Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with his Cabinet of Ministers, July 15, 2022. A Republican congresswoman—born in Ukraine—is resurrecting allegations of corruption on Zelenskyy’s team. Photo credit: President Of Ukraine
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Before Russia’s invasion made Ukraine a worldwide cause célèbre, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nation was seen as a work in progress, a fledgling democracy still plagued by corruption and malign outside influence. 

That’s all still true, according to Congress’s only Ukraine-born representative, who has revived  controversy over Zelenskyy’s inner circle in a fashion that could presage messaging in a 2024 Donald Trump presidential run.

The hoopla began on July 8, when US Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-IN), a vocal Putin critic and steadfast Ukraine supporter who has visited the country six times since February 24, asked President Joe Biden to brief Congress on possible graft in Zelenskyy’s cabinet and “to ensure that our assistance does not get into the hands of the wrong people.”

What worries Spartz — as US aid to Ukraine now exceeds $7.3 billion and counting — is Zelenskkyy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, his Deputy Chief of Staff Oleg Tatarov, and their alleged connections to Russia. 

Despite high regard from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “Yermak raises many concerns with a variety of people in the United States and internationally,” Spartz wrote in a partially-redacted letter addressed to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Tatarov, now in charge of appointing Ukraine’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, was a top official under President Viktor Yanukovych, Spartz pointed out. Yanukovych was ousted after the 2014 Euromaidan protests and currently lives in exile in Russia. Putin supporters have blamed the US for orchestrating the protests and Yanukovych’s removal. 

After Ukrainian officials dismissed Spartz’s concerns as “baseless speculation,” she went public with six specific allegations against Yermak. These include “mismanaging failed peace negotiations with Russia before the war” and hindering Ukraine’s wartime preparations; “delaying purchases of urgent military equipment through the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense”; deliberately leaking intelligence to Belarus about Russia’s infamous mercenary outfit Wagner Group; and allowing Russia to easily capture the key southern city of Kherson.

On Monday, Spartz ratcheted up the pressure further, accusing Yermak of launching a smear campaign against her and calling for his resignation. 

“If Mr. Yermak was a statesman, as someone with an already questionable reputation, he would have resigned this winter after assuring the Ukrainian leadership that no attack by Russia was going to happen, which reduced Ukraine’s preparedness,” she said in a statement. “However, it is never too late to do the right thing.”

Spartz doesn’t appear to be winning much traction. Fox News covered her comments, but beyond Politico, it didn’t make a splash. In an oblique retort that did not name her but clearly referenced Spartz, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat and co-chair of the Ukrainian Congressional Caucus, voiced support for Zelenskyy’s team and accused critics of helping Putin. 

“Those who are spreading wild narratives aimed at undermining Ukrainian officials during the war are recklessly providing aid to Putin and his propagandists,” she wrote. And the rhetorical back-and-forth continued. 

Spartz’s letter to Biden asked Congress to receive a classified briefing on July 12, but it seems doubtful the briefing happened. 

Speaking to Voice of America, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “We will respond to the congresswoman appropriately.” According to Politico, Ukraine’s presidential office has asked Spartz to present evidence to back up her allegations, and Spartz has yet to do so.

This is not the first time Tatarov has been accused of corruption. Aside from his pro-Russia ties, he was charged with bribery in 2020, and has since fueled the notion that Zelenskyy has a tolerance for corruption — perhaps out of valuing loyalty — after he refused to fire Tatarov. 

But Spartz’s sudden concern — she voiced no such problems during or immediately after her six visits to the county — is also seen by critics in Ukraine as a stalking horse for a line of attack when, or if, Biden seeks reelection. 

As The New Voice of Ukraine pointed out, Spartz won election in deep-red Indiana in 2020 only after receiving Trump’s endorsement. And while in Congress, Spartz has been a reliable “America First” loyalist: voting against creating a January 6 committee and voting against Trump’s second impeachment. 

Say what you will about Spartz, but do her accusations have merit? In a heated speech a month after the invasion, the same speech where he went off-script and said that Putin “cannot remain in power,” Biden cast the war as a binary struggle between good and evil, democracy and autocracy.

“In the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom, Ukraine and its people are on the front lines, fighting to save their nation, and their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles that unite all free people,” Biden said. 

But the fact is, Ukraine’s nascent democracy, not even 30 years old, is a work in progress at best.  

At the same time, it’s impossible to disentangle Spartz’s concerns from their domestic political context in the United States. And she appears to represent a new Republican approach: a pro-Trump conservative who can critique both Putin and Zelenskyy. And with Trump almost certain to resurrect the “Biden crime family” line of attack, Spartz’s questioning may not be something Democrats can afford to ignore.