Who is behind new "Yermak case" and how it threatens Ukraine

13 July, 11:39 PM
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Victoria Spartz raised an important topic about the absence of an anti-corruption prosecutor in Ukraine, but her letter to Biden may harm Ukraine's weapons supplies (Photo:NV collage)

Victoria Spartz raised an important topic about the absence of an anti-corruption prosecutor in Ukraine, but her letter to Biden may harm Ukraine's weapons supplies (Photo:NV collage)

American congresswoman Victoria Spartz has appealed to Joe Biden with a demand to brief on the dealings of Andriy Yermak, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Chief-of-Staff.

Some of the claims against him are justified, but in general, her move resembles the beginning of the election campaign on the side of Donald Trump.

Andriy Yermak's activities as the head of the Office of the President never went unnoticed — he was regularly embroiled in scandals, becoming one of the main provokers in the administration, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy never particularly reacted to this pressure.

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With the beginning of the full-scale war, political opponents decided to leave Yermak in peace for a while. But it seems that the official was not destined to avoid controversy for too long. The disaster came from one of Ukraine's key allies in the war against Russia, and at a time when its help is extremely important for Kyiv.

Republican Victoria Spartz, who left Ukraine 22 years ago and is now a congresswoman from the American state of Indiana, made her plea public. In it, she called on Zelenskyy to seek a solution to the "lingering internal issue" in the form of Yermak.

The day before, Spartz addressed an open letter to US President Joe Biden with a proposal to provide Congress with information on Yermak in order to "confirm or deny various serious allegations" against the head of the President’s Office, referring to information about his "connections with Russia". Part of the letter remained classified.

Spartz laid out six major allegations against Yermak:

  • Leaking information to Belarus and ultimately to Russia on Ukraine’s operation to capture the “Wagner Group”, which led to its failure;
  • Mismanaging failed peace negotiations with Russia before the war;
  • Assuring 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;
  • Sabotaging Kherson and giving it to the Russians to set up the “Azov” battalion tragedy;
  • Delaying purchases of urgent military equipment through the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and demanding unreasonable or even illegal terms;
  •  Purposely delaying through Deputy Oleg Tatarov the appointment of an independent anti-corruption prosecutor.

Tatarov was at the center of Spartz’s attention. According to her, while dealing with the fight against corruption in the Office, he postponed the appointment of the head of the independent anti-corruption body for more than a year, due to which the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO) and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) ceased to function.

The congresswoman also noted that Yermak's deputy was under investigation by the NABU in 2020, but his case was "improperly" transferred to a regular prosecutor and closed. In addition, Tatarov was a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs during the time of Viktor Yanukovych.

Later in an interview with Ukrayinska Pravda, Spartz said that in the classified part of the letter she articulated "sensitive questions" for Biden regarding the Ukrainian establishment, which should be discussed confidentially so that Moscow does not use them in its interests.

And in the official press release, Spartz reported that she had spent a lot of time in Ukraine over the past three months, where she communicated with representatives of the public sector, fighters and civilians.

However, it is worth noting that in the aftermath of these visits in May, she did not voice any criticism with regard to the President’s Office.

A few hours after Spartz's statement, the representative of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Oleg Nikolenko, advised her to "leave attempts to earn additional political capital on baseless speculations around the topic of war."

And Sergii Nykyforov, Zelenskyy's press secretary, not wanting to pedal the scandal that spread from across the ocean, said: the issue lies at the level of relations between the American deputy and the US president, let them sort it out among themselves. And he stressed that if Spartz has proof for these accusations, she should make them public.

The claims of the Republican congresswoman did not go down well in Washington either. Marcy Kaptur, leader of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, called Spartz's accusations "wild narratives."

She also stressed that the scale of US cooperation with President Zelenskyy's office "gives no reason to doubt the loyalty of any official." Moreover, Kaptur accused Spartz of playing into Putin's hands.

However, the instigator of the Yermakgate has no intention of giving up. Spartz published a new press release on her website on July 11, in which she actually called on Yermak to resign.

Troublemaker

Spartz was born in 1978 in Chernihiv Oblast, studied at the Kyiv University of Economics, and moved to the US in 2000, where she received a master's degree in professional accounting from Indiana University. Then she worked in this state, became involved in politics and two years ago began to represent this agrarian region in Congress.

Spartz is a member of two committees — education and labor, as well as legal affairs. That is, the international agenda is not directly part of her responsibilities.

She sympathizes with Donald Trump: in the last presidential election, he drew 57% of the vote in this state against Joe Biden's 41%.

And this is an important detail: as Ostap Yarysh, a Ukrainian VOA news journalist who works in Washington, wrote on Facebook, Spartz is in clear opposition to the current occupant of the White House and belongs to the group of Republicans that resolutely supported Trump.

The latter personally endorsed the ethnic Ukrainian woman in the 2020 congressional elections.

John Herbst, head of the Eurasia Center at The Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Ukraine, said in an interview with NV that the United States maintains enormous political support for Ukraine in this war, and the American people support the Ukrainians no less.

"But at the same time, there is also the caution of Republican Party backers and their skepticism about such a large-scale support, because they do not grasp to what extent the United States is already involved in this conflict," he added.

However, Spartz did support the provision of aid to Ukraine through the adoption of the Lend-Lease Act. Biden even invited her to the Oval Office to sign the corresponding document. And he presented her with the pen with which he had signed it.

At the same time, Spartz — like a number of her Republican colleagues — did not support the provision of $40 billion to Ukraine, which are instrumental in filling the Lend-Lease with real funds. NV sources among diplomats reported that Spartz presented fairly weak arguments to her Ukrainian colleagues in defense of her position.

Internal and external policies

Spartz made her first attempt to capture the attention of the White House on July 6. At that time, she presented three points in which she criticized Biden and Zelenskyy, because they allegedly "played politics with people’s lives", and also demanded establishing proper oversight of critical infrastructure and the supply of weapons and aid to Ukraine.

At the time, both the American and Ukrainian media hardly reacted to the statement.

A few days later, Spartz's letter to Biden appeared.

But even then, the US press barely paid heed to her efforts as the congresswoman was broadcast by the Fox News channel, which openly backs Trump.

There, a former Ukrainian citizen compared her homeland to Afghanistan: pointing out that the US spent significant resources on this country, and after 10 years of capital investments, reforms, and re-equipment of its army, the Americans had to leave the country in a hurry under the pressure of the Taliban.

Oleksandr Merezhko, Servant of the People MP and head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Foreign Policy, believes that Spartz's statements should be considered in the context of the pre-election situation in the United States. Midterm elections begin in November and, accordingly, some Congress representatives are looking for topics that would help them in the election campaign.

International expert Oleksandr Sushko seconds Merezhko as there is no other way to justify Spartz’s decision to release an open letter to Biden, even though there are plenty of ways to contact the White House "without making a fuss."

According to Merezhko, some of Spartz's narratives about Yermak do not hold water. For example, regarding negotiations with Moscow that preceded the large-scale invasion. The “Servant” rep participated in the work of one of the subgroups of the Minsk process. And he insists that the Ukrainian delegation did everything right, but the Russians sabotaged the process. "Putin was not interested in negotiations. This was evidenced in the behavior of his officials," recalls Merezhko.

The rest of Spartz's messages, according to the chairman of the Rada committee, "are a bunch of baseless rumors."

However, not everyone in Ukraine is so categorical.

"Of all the accusations of the congresswoman, the blocked contests to the SAPO and NABU, as well as Tatarov, are the strongest," Vitaliy Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, wrote on FB. "If the authorities can fight back the rest of the arguments, with the aforementioned they stand no chance."

Tatarov has long since turned into an obvious problem for the Zelenskyy administration in the eyes of the opposition and activists. In the NABU case concerning the scam with the construction company Ukrbud, Yermak's deputy did indeed feature as a bribery suspect in the role of an Interior Ministry expert.

But then the investigation was "slowed down" by the efforts of the Prosecutor General's Office, and now the same Tatarov is officially involved with the prosecutor's office. And the competition for the position of head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office has been blocked since last summer.

"All mechanisms of [Office’s] influence on the law enforcement system are concentrated in the hands of Tatarov," MP Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a representative of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee, told Radio NV. "Because he understands how this system works."

Sushko believes that Spartz brought the information about Yermak and Tatarov from Ukraine, having received it in communication with politicians and activists, among whom the opinion that Tatarov should be dismissed has long prevailed.

According to NV sources, one of the politicians from whom Spartz receives insights into the political situation in Ukraine is the advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Anton Gerashchenko.

"I am acquainted with congresswoman Victoria Spartz," he admitted to NV.

“We do not maintain official communication. I consider her statements to be part of the fall election campaign for the US Congress. Her statements do not help, but harm Ukraine”.

Merezhko concludes that whether Spartz wanted it or not, her statements will only please the Kremlin.

But the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is confident that "statements and provocations" will not undermine the "high level of trust" established between the presidents of Kyiv and Washington.

"I think that the main reason ‌this has emerged now is that Yermak's influence in relations with the Americans has increased significantly in recent months," political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko explained to Radio NV.

“Yermak became a key figure in contact with the Americans, and with the US administration. And considering everything there, they trust him enough."

Shabunin believes that no matter how the situation with Spartz's statements pans out, Ukraine may have problems with the supply of weapons.

According to him, individual actors exploit "genuine blunders by [the Ukrainian] government" to undermine support for Kyiv. And the best way to stop such attacks is to disprove real allegations.

International journalist Taras Berezovets, who hosts three TV projects on Petro Poroshenko’s Pryamyi channel, predicts that now the Biden administration will have something to say to Spartz. But this response will allegedly be classified.

According to Berezovets, Zelenskyy will most likely decide to discharge Tatarov a little later due to a combination of various factors. But Yermak will probably keep his seat for a long time.

"This is likely not the end of this story," Yarysh wrote on Facebook.

“Especially with Marcy Kaptur drawn in, the discussion has expanded. Midterm elections in the USA are in a few months — and it seems that the topic of Ukraine will once again be the subject of active discussion."

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