yet another thread that ties these officials together like the Ukrainian embroidery for sale near tourist attractions in Kyiv.
His characterization is supported by the whistleblower’s complaint, Ukraine’s anti-corruption investigators, international diplomats and even several Republican U.S. senators, who in 2016 urged Poroshenko to “press ahead with urgent” reforms and remove Shokin.
Poroshenko, who made millions running a chocolate and candy empire before getting into politics, told reporters in Kyiv last week that Joe Biden never applied any inappropriate pressure or asked him to close or open any cases when he was Ukraine’s leader.
Shokin did not to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Besides Shokin, Giuliani enlisted the help of Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, two Florida-based associates with family and business connections to Ukraine. They worked to dig up dirt on the Bidens and Clinton, according to their own admission.
Fruman and Parnas were arrested Wednesday on campaign-finance charges, accused of funneling “foreign money” for political candidates and campaigns. The charges don’t appear to relate to the work they were doing on behalf of Giuliani. The two men have also been subpoenaed by House Democrats investigating the president.
The two set up meetings for Giuliani with Ukrainian officials. Meanwhile, they promoted a plan to sell U.S. liquefied natural gas to Ukraine to replace Russian imports disrupted by the war, according to a detailed profile of Fruman and Parnas by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and BuzzFeed News.
The Associated Press reported Monday that Fruman and Parnas also attempted to help install new management at the top of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s huge state-owned gas company. The plan only hit a snag, according to the AP, when Poroshenko lost the election to Zelensky.
“It doesn’t matter who in Ukraine tells you what – a lawyer, a politician, media, someone in business. They are either lying to you or at the very least trying to confuse you,” said Oleksandr Techynskyi, a Ukrainian filmmaker whose 2014 documentary “All Things Ablaze” chronicles the violent revolution that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.
Techynskyi said Trump’s allegations resemble what Ukrainians have been dealing with for years, and what Americans may have to get used to: official misinformation.
Lutsenko, who succeeded Shokin as Ukraine’s general prosecutor, has turned out to be another unreliable narrator, according to several Ukrainian officials.
He’s another one of Giuliani’s sources.
In March, Lutsenko started making false claims in opinion articles written by John Solomon, a conservative commentator for The Hill, a U.S. political news website, according to the whistleblower’s complaint and anti-corruption investigators.
Lutsenko’s claims should sound familiar.
Among them: that Joe Biden pressured Poroshenko to fire Shokin in order to quash a criminal probe into Burisma. That Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador, obstructed Ukrainian authorities’ pursuit of corruption cases and even gave him a “do not prosecute” list.
No credible evidence has emerged to back up either allegation.
The Ukraine office of Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption monitoring group, said it valued Yovanovitch’s help fighting corruption.
But Trump unceremoniously pulled her out of Ukraine in May; House Democrats are currently investigating why. Giuliani has since acknowledged that he told Trump that Yovanovitch should be fired.
“The best way to think about this is that these prosecutors are politicians,” said Aubrey Belford, an editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Ukraine. “They are not necessarily like people working for the Justice Department in the U.S. – except for maybe William Barr.”
He was referring to Barr’s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation, which he initiated at Trump’s request.
The Justice Department did not return a request for comment.
Lutsenko was fired in August. Before he left his position, according to the whistleblower’s complaint, he implied his office was receptive to the idea of reopening the investigation into Burisma. It would have been in keeping with Trump’s wishes.
Since then, Lutsenko has said in interviews he knows of no evidence linking the Bidens to wrongdoing. Now he, too, is under investigation, for protecting illegal casinos in Ukraine. He denies it.
It’s easy to see why some Ukrainians have become numb to the allegations and counter-allegations that follow every changeover in power.
The latest came Wednesday, when Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach announced he has evidence that Burisma paid Joe Biden himself for lobbying. Derkach claimed his source for this information was a journalist; he didn’t name him. The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, called Derkach “dubious.”
Hours later, Giuliani appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and parroted Derkach’s claim.
Like Trump, Ukraine’s President Zelensky has spent time in the world of entertainment – and like his American counterpart, he has parlayed this into a political career.
Zelensky was an actor before he assumed Ukraine’s highest office. He starred in a hit TV sitcom about an idealistic teacher who is accidentally propelled to the presidency after his students film him railing against corruption. In the show, called “Servant of the People,” the video goes viral and a political star is born.
The real-life version is not that different.
Zelensky ran on an anti-corruption platform and named his political party “Servant of the People.”
Like Trump, he arrived in office with no political experience.
And like Trump, Zelensky is not without controversy.
He has close ties to Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch accused of siphoning about $5 billion from a bank that Ukraine’s government nationalized in 2016. Kolomoisky is the owner of the TV network that aired “Servant of the People.”
Anastasiya Kozlovtseva, of Transparency International’s Ukraine office, said Zelensky’s decision to appoint Ryaboshapka as general prosecutor is an encouraging sign because he is an experienced and credible anti-corruption campaigner.
“But we’re waiting to see how Zelensky deals with his ties to Kolomoisky,” she said.
Trump’s scandal is not Zelensky’s biggest problem.
The country is fighting a war with Russia that has claimed 13,000 lives, displaced 1.5 million people and led to Ukraine ceding parts of its territory to the region’s superpower.
Ukraine relies on U.S. money and moral goodwill to keep Russia at bay. One of the potential threats of the impeachment inquiry is that Trump will harbor a grudge against Ukraine, with regional consequences.
“There’s a danger we could sign a weak peace deal with Russia that would bring us closer to Putin’s orbit,” said Haran, the political scientist. At the time of Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, many Ukrainians were hoping for closer ties with the European Union, with all the legal and economic benefits – and oversight – that would bring.
And then there is the matter of Zelensky delivering on his campaign promise to end Ukraine’s culture of corruption.
Many politicians have been elected on similar promises, only to be replaced by others who promise it, too. Meanwhile, activists and reformers are themselves regularly threatened and accused of wrongdoing.
“We wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,” Zelensky told Trump in their July call. “We brought in many new people. Not the typical politicians, because we want to have a new type. A new type of government. You are a great teacher for us in that regard.”