Tom Nichols: If this isn’t impeachable, nothing is
Through the media, which they own, Ukrainian oligarchs portray their good-government foes as scam artists profiting from their supposedly idealistic crusades. Even the saints are terrible sinners, in their depiction. They hope to stall reform by inculcating broad cynicism in the public. This is precisely Trump’s strategy. Trump’s call to Zelensky was, it seems, part of an attempt to retain political power by depicting the entirety of Washington politics as a swamp. Because Trump’s corruption is his greatest electoral vulnerability, he intends to blunt that weakness by demonstrating that his leading Democratic opponent isn’t so different from himself.
But that opponent is in fact nothing like Trump’s depiction, representing as he does the now old-fashioned American commitment to democracy in Ukraine.
In 2015, Joe Biden, then vice president, ventured to Kiev to lend support to the fledgling revolution. A year earlier, protesters had occupied the Maidan, the city’s central plaza, protesting the thuggish rule of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. When police murdered 100 protesters, Yanukovych fled to Moscow and his government toppled. On the eve of Biden’s visit, however, there were good reasons to worry that the euphoria of the revolution had failed to dislodge the corrupt power structure.
The avuncular pep talk he delivered to the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, was rousing, self-aware, blunt, and compassionate. In lyrical prose, he praised the murdered and insisted that the Ukrainian political class redeem their suffering: “This is your moment. This is your responsibility. Each of you—if you’ll forgive me for speaking to you this way in your body—each of you has an obligation to seize the opportunity that the sacrifices made in the Maidan.”
At the peak of peroration, Biden argued that democracy requires removing the “cancer of corruption.” This wasn’t a throwaway line. He made a detailed case against kleptocracy: “It siphons away resources from the people.” He urged the country to reform the judiciary in general and the office of the prosecutor general in particular. And in private, he was even more forceful. He said that if the country didn’t fire Viktor Shokin, the man who occupied that office, the United States wouldn’t guarantee essential loans.
Shokin represented the failure of the revolution. The reborn democracy was flailing because the country hadn’t punished and expunged representatives of the ancient regime. Ukraine never thoroughly investigated the atrocities committed against the protesters on the Maidan. The members of the political class connected to Yanukovych largely managed to escape without paying any price for looting the country, so they kept their fortunes and resumed their political meddling. In short, Shokin was the face of a culture of impunity.