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With FBI Searches Targeting Trump Lawyer Giuliani, Ukraine Slips Back Into U.S. Politics


When FBI agents knocked on the door of Rudy Giuliani’s Manhattan apartment just after dawn on April 28, they brought with them search warrants to seize computers and devices like cell phones from the former U.S. attorney and personal lawyer to former President Donald Trump.

Among the things U.S. investigators were looking for, according to multiple news reports: Giuliani’s communications with powerful Ukrainian tycoons and government officials.

And so again, 21 months after the Ukrainian government was sucked into the vortex of U.S. politics and the first bruising impeachment trial of Trump, Kyiv is again being pulled back in.

Giuliani has not been charged.

But if his legal problems, which he and his attorney have dismissed, were to result in an indictment, many of his interactions with current and former Ukrainian officials would likely be made public, subjecting Ukraine’s own political world -- and potentially some of its more sordid, corrupt corners -- to new scrutiny.

“There are a lot of people here who could give testimony against Giuliani,” said Anatoliy Oktysyuk, a political analyst at Democracy House, a Kyiv think tank. “A lot of people dealt with him over the years.”

In his radio show on April 29, Giuliani was defiant, lashing out at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, which the former prosecutor -- and later New York City mayor -- used to head decades ago.

“What have they done?” he said. “Nothing, except come after me at 6 o’clock in the morning with a piece of nonsense.”

A Campaign Against An Ambassador

Giuliani’s work in Ukraine goes back at least to 2017, when he consulted for the legendary mayor of Kharkiv, Gennadiy Kernes, who died recently after contracting COVID-19. A Ukrainian-Russian real estate developer named Pavel Fuks was instrumental in setting up the deal.

But it was Giuliani’s work in 2019 that was crucial to the events that were central to Trump’s first impeachment and reverberated in the campaign for the 2020 presidential election that the incumbent lost to Joe Biden.

In April 2019, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was abruptly recalled from Kyiv by the State Department. In later testimony during the impeachment trial and other congressional hearings, it emerged that Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, played a key behind-the-scenes role in pushing for Yovanovitch’s ouster.

That effort involved two Soviet-born businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were charged by U.S. authorities in October 2019 with violations of U.S. campaign finance laws.

Those allegations include charges that Parnas and Fruman donated to and promised to raise more money to benefit a congressman who was involved in the effort to oust Yovanovitch.

She had been the focus of intense criticism from Trump allies, including Giuliani, who complained that she was hindering efforts to reopen an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had been under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors.

In an undated photo, Giuliani (left) is pictured with Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach in Kyiv
In an undated photo, Giuliani (left) is pictured with Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach in Kyiv

Among Yovanovitch’s actions that allies of Trump had criticized: her refusal to grant a U.S. visa to a Ukrainian chief prosecutor named Viktor Shokin whom Biden, when he was vice president, and other European officials saw as corrupt and ineffectual. Shokin was fired in 2016.

Biden’s son Hunter was on Burisma's board of directors at the same time as his father was vice president. He reportedly received $50,000 a month to be a consultant and a member on the board before he left in May 2019.

But Yovanovitch was also the object of ire from other Ukrainian officials and businessman. According to The New York Times and other U.S. news organizations, U.S. prosecutors have explored whether Giuliani’s efforts also came on behalf of Ukrainian officials.

That would potentially be a violation of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Neither Parnas nor his lawyer Joseph Bondy responded to text messages seeking comment. Yovanovitch, who left the State Department entirely, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Burisma Again

According to files released by the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Parnas and Fruman were in regular contact with Giuliani and Ukrainian prosecutors in the first half of 2019, about Yovanovitch as well the Burisma case.

In May, one month after Yovanovitch was recalled, Giuliani planned to travel to Kyiv, but then called off the trip after it became public.

The event that sparked Trump’s first impeachment came two months later: a July 25, 2019, phone call with Zelenskiy, in which Trump appeared to condition future U.S. aid to Ukraine on Zelenskiy ordering a new investigation into the Bidens. A whistleblower revealed that millions of dollars in congressionally authorized aid was being held up by the Trump White House; the outcry that resulted led to the White House releasing the aid.

In December 2019, the Democrat-led House of Representatives impeached Trump; the Republican-led Senate later acquitted him.

That same month, Giuliani traveled to Ukraine, along with a film crew from the right-wing TV network One America News. During the trip, he met with Andriy Derkach, a member of Ukraine’s parliament who used to be affiliated with a pro-Russian bloc.

Derkach, whose father was a KGB officer in the Soviet era and then later became the head of Ukraine's intelligence agency in the late 1990s, was hit with financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2020, saying he "has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services."

Last month, the U.S. intelligence community released a report on election meddling that said Derkach's actions were likely directed by the Kremlin, possibly by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The report also singled out a documentary shown on One American News called The Ukraine Hoax hosted by a Republican operative.

Ukrainian Gas, U.S. Charges

In his December 2019 trip to Kyiv, Giuliani also reportedly met with Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian magnate who made billions of dollars in Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt natural gas industry and who was indicted by U.S. officials in 2013.

He has been fighting extradition from Austria, where he lives. As part of that legal effort, he had hired a Democratic-connected lawyer named Lanny Davis to assist in his defense. Davis registered as a foreign agent under U.S. law.

However, in 2019, Parnas and Fruman, at Giuliani’s behest, had persuaded Firtash to change lawyers, to a husband-and-wife legal team well known in Republican political circles: Victoria Toensing and Joseph DiGenova. They did not register under U.S. law.

In September 2019, Firtash made a series of wire transfers totaling around $1 million from a Russian bank. The recipient, according to documents filed by U.S. prosecutors, was Lev Parnas’s wife.

That same month, an affidavit by Shokin, made at Firtash’s behest, circulated in some U.S. news media. In it, Shokin claimed that Biden had wanted him fired as a way to protect his son -- but stated he did not have evidence of this, saying only that he “assumed” that Burisma had been supported by Biden.

The following month, Parnas and Fruman were arrested as they were boarding a Vienna-bound flight at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C.

Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas (left) with Giuliani in an undated photo
Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas (left) with Giuliani in an undated photo

Parnas later said publicly that Firtash's help in the effort to damage Biden came in exchange for their efforts to prevent his extradition and make his U.S. legal troubles disappear.

"For us to be able to receive information from Firtash, we had to promise Firtash something," Parnas said in a January 2020 interview on NBC TV. "So, for Firtash, it was basically telling him that we knew his case was worthless here and that he's being prosecuted for no reason. And that basically, it could get taken care of."

On the same day that Giuliani’s home and offices were searched, FBI agents also searched the Washington-area home of Toensing, seizing her cell phone.

“Ms. Toensing was informed that she is not a target of the investigation,” a spokesperson said in a statement released to the media after the searches. “She has always conducted herself and her law practice according to the highest legal and ethical standards.”

Firtash later switched lawyers back to Lanny Davis, who in April registered again as a foreign agent under U.S. law.

Davis, and his co-counsel Dan Webb, issued a rare statement to the press on April 30 on behalf of Firtash, saying that he never authorized anyone to be involved any investigation in Ukraine into the Bidens.

Mr. Firtash “has said that he was ‘sucked into’ this internal U.S. fight without his will and desire. He did not provide any ‘dirt-digging efforts,’” the statement said. “Doing so might have helped Mr. Giuliani, he said, but it would not have helped him with his legal problems. Mr. Firtash reiterates that did not have any information, did not collect any information, and did not finance anyone who would collect that information.”

Will Criminal Probes Be On Blinken’s Agenda?

In May 2020, as the U.S. presidential campaign began to take shape, Derkach held an extraordinary news conference in Kyiv, where he released excerpts of phone calls between Biden and Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.

The edited recordings, however, did little to bolster Derkach’s arguments. Zelenskiy later said that prosecutors opened a criminal inquiry into the origin of the leaked tapes, and Poroshenko himself said they had been fabricated.

The U.S. intelligence community report from March said Derkach’s release of the recordings was “part of his plan to secure the reelection of former President Trump.”

A report by the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security Committee later concluded that Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma was problematic, and noted it had alarmed some officials at the U.S. State Department. But the committee provided no evidence that Biden had improperly handled U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

Giuliani’s legal problems pose a new risks for Zelenskiy, who has studiously tried to avoid getting sucked into the pitched U.S. political battles.

Volodymyr Fesenko, an independent political analyst, told RFE/RL that Zelenskiy has benefited from a warmer approach to Ukraine under the Biden administration. The White House gave strong backing to Zelenskiy in the recent fears over a massive building up of Russian troops on the eastern Ukrainian border.

But Biden was slow to call Zelenskiy after taking office in January -- something Fesenko and others have ascribed to an apparent desire in the White House for Zelenskiy to push for criminal investigations into some of the Ukrainian officials.

Zelenskiy has already started pressuring some of Ukraine’s oligarchs, include his longtime patron Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who met with Parnas and Fruman in 2019 but concluded they were frauds.

The leaked phone calls that Derkach released was one major area ripe for investigation, Fesenko said, since it involved potentially illegal wiretaps or the distribution of classified information.

Oktysyuk, the analyst at Democracy House, predicted that the subject of Ukraine opening criminal investigations would come up when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Kyiv next week.

The Guiliani case “could end up being a positive for Zelenskiy and his government, giving him reason to open investigations against Derkach” or other tycoons, Oktysyuk said. “It’s likely to come up during Blinken’s visit. I have no doubt about this.”

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.