Ukraine's president appears to be playing to both sides of the American political divide, hedging his bets to ensure U.S. financial and military aid keeps flowing no matter who wins next year's election.
First, a point for U.S. President Donald Trump's team: Ukraine's top prosecutor agreed to revisit past investigations into a gas company executive who recruited Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son to his board.
And now, a nod to the anti-Trump camp: Ukraine has appointed a man who exposed under-the-table payments to Trump's onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort as a senior prosecutor.
So which team is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on? He's not taking that bait — not at a time when he needs American support to fend off pro-Russia separatists but also prove himself an independent leader to his own people. Instead, he insists that he's maintaining separation of powers and not interfering in prosecutors' decisions.
Analysts say the Ukrainian leadership is trying to keep its options open, by showing that Zelenskiy is not Trump's yes-man, and not his enemy either. Zelenskiy is central to the impeachment inquiry against Trump, who pressed the Ukrainian president in a July phone call to investigate Democratic political rivals.
The appointment of Viktor Trepak as deputy national prosecutor Tuesday was Ukraine's latest chess move.
Anti-corruption campaigners — whose cause Zelenskiy championed when seeking the presidency — welcomed the news.
Trepak has never worked as prosecutor before, but he's got the chops for the job. As first deputy chief of the SBU, a security agency that's like Ukraine's CIA and FBI combined, he pursued two senior prosecutors accused of corruption in what's dubbed the "diamond prosecutors' case" because of jewels found in one of the prosecutor's homes.
But the case went nowhere, and a frustrated Trepak alleged political interference.
A month later, he handed to anti-corruption investigators a now-infamous "black ledger" of secret payments from former President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions to legions of prominent people — including Manafort.
The payments, which came years before Manafort became involved in Trump's campaign, played a role in a U.S. case against Manafort, who's now serving seven years in prison on charges related to his years as a political consultant in Ukraine. In a statement to The Associated Press in 2017, Manafort did not deny that his firm received the Ukrainian money but said "any wire transactions received by my company are legitimate payments for political consulting."
Trepak hasn't spoken publicly about Manafort himself but has vigorously defended his decision to hand over the "black ledger" to investigators as part of his career-long campaign against bribery and other dirty political dealings.
It's exactly that hard-charging reputation that makes Trepak's appointment useful to Zelenskiy, who has taken flak from domestic opponents for being obsequious in the call with Trump and wants to signal to his voters and international partners that he's setting corruption-plagued Ukraine on a clean, independent path.
Daria Kaleniuk of anti-corruption group Antac described Trepak as "probably the only well-known officer with background from the security service of Ukraine who is regarded as a reformer."
Trepak's appointment "is a clear signal to the Americans, and especially to Trump, of (Zelenskiy's) wish to distance himself and maintain independence," said Vadym Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies. "Zelenskiy is softly showing that he doesn't want to be Trump's hand puppet or whipping boy and is capable of leading an independent game and policy."
Zelenskiy himself says he can't be pressured to do Trump's bidding. But his government isn't entirely pushing Trump away, either.
In the July call with Zelenskiy, Trump sought help on two fronts. The first involves Trump's claims that Ukraine allied with the Democrats in a plot to derail his 2016 presidential campaign. No evidence of such a plot has emerged, but Trump urged Zelenskiy to "get to the bottom of it" as he tries to prove the allegation ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections.
At the same time, Trump is also pushing Ukraine to investigate any potential wrongdoing by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump has said that the United States has an "absolute right" to ask foreign leaders to investigate corruption cases, though no one has produced evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens.
On this case, Ukraine seems to have thrown Trump a bone. Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka announced Friday that his office is reviewing investigations related to the owner of gas company Burisma. That's the company that hired Hunter Biden in 2014, when his father was in charge of the Obama administration's diplomatic dealings with Ukraine.
The prosecutor insisted he did not feel any pressure over the Burisma case and said he wasn't aware of any wrongdoing by either Biden. He said his office was "auditing" relevant cases that were closed, dismissed or put on hold by his predecessors, including several related to Burisma's founder.
Political analysts in Kyiv saw the announcement not as a new attempt to dig up dirt on the Bidens but rather an effort to stay in the good graces of the White House.
Zelenskiy may explain his strategy himself Thursday: He's holding a "media marathon," amid growing questions about where his allegiances lie.
Associated Press journalist Inna Varenytsia in Kyiv contributed.
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