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Explainer: Is there any merit to Congresswoman Spartz' accusations against Zelensky's chief of staff?

by Oleg SukhovJuly 13, 2022 12:23 am
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Explainer: Is there any merit to Congresswoman Spartz' accusations against Zelensky's chief of staff?President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak attends a briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 1, 2022. (Getty Images)

Ukrainian-born U.S. Congresswoman Victoria Spartz has recently come out with sweeping accusations against President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak.

The accusations, published on July 8 and July 9, range from corruption and sabotage of reforms to allegedly serving Russian interests. 

Yermak hasn't commented on the accusations. Serhiy Nikiforov, a spokesman for Zelensky's administration, said that it was up to U.S. officials to "solve the issue" between themselves.

Spartz’ statements have prompted a scandal in Ukraine and the U.S., with some Ukrainian officials lashing out at the congresswoman. A Foreign Ministry spokesman has accused Spartz of "trying to gain political points" through baseless speculation.

Public opinion is divided between those who think Spartz is set to undermine Ukraine’s war effort and those who think her intention is to help Ukraine fight corruption.

The Kyiv Independent explains the accusations laid out by Spartz and provides a case-by-case analysis of whether there is evidence backing the congresswoman's claims.

Who is Victoria Spartz?

Spartz, who represents the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, is known as a staunch supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump. However, she has consistently voted for pro-Ukrainian bills despite Trump's reluctance to antagonize Russia.

Spartz moved to the U.S. in 2000 at the age of 22 and quickly rose to prominence, becoming the first Ukrainian-born member of the U.S. Congress in January 2021. Since the start of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, Spartz has been vocal in support of her first homeland, calling Vladimir Putin's war "a genocide of the Ukrainian people by a crazy man."

Months into Russia's full-scale invasion, on July 8, Spartz sent a congressional oversight inquiry about Yermak to U.S. President Joe Biden.

“I request your Administration to brief Congress on the performed due diligence and oversight procedures related to President Zelensky’s Chief of Staff, Andriy Yermak, at the scheduled classified congressional oversight briefing on July 12, 2022,” she wrote.

She said she wanted to “ensure that our assistance does not get into the hands of the wrong people, as Ukraine urgently needs increased levels and speed of security assistance from your Administration, which unfortunately has not been the case.”

Victoria Spartz, who represents the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, attends a news conference in Rayburn Building, Washington D.C., on March 1, 2022. (Getty Images)

Oleh Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, on July 9 accused Spartz of spreading “Russian propaganda narratives about alleged links between the Ukrainian leadership and Russia.” He urged Spartz to “stop undermining” U.S. weapons supplies to Ukraine.

U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat and a co-chair of the Ukraine Caucus, issued a statement in support of Zelensky and his officials, saying Spartz helped fuel the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

In response, Spartz said on July 11 that Yermak had launched a smear campaign against her and urged him to resign.

Spartz listed six specific accusations against Yermak: five about Russia and Ukrainian defense in the war, and one about anti-corruption efforts. The accusations go as far as to allege that Yermak has been acting in Russia's interests.

Spartz doesn't present the allegations as facts, but as existing accusations that she suggests that Yermak should address. 

Accusation 1: Leaking information to Belarus, Russia

Spartz said that Yermak is accused of “leaking information to Belarus and ultimately to Russia on Ukraine’s operation to capture the Wagner Group, which led to its failure.”

The accusation concerns a much-publicized case known as the "Wagner operation," an unsuccessful sting operation by Ukraine's military intelligence to capture 33 Kremlin-backed Wagner Group mercenaries in 2020.

The Bellingcat investigative project reported about the failed operation in 2021. According to their report, the operation failed after Yermak told intelligence officials to delay the mercenaries’ capture to prevent the disruption of a ceasefire deal with Russia. Soon, the Belarusian authorities detained the mercenaries, who were at the time in Minsk, and sent them back to Russia. It prompted suspicions that someone in the administration leaked the information to sabotage the operation. 

The presidential administration’s narrative about the Wagner operation has been inconsistent. First, they said Ukraine’s intelligence had never prepared such an operation. Later, Zelensky said he knew about the operation but didn't support it. The administration denied that Yermak interfered with the operation. 

Accusation 2: Mismanaging peace negotiations 

Another accusation voiced by Spartz is that Yermak allegedly "mismanaged failed peace negotiations with Russia before the war."

Yermak led negotiations with Russia in 2019-2021 when Zelensky was still trying to fulfill his election promise of achieving peace with Russia. However, the talks made no progress.

The accusation that Yermak mismanaged the negotiations has no grounds based on Russia’s actions before and during the invasion. Russia has demonstrated that it was not interested in any peace terms other than Ukraine’s surrender. 

Accusation 3: Misinforming Zelensky about threat of invasion

According to Spartz, Yermak also assured “Ukrainian leadership that no attack by Russia was going to happen this February, contrary to Western intelligence, to prevent Ukraine from properly preparing for the war.”

Despite multiple warnings from the U.S., Zelensky kept publicly denying that a large-scale Russian invasion was likely in the run-up to Feb. 24. However, it is not clear if it was Yermak who persuaded Zelensky to adopt this policy. It's also unclear whether Zelensky sincerely did not believe in the possibility of the invasion, or denied it publicly to prevent the economy from taking a hit.

Meanwhile, after Russia launched a full-scale invasion, Ukrainian top officials stated publicly that Ukraine had in fact been preparing for war since late 2021.

Among those preparations, Ukraine launched the Territorial Defense, a type of civilian militia which proved successful in helping to defend Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other major Ukrainian cities targeted by Russia.

Accusation 4: Sabotaging defense of Kherson 

One more allegation by Spartz is that Yermak is accused of sabotaging the defense of Kherson Oblast during the invasion and "giving it to the Russians to set up the Azov battalion tragedy," meaning the deadly siege of Mariupol. 

Russian troops occupied most of the southern Kherson Oblast within the first week, with little resistance. A top official of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in the region was charged with treason, and the head of the SBU branch in Kherson Oblast was fired and stripped of his military rank. 

It is unknown whether Yermak had anything to do with the alleged sabotage of the region’s defense. There are no reports suggesting that he did, or that he was directly involved in appointing or overseeing the local leadership. 

Accusation 5: Delaying purchase of military equipment

Spartz claimed that Yermak was alleged to be "delaying purchases of urgent military equipment through the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and demanding unreasonable or even illegal terms."

It is not clear what Spartz meant.

Ukraine doesn't disclose its military procurement, which has been a concern to anti-corruption activists and watchdogs. However, there haven't been public scandals concerning military procurement under Zelensky. And the Kyiv Independent has not found any public allegations of defense sector corruption that implicate Yermak.

Zelensky's critics have blamed the president and his government for failing to supply the military sufficiently to prepare it for an all-out war. Yermak wasn't named as part of these accusations.

Accusation 6: Sabotaging anti-corruption efforts

Another accusation brought up by Spartz deals with the President's Office botching the process of selecting the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, vacant since August 2020.

In this regard, Spartz mentions one other official: Oleh Tatarov, a deputy of Yermak. Ukrainians know the name well. 

In her July 9 statement, she said that Yermak was allegedly "purposely delaying through Deputy Oleh Tatarov the appointment of an independent anti-corruption prosecutor.'

Read More: Investigators destroy case files linked to pro-Kremlin politicians amid Russian invasion

And in her July 8 letter to Biden, Spartz wrote that “Yermak appointed Oleh Tatarov as his deputy for law enforcement to combat corruption who instead, as you well know, has been delaying the appointment of an independent anti-corruption prosecutor for over a year, rendering the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) dysfunctional.” 

This particular accusation appears to be stronger than others. Ukrainian anti-corruption watchdogs and media have published evidence that Tatarov was to blame for stalling the selection of the top anti-corruption prosecutor. Tatarov is responsible for law enforcement and anti-corruption efforts at the President’s Office.

The chief anti-corruption prosecutor oversees all cases pursued by the NABU.

The appointment of an independent prosecutor who is free from political influence has been one of the key requirements of Ukraine’s Western partners and donors. It is also a condition for Ukraine’s potential membership in the European Union.

In 2020, Tatarov handpicked pro-government members of the selection panel for choosing the anti-corruption prosecutor, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The selection was almost over in 2021, but pro-government panel members blocked the process when NABU detective Oleksandr Klymenko, who is deemed to be independent, got the highest score. They have repeatedly refused to appoint him as the chief anti-corruption prosecutor, despite Klymenko de facto winning the selection process.

Tatarov also has a personal reason to block his appointment: Klymenko was in charge of investigating a bribery case against Tatarov. Klymenko said in January that if he headed the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, he would do a better job with the Tatarov case, which has been stalled by Prosecutor General's Office, according to numerous reports.

Accusations against Oleh Tatarov 

Spartz also said that “Tatarov was under investigation by the NABU in 2020 before his appointment where his case was inappropriately transferred to a regular prosecutor and closed.”

For anti-graft watchdogs, Tatarov has become a symbol of impunity and corruption. He has denied the accusations of wrongdoing. 

He was charged by the NABU in 2020 with bribing a forensic expert.

Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, a former lawmaker from Zelensky's party, blocked the charges against Tatarov by suddenly replacing the prosecutors leading the case.

Read More: Watchdogs say Ukraine’s judicial reform on brink of catastrophe

Soon, a court ordered Venediktova to deprive the NABU of the case. One of Venediktova’s deputies used it as a pretext to give the case to the politically dependent Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), headed by Zelensky’s long-time friend Ivan Bakanov.

The NABU deems the transfer to be unlawful because the case falls directly into the NABU’s jurisdiction under Ukrainian law. 

In 2021, a court refused to extend the Tatarov investigation, and Venediktova’s prosecutors effectively killed it by missing the deadline for sending it to trial.

Spartz also mentioned that Tatarov “was also a top police official under former President (Viktor) Yanukovych prosecuting Euromaidan protestors.”

Zelensky broke the law by appointing Tatarov as deputy chief of staff in 2020 because he was a top police official under Yanukovych. The 2014 lustration law bans the appointment of top Yanukovych officials for 10 years.

Tatarov has been investigated for persecuting protesters during the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted Yanukovych. He also publicly lashed out at them while defending the police who beat them.

Other domestic allegations against Yermak

Back in 2020, Yermak faced corruption accusations himself.

In 2020, Geo Leros, who was then a lawmaker from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, published videos that allegedly showed Yermak’s brother Denys discussing the sale of government jobs.

The Yermak brothers did not deny the authenticity of the videos, but Denys Yermak claimed they were taken out of context. Andriy Yermak also dismissed the accusations.

Serhii Shumsky and Dmytro Shtanko, Denys Yermak’s alleged partners in the graft schemes, told the Bihus.info investigative journalism project in 2020 that the chief of staff’s brother had received payments from candidates for state jobs. They claimed that the whole corruption scheme had been initiated by Andriy Yermak.

In videos leaked to Bihus.info, Yermak also discussed cracking down on the business of Danish logistics company MAERSK and Ukrainian logistics firm TIS.

Read More: Ukraine’s biggest judicial corruption case sent to trial

The NABU opened a corruption case based on the videos, but anti-corruption prosecutors transferred the case to the SBU, prompting Leros to accuse them of burying the case.

Later in 2020, a court ordered the NABU to open another graft case based on the Yermak videos, and the bureau complied. The case has seen no progress since then, and the investigation is now effectively dead because the deadline for sending it to trial expired in 2021.

Oleg Sukhov
Oleg Sukhov
Political reporter

Oleg Sukhov is a political reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is a former editor and reporter at the Moscow Times. He has a master's degree in history from the Moscow State University. He moved to Ukraine in 2014 due to the crackdown on independent media in Russia and covered war, corruption, reforms and law enforcement for the Kyiv Post.

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