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Exclusive: Putin’s Allies Offered a ‘Back Channel’ to Key Witness in New Senate Report on the Bidens

11 minute read

A pro-Russian political party in Ukraine sought to partner with one of the most important witnesses in a Republican-led probe of the Biden family whose final report was released on Wednesday.

The offer of cooperation came in the fall of 2019 from a political party in Ukraine that is co-chaired by Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend and trusted ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk’s party made the offer to Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat and political operative, who has been a key witness in the year-long U.S. Senate investigation into the Ukraine connections of the Biden family. The party’s operatives, Telizhenko tells TIME, “offered me to help them with the Republicans much more closely, to be a back channel to Moscow.”

The offer, which Telizhenko says he turned down, marked the start of a complex influence campaign on the part of Putin’s allies in Kyiv, an effort that went further than has previously been reported. For over a year, agents and allies of the Kremlin in Ukraine have tried to feed information to President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill. The information passed through a variety of channels, including an indicted gas tycoon with deep ties to the Kremlin, and a Ukrainian lawmaker trained in a Russian spy academy.

Starting last fall, Medvedchuk and the political party of which he is co-chairman, Opposition Platform – For Life, also attempted to air their unsubstantiated claims of corruption against Biden in the Ukrainian parliament. They failed to get enough votes to open a parliamentary inquiry in Kyiv. Instead these claims about Biden found a far more prominent platform in the U.S. Senate.

The Republican chairmen of two Senate committees, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, teamed up to investigate the Biden family in August 2019. Their findings were published in an 87-page report on Wednesday, less than a week before the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump. The report centers around allegations that have been widely discredited and denied by senior officials both in the U.S. and Ukraine, including claims that Biden acted corruptly to help his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. The report found no evidence of wrongdoing by the former Vice President.

Leading Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill had repeatedly warned Johnson that Russia could use his investigation to launder false claims about Biden. In a lengthy statement issued last month, Johnson denied using any Russian sources or documents. “None of it is Russian disinformation,” he wrote.

The newly released report also defends the credibility of Telizhenko as a witness by citing his past meetings with U.S. officials. “Andrii Telizhenko, the Democrats’ personification of Russian disinformation, met with Obama administration officials…at least 10 times,” the report states.

In the fall of 2019, when Telizhenko received the offer of help from the pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, he had already been working with Giuliani for several months on an effort to dig up political dirt on the Biden family.

Telizhenko got in touch with Giuliani that spring with help from another U.S. lawyer aligned with President Trump, Victoria Toensing, a Republican stalwart and Fox News pundit. As Telizhenko recalled in an interview with TIME earlier this year, he met with Toensing at her home in Washington in May 2019 and asked for an introduction to Giuliani. Giuliani then invited the Ukrainian to meet with him in New York. Their subsequent discussion over cigars and whiskey in Manhattan lasted several hours, and it resulted in a long-running collaboration between Giuliani and Telizhenko.

Over the past year, Telizhenko has repeatedly aired his claims about corruption in the Biden family while appearing on Giuliani’s YouTube channel and podcast. The claims are drawn from Telizhenko’s past work as a diplomat in the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, his employment with a DC lobbying firm and his stint in the office of the prosecutor general of Ukraine. While serving in these positions, Telizhenko claims to have witnessed signs of corruption and conflicts of interests involving the Biden family and other Obama Administration officials.

With help from Giuliani, these claims also found their way to the U.S. Senate, where Johnson and his staff have had repeated contacts with Telizhenko for over a year. The Wisconsin Senator first met with Telizhenko in July 2019, a month before Johnson teamed up with Senator Grassley to investigate allegations of corruption against the Biden family.

As that probe got underway in the U.S. Senate, Russian allies in Ukraine made repeated efforts to lend credibility to these claims of corruption against Biden. Some of these efforts involved Medvedchuk, a personal friend of the Russian President. Putin is the godfather to Medvedchuk’s teenage daughter, and their relationship serves as a primary channel of Russia influence in Ukraine. In March 2019, in the heat of a presidential election in Ukraine, Medvedchuk traveled to Moscow for talks with senior Russian officials that were meant to bolster ties between Russia and Ukraine.

As TIME reported last fall, Medvedchuk’s political party then began to call for the parliament in Ukraine to investigate Biden and other Obama Administration officials. “It was my idea,” says Oleg Voloshyn, a lawmaker from that party. While insisting the effort “had nothing to do with Moscow,” Voloshyn says Medvedchuk signed off on it. “I came [with] it to Victor just to get green light. I doubt he ever discussed it with his friend,” Voloshyn wrote to TIME in a text message in November, referring to Putin and Medvedchuk. As for his motives, he added: “I just wanted to help [American] conservatives to pin down liberals.”

At around the same time, Medvedchuk’s political party approached Telizhenko, who was then working both with Giuliani and Senator Johnson in their efforts to investigate the Biden family. “They tried to go through me to get to Donald Trump or his team,” says Telizhenko. He turned down the offer to work with Medvedchuk, he says, because it would “toxify” his work with Giuliani. “I don’t do the Russians,” Telizhenko added.

In a statement to TIME on Wednesday, Medvedchuk said that he never met in person with Telizhenko and does not know him. His political party wanted to open a parliamentary inquiry into the Biden family, Medvedchuk wrote, as part of an effort to investigate Ukrainian politicians for corruption.

“I never discussed this idea with Putin or other senior Russian officials, because I see it as an internal matter for Ukraine,” Medvedchuk wrote. He also denied any attempt to set up a “back channel” to Moscow for President Trump’s associates. “The situation with corruption in the United States of America never interested me. That is an internal matter of the USA.”

By the time they made contact with Telizhenko, Putin’s allies in Ukraine had other connections in Giuliani’s circle. Among them was Toensing, the lawyer and Fox News pundit who had introduced Giuliani to Telizhenko in May 2019. Less than two months later, Toensing went to work as a lawyer for a Russian-backed oligarch in Ukraine, Dmitry Firtash. In the early 2000s, Firtash became a middleman in the Russian-Ukrainian gas trade with the blessing of President Putin. From his current home base in Vienna, Austria, Firtash controls a vast network of energy and media assets in Ukraine, including one of its leading television channels.

As TIME reported in October, Toensing was among several associates of Giuliani who went to work for Firtash in the summer of 2019. Firtash hired Toensing and her husband, Joe DiGenova, to help defend him against felony charges of corruption in Chicago. The charges stem from an alleged bribery scheme related to a titanium deal in India. In calling for Firtash’s extradition to stand trial in the U.S., prosecutors have accused Firtash of being among the “upper echelon associates of Russian organized crime,” a claim that Firtash vigorously denies, along with all charges against him.

While working on his case, Toensing got access to documents obtained by other members of the Firtash legal team, including statements that made discredited claims of corruption against Biden. Giuliani then used some of these documents to attack Biden on cable news and to call for investigations of the Biden family.

Giuliani has denied having any ties to Firtash, and has said all of his claims against the Biden family are based on reliable sources and documents he obtained through proper channels.

In February of this year, Attorney General William Barr confirmed during a press conference that the Justice Department is receiving documents from Giuliani and his sources in Ukraine. The Department has created an “intake process,” Barr said, to vet any information that comes from those sources with help from the Department’s “intelligence community partners.”

In an interview with TIME in February, Telizhenko described Giuliani’s own vetting process for documents that they receive from Ukrainian sources. “A lot of it is coming in,” Telizhenko says. “A lot of information from a lot of people who want to give evidence about what happened, politicians, NGOs, who saw what’s going on. My role is also to help filter what is true and what is not.”

Since the end of last year, one of Giuliani’s sources in Ukraine has been Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker whom the U.S. Treasury Department recently identified as “an active Russian agent” with close ties to Russian intelligence services. Before going into politics, Derkach studied at one of Moscow’s premier universities for spies. A secret CIA report issued Aug. 31 concluded that Putin was “probably directing” Derkach’s efforts, according to a report in the Washington Post.

In a series of lengthy press conferences in Kyiv, Derkach has publicized documents and audio recordings that he claims support his theories of Biden’s corruption in Ukraine. Giuliani met with Derkach in Kyiv in December to discuss these theories and, in an episode of his podcast in February 2020, he discussed Derkach’s allegations in detail. Earlier this month, after the Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach for allegedly interfering in the U.S. presidential elections, Giuliani distanced himself from the Ukrainian lawmaker, telling NPR that the information Derkach provided was not “unique.” Derkach, who did respond to requests for comment for this article, has previously denied working on behalf of Moscow.

Senator Johnson, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has denied using any information from Derkach in his investigation of the Bidens in Ukraine.

Johnson defends his repeated contacts with Telizhenko. At the start of this year, the Senator prepared a subpoena for Telizhenko to testify before his committee. The Ukrainian even rented an apartment near Washington as he prepared to deliver that testimony and meet with Johnson’s staff. In March, however, the FBI reportedly warned lawmakers in a briefing that Telizhenko could be a “conduit for Russian disinformation about the Bidens,” according to the New York Times. Johnson then shelved his plans to have Telizhenko testify.

In recent weeks, as he has prepared to release the findings of his investigation, Johnson has insisted that it relies on legitimate American sources. The report released Wednesday details repeated contacts between Telizhenko and the Obama administration National Security Council. The claims of Russian attempts to influence his work, says the Senator, are all part of a Democratic effort to tarnish his reputation. “Because I am investigating corruption in the Obama administration, and they are afraid of what the results of that investigation is, so what they are doing is they are targeting me, trying to destroy me, so that any results of my investigation will be marginalized,” he told a Wisconsin broadcaster last month. “My question is, what are Democrats afraid of in my investigation?”

As for Telizhenko, he denies the reported allegation that he could have served as a conduit for Russian disinformation, and says he feels vindicated by the release of the new report. “I provided what I could provide to the U.S. Senate investigation, what I was asked for,” he told TIME by phone from Kyiv on Wednesday. “The facts I was talking about years before, with emails and documents, came out today,” he says. “This is supported by the U.S. government, by taxpayers’ money, and given to the U.S. public.” Now it is up to American voters, adds Telizhenko, “to decide in November what to do next.”

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