Most Americans had never heard of Kurt Volker, the State Department’s former special representative for Ukraine negotiations, until Thursday, when he provided Congress with text messages proving that the Trump administration did tell Ukraine’s new president that he would only be invited to the White House if he agreed to publicly back an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden.
But the part-time diplomat and Washington lobbyist was already famous in Russia, where he was described on state-run television this week as “an evil demon.” Volker, viewers of the Kremlin-controlled channel were informed, was a deep-state actor who had prolonged the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists by pushing a distracted Donald Trump to arm Ukraine’s military with Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The Russian state broadcaster’s reports from Washington — which are made available with English subtitles on YouTube — offer Americans a rare opportunity to see the world as the government of President Vladimir Putin wants it to be seen and understood. It is a worldview that in many ways echoes the conspiratorial, paranoid musings of far-right American pundits featured on Fox News.
Pundits on the Russian channel devoted a full hour on Monday to discussing a report from Politico, which noted that “at the same time Volker was pushing Trump to arm Ukraine, he also held positions with a major lobbying firm, BGR Group, and a think tank, the McCain Institute, that each had financial ties to Raytheon Co., which manufactures the Javelin system and earned millions from Trump’s decision.”
The former State Department envoy’s glaring conflict of interest on arms sales led the Russian commentators to speculate wildly that Volker might have single-handedly frustrated Trump’s desire to facilitate an end to the war in Ukraine, which would pave the way for the lifting of economic sanctions on Russia. While Volker did strongly support Ukraine in its standoff with Russia, the idea that he was undermining Trump appears to be baseless.
In fact, the former envoy’s text messages reveal that he and other American diplomats were not defying Trump but frantically scrambling to meet his demand that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymr Zelensky, aid in a White House smear campaign against Biden, by opening a corruption investigation of a Ukrainian gas company once advised by his son Hunter.
The focus on potential wrongdoing by Volker, rather than documented wrongdoing by Trump, is just one example of a pro-Trump editorial line adopted by the Russian state broadcaster in its coverage of the scandal engulfing the White House.
On Sunday, Russia’s most influential anchor, the Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, argued that the real scandal in Washington was not that Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to help him smear Biden, but that the unfounded allegation against the former vice president was not being taken seriously enough.
To understand Russia’s interest in fostering chaos in Ukraine, and portraying its elected government as hopelessly corrupt to the majority of Russians who get their news from state-controlled television channels, it is important to know that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was not just outraged but threatened by the popular uprising in Kyiv in 2014 that deposed Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Russians and Ukrainians have a deeply intertwined history and the mass protests in Ukraine came just two years after protesters had taken to the streets in Moscow to denounce Putin as a thief. Discontent with corruption was at the heart of the protests in both countries, and Putin’s main rival is the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.
Putin blamed the Obama administration, and particularly then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for at least encouraging, if not secretly organizing, the protests he saw as an effort to remove him from power.
After the successful uprising in Ukraine, Putin worked to undermine the new, pro-Western government there by seizing Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting a bloody uprising by Russian separatists in the east of the country, leading the Obama administration to impose sanctions on Russia. Since 2014, Russians who get their news from state-controlled television channels have been treated to nightly reminders of the chaos that could await them should they ever follow Ukraine’s example and depose their own corrupt president.
The Russian government operation to undermine Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 was almost certainly motivated by the expectation that a President Trump would be far more willing to lift those sanctions and press Ukraine to settle the conflict with Russia without recovering its lost territory. The Kremlin-controlled broadcaster’s current coverage of the Ukraine scandal, which seeks to undermine Biden, Obama’s point man in Ukraine, seems to suggest Russia wants to play a similar role in defeating the Democratic nominee in 2020.
Kiselyov then introduced a report that laid out in detail the debunked conspiracy theory pushed by Trump: that Biden had abused his power as the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine to shut down an investigation of the Ukrainian gas company that employed his son.
The report described Biden’s intervention in Ukraine — successfully pushing for the country’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to be fired in 2016 for failing to prosecute corrupt former officials — as “a crime story” that demanded further investigation. Left unsaid was the fact that Biden had in fact made it more likely that the gas company, Burisma, would be probed for corruption, since Shokin had blocked an investigation of its owner, a former minister.
Shokin, the former prosecutor, recently filed an affidavit blaming Biden for his ouster. His testimony, however, has been called into question; it was made on behalf of a Ukrainian billionaire who is fighting extradition to the United States on bribery charges and is now represented by Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, two Washington, D.C., lawyers who were reportedly working with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to revive the accusations against Biden.
In an interview with a Ukrainian broadcaster included in the Russia report, Shokin claimed that he had investigated the gas company and was fired just after he presented his findings to then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. Anti-corruption activists and reformers in Ukraine, including Shokin’s former deputy, Vitaly Kasko, have scoffed at Shokin’s claim that he was persecuted for pursuing corruption, rather than forced out for failing to do so. Just months before Shokin’s ouster, Pyatt complained at a public forum that the chief prosecutor’s office had “undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” like, for example, a probe of Burisma’s owner, the former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky.
Among the archival video images of Hunter Biden used in the report was a sequence of him embracing his father, taken from a CNN report with the on-screen headline, “Navy Kicks Out Biden’s Son Over Cocaine Test.” That headline was translated into Russian in a voiceover, according to Mikhail Alexseev, a professor at San Diego State University.
The piece also distorted comments about corruption made by Joe Biden in a speech to Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, in late 2015, to bolster the Kremlin line that the Ukrainian government that replaced the pro-Russian administration the year before was hopelessly corrupt.
Biden did not, as the Russian report claimed, tell Ukrainians that “there isn’t another country in the world where the cancerous tumor of corruption thrives so strongly” as in theirs. What Biden actually said was, “I can tell you, you cannot name me a single democracy in the world where the cancer of corruption is prevalent. You cannot name me one. They are thoroughly inconsistent. And it’s not enough to set up a new anti-corruption bureau and establish a special prosecutor fighting corruption. The Office of the General Prosecutor desperately needs reform.”
Biden also did not tell the Ukrainian lawmakers, as the Russian report claims, “Ukraine has a terminal illness but the United States will definitely cure it.” In comments that Russian television clearly wanted to avoid, he said: “The whole world is watching you. That’s a fact. They’re watching you because their hopes for your success as you fight both the unrelenting aggression of the Kremlin and the cancer of corruption will impact on them. In both these struggles you have the unwavering support of the United States of America and the American people.”
Kiselyov’s weekly news review show, “Vesti Nedeli,” also aired criticism of Biden from Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician who is so closely aligned with the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin is his daughter’s godfather. In an excerpt from a new documentary on Ukraine made by Oliver Stone, Medvedchuk claimed that Biden was Washington’s “kurator” in Ukraine — a Russian term used to describe officials who secretly control government agencies behind the scenes — and treated the country like a colony.
The report also featured video of Giuliani claiming on Fox News that Democrats were guilty of covering up mass corruption during the Obama administration.
A subsequent report on Russia’s main state-owned channel cast Giuliani as a truth-seeking hero, defying journalists on what the Russian reporter called “Democrat-leaning CNN.”
“Against the backdrop of liberal media silence,” Denis Davydov of Russia’s Channel One reported from Washington, “Giuliani is one of the few people demanding, in the air, that the former vice president and his son be investigated for corruption.”
One point of overlap between Russia’s Channel One and Fox News in Ukraine is their shared view of Paul Manafort, who was forced to resign from Trump’s 2016 campaign over revelations of $12.7 million in off-the-books payments from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party, as a man more sinned against than sinning. Trump’s lawyer and point man for the effort to pressure Ukraine’s new president, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN that he came across the conspiracy theory about Biden while looking for evidence to support another unfounded claim — that the records of secret payments to Manafort made public by a Ukrainian anti-corruption agency in 2016 might have been forged. There is, however, no such evidence and other people named in the party’s records have confirmed that the so-called “black ledger” documents are genuine.
In an earlier report this week, Russian television also reveled in a moment near the end of the public conversation between Trump and Zelensky last week at the United Nations that went largely unremarked on American television. That was the pained look on the Ukrainian president’s face when Trump seemed to back Russia’s plan to end the war in Ukraine by granting autonomy to the eastern provinces seized by Russian-backed separatists.
“I really believe that President Putin would like to do something,” Trump told Zelensky. “I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement and I know you’re trying to do that.”
This week, after returning from the United States less sure of support from Washington, the Ukrainian president seemed to concede to Russia’s demands by agreeing to enter peace talks without insisting on the return of the territories seized by the Russian-backed separatists.
Updated: Saturday, Oct. 5, 11:04 a.m. EDT
This article was revised to add details about why the Russian government is so invested in fostering chaos in Ukraine, and portraying its elected government as hopelessly corrupt to the majority of Russians who get their news from state-controlled television channels.