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The real Ukraine controversy: an activist U.S. embassy and its adherence to the Geneva Convention

The
first time I ever heard the name of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie
Yovanovitch was in early March of this year. It did not come from a Ukrainian
or an ally of President Trump. It came from a career diplomat I was
interviewing on background on a different story.

The
diplomat, as I recall, suggested that Yovanovitch had just caused a commotion
in Ukraine a few weeks before that country’s presidential election by calling
for the firing of one of the prosecutors aligned with the incumbent president.

The
diplomat related that a more senior State official, David Hale, was about  to travel to Ukraine and was prepping to be
confronted about Yovanovitch’s comments. I remember the diplomat joking something
to the effect of, “we always say that the Geneva Convention is optional for our
Kiev staff.”

The Geneva
Convention is the UN-backed pact enacted during the Cold War that governs the
conduct of foreign diplomats in host countries and protects them against retribution.
But it strictly mandates that foreign diplomats “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that
State” that hosts them. You can read the convention’s
rules here

I
dutifully checked out my source’s story. And sure as day, Yovanovitch did give
a speech
on March 5, 2019 calling for Ukraine’s special anticorruption
prosecutor to be removed. You can read that here.

And
the Ukraine media was abuzz that she had done so. And yes, Under Secretary of
State Hale, got peppered
with questions
upon arriving in Kiev, specifically about whether Yovanovitch’s
comments violated the international rule that foreign diplomats avoid becoming
involved in the internal affairs and elections of their host country.

Hale
dutifully defended Yovanovitch with these careful words. “Well, Ambassador Yovanovitch
represents the President of the United States here in Ukraine, and America
stands behind her statements.  And I don’t see any value in my own
elaboration on what they may or may not have meant. They meant what she said.”
You can read his comments here.

Up to
that point, I had focused months of reporting on Ukraine on the U.S. government’s
relationship with a Ukraine nonprofit called the AntiCorruption Action Centre,
which was jointly funded by liberal megadonor George Soros’ charity and the
State Department. I even sent a list of questions to that nonprofit all the way
back in October 2018. It never answered.

Given
that Soros spent millions trying to elect Hillary Clinton and defeat Donald
Trump in 2016, I thought it was a legitimate public policy question to ask
whether a State Department that is supposed to be politically neutral should be
in joint business with a partisan figure’s nonprofit entity.

State
officials confirmed that Soros’ foundation and the U.S. embassy jointly funded the
AntiCorruption Action Centre, and that Soros’ vocal role in Ukraine as an
anticorruption voice afforded him unique access to the State Department,
including in 2016 to the top official on Ukraine policy, Assistant Secretary of
State Victoria Nuland. (That access was confirmed
in documents later released under FOIA
to Citizens United.)

Soros’
representatives separately confirmed to me that the Anti-Corruption Action Centre
was the leading tip of the spear for a strategy Team Soros devised in 2014 to
fight corruption in Ukraine and that might open the door for his possible
business investment of $1 billion. You can read the Ukraine strategy
document here
and Soros’ plan to invest $1 billion in Ukraine here.

After being tipped to the current Yovanovitch furor in Ukraine, I was alerted to an earlier controversy involving the same U.S. ambassador.  It turns out a senior member of Congress had in spring 2018 wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleging the ambassador had made anti-Trump comments and suggesting she be recalled. I confirmed the incident with House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions and got a copy of his letter, which you can read here. Yovanovitch denies any such disloyalty to Trump.

Nonetheless, I had a career diplomat and a Republican lawmaker raising similar concerns. So I turned back to the sources I had developed starting in 2018 on Ukraine and began to dig further.

I
learned that Ukrainian officials, particularly the country’s prosecutors,
viewed Yovanovitch as the embodiment of an activist U.S. embassy in Kiev that ruffled
feathers by meddling in internal law enforcement cases inside the country.

My
sources told me specifically that the U.S. embassy had pressured the Ukraine
prosecutors in 2016 to drop or avoid pursuing several cases, including one
involving the Soros-backed AntiCorruption Action Centre and two cases involving
Ukraine officials who criticized Donald Trump and his campaign manager Paul
Manafort.

To back up their story, my sources provided me a letter then-embassy official George Kent wrote proving it happened. State officials authenticated the letter. And Kent recently acknowledged in this testimony he signed that letter. You can read the letter here.

With the help of a Ukrainian American intermediary and the Ukraine general prosecutor’s press office, I then secured an interview in mid-March 2016 with Ukraine’s then top prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko. In the interview that was videotaped and released for the whole world to see, Lutsenko alleged that in his first meeting in 2016 with Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador conveyed the names of several Ukrainians she did not want to see investigated and prosecuted. He called it, colloquially, a “do not prosecute list.”

The
State Department denied such as list, calling it a fantasy, and I quoted that
fair comment in my original stories. But before I published, I held the
Lutsenko interview for a few days to do more reporting. State arranged for me
to talk to a senior official about the Lutsenko-embassy relationship.

I provided the names that Lutsenko claimed had been cited by the embassy. That senior official said he couldn’t speak to what transpired in the specific meeting between Yovanovitch and Lutsenko. But that official then provided me this surprising confirmation: “I can confirm to you that at least some of those names are names that U.S. embassy Kiev raised with the General Prosecutor because we were concerned about retribution and unfair treatment of Ukrainians viewed as favorable to the United States.”

In
other words, State was confirming its own embassy had engaged in pressure on
Ukrainian prosecutors to drop certain law enforcement cases, just as Lutsenko
and other Ukrainian officials had alleged.

When
I asked that State official whether this was kosher with the Geneva Convention’s
prohibition on internal interference, he answered: “Kiev in recent years has
been a bit more activist and autonomous than other embassies.”

More
recently, George Kent, the embassy’s charge d’affaires in 2016 and now a deputy
assistant secretary of state, confirmed
in impeachment testimony
that he personally signed the April 2016 letter
demanding Ukraine drop the case against the Anti-Corruption Action Centre.

He
also testified he was aware of pressure the U.S. embassy also applied on
Ukraine prosecutors to drop investigations against a journalist named Vitali
Shabunin, a parliamentary member named Sergey Leschenko and a senior law enforcement
official named Artem Sytnyk.

Shabunin
helped for the AntiCorruption Action Centre that Soros funded, and Leschenko
and Sytnyk were criticized by a
Ukrainian court
for interfering in the 2016 US election by improperly releasing
or publicizing secret evidence in an ongoing case against Trump campaign
chairman Paul Manafort.

It’s worth
letting Kent’s
testimony speak
for itself. “As a matter of conversation that
U.S officials had with Ukrainian officials in sharing our concern about the
direction of governance and the approach, harassment of civil society
activists, including Mr. Shabunin, was one of the issues we raised,” Kent
testified.

As for Sytnyk, the head of the
NABU anticorruption police, Kent addded: “We warned both Lutsenko and others
that efforts to destroy NABU as an organization, including opening up
investigations of Sytnyk, threatened to unravel a key component of our
anti-corruption cooperation.”

As the story of the U.S. embassy’s pressure spread, a new controversy erupted. A Ukrainian news outlet claimed Lutsenko recanted his claim about the “do-not-prosecute” list. I called Lutsenko and he denied recanting or even changing his story. He gave me this very detailed response standing by his statements.

But American officials and news media eager to discredit my reporting piled on, many quoting the Ukrainian outlet without ever contacting Lutsenko to see if it was true. One of the American outlets that did contact Lutsenko, the New York Times, belatedly disclosed today that Lutsenko told it, like he told me, that he stood by his allegation that the ambassador had provided him names of people and groups she did not want to be targeted by prosecutors. You can read that here.

It is neither a conspiracy theory
nor a debunked or retracted story. U.S. embassy officials DID apply pressure to
try to stop Ukrainian prosecutors from pursuing certain cases.

The U.S. diplomats saw no problem
in their actions, believing that it served the American interest in combating
Ukrainian corruption. The Ukrainians viewed it far differently as an improper
intervention in the internal affairs of their country that was forbidden by the
Geneva Convention.

That controversy is neither
contrived, nor trivial, and it predated any reporting that I conducted. And it
remains an issue that will need to be resolved if the Ukraine and U.S. are to
have a more fruitful alliance moving forward.

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