I’ve been mulling what to make of all the reports about Russia being on the brink of invading Ukraine.
I haven’t thought much about Ukraine since, in 2019, I reported intensively on then-President Trump’s shadow foreign policy effort there—the one there was an impeachment hearing over.
The chief vessel through which Trump allegedly tried to achieve this shadow foreign policy was Rudy Giuliani, whose trips to Ukraine were organized by Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas and Russian-born businessman Igor Fruman. Parnas was by far the most voluble and charismatic of the pair, since Fruman’s English was not good—but their efforts stopped when, on October 9, 2019, Parnas and Fruman were arrested and charged with federal campaign finance violations.
Trump then said he had never met the duo. Which was a mistake. Fruman stayed quiet, but Parnas did not. Parnas not only had photographs of himself with Trump, but he also had access to a tape that Fruman had allegedly secretly recorded of Trump at a dinner in 2018. In the tape, a voice that sounds like Trump’s can be heard demanding that then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch be fired because he believed her to be bad-mouthing him. (She was.)
I always liked Parnas, whom I talked to when I was reporting on all this. He was open about his mistakes and courageous in the face of adversity. He currently stands convicted of campaign finances charges while the bigger players in this corrupt drama are out and about—and, in Trump’s case, apparently running for re-election. Talk about a rigged system.
Parnas spoke to me over the weekend from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, where he lives with his wife and six kids. I asked what he thought about Ukraine. After all, he’s been at the center of the most recent drama between the U.S. and the region, so his perspective is worth hearing.
Lev Parnas outside the federal court after a hearing on February 3, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
What follows is a Q&A that has been edited and condensed for clarity:
WARD: So tell me what you feel. I mean, obviously, Ukraine is sitting right now on a knife edge, right?
PARNAS: Oh, big time.
WARD: I wanted to reach out to you because I saw you tweeting. I think you've been on TV this morning. What are your thoughts on all this and how it relates to your experience?
PARNAS: Well, I think everything we're seeing now stems from what transpired in the Trump presidency, even way before President Zelensky became president. It started even before I met Rudy Giuliani and became friends. It started in 2016 when Trump won the election. President Poroshenko at that time in the Ukrainian government was very pro-Hillary, very pro-democracy, very anti-Trump. They were very anti-Trump. And when Trump won, the Ukrainians didn't have any kind of relationship with the White House, and they didn't even know how to get ahold of Trump. So they started using every avenue they could, the Michael Cohens of the world. They reached out to me. They reached out to everybody that they could to try to set [it] up. They paid for it. They did whatever they could to set up a meeting at the White House to try and establish some sort of relationship with the White House.
Trump, on the other hand, had no idea what Ukraine was. He had a good understanding of what Russia was. He had admired Putin for a very long time—the strength, the power and the way Putin lived—because, if you take a look, a lot of stuff in Russia is like very Trump style, gold, gaudy. So they had a lot in common before. But he had no idea about Ukraine. He thought Ukraine and Russia [were] the same—until we had that dinner actually in 2018, when I brought up the subject and where I told him basically that Ukraine is very dependent on the United States.
On the recording, if you go back, Vicky, and take a listen to it, Trump asked me a question. He asked, "How long will the Ukraine last without our help if Russia invades?" And I said to him, "Not very long, Mr. President. Ukraine needs this very big, needs that support."
WARD: This was a fundraising dinner, wasn't it?
PARNAS: It was in D.C. at the Trump International on April 1st, I think, or April—... Sometime in April of 2018. [Editor’s note: It was April 30, 2018.]
PARNAS: That was actually when he said, "Get rid of her. Fire her. Take her out."
WARD: Meaning the ambassador? [The career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch.]
PARNAS: The ambassador. Correct. But if you go into the conversation a little bit more, you hear him asking about Ukraine. First, he was very surprised to learn that they even had oil or any resources. That's when Tommy Hicks was GOP co-chair, and Roy Bailey [the Republican fundraiser] started commenting how Ukraine [was] like a little Texas or something like that, or a big Texas.
But the fundamental question for him was, "How long would they last?"
And the answer is what I think empowered him. He didn't think it would be big deal for the Ukrainians [to announce an investigation into the Bidens] because he knew Ukraine wanted such a good relationship with him and America.
WARD: But it didn't happen, right? There wasn’t any announcement of an investigation into the Bidens and alleged corruption.
PARNAS: It didn't happen. Zelensky didn't fold. Zelensky was in between the U.S. embassy and then there was Giuliani's group and Trump and us basically. So Zelensky was in between two groups. He didn't know who to listen to. And the embassy would tell him not to listen to Giuliani, not to listen to us, not to listen to whatever Trump was telling him, but to listen to the officials that were there—designated and elected officials from the embassy.
The senators, the congressman would come there and talk to Zelensky.
So because Zelensky had all that pressure on him not to fold to Trump and announce this investigation into Biden, Trump stopped all aid to Ukraine, congressional-appointed aid, and he sent us as messengers there to give them that message.
WARD: Got you. So what you are saying is that if Ukraine had announced an investigation into Biden, things would be different?
PARNAS: No. That Zelensky didn't fold, I think, saved Ukraine and saved the world. Because if Zelensky had folded and made an announcement [of] the investigation of Joe Biden, I think it would've had a huge knock-on effect here in the United States and Trump would've probably won.
WARD: The  election?
PARNAS: Yes. But that doesn't mean that Trump would've been good to Ukraine if he had won. Trump never had any respect for Ukraine. I think he would've given Ukraine to Putin just for some oil or gas deal. So that's why the fact that Zelensky didn't fold saved Ukraine.
WARD: I got you.
PARNAS: And I think Zelensky saved a lot of us, because it opened up the truth in the United States to see to what degree [Trump] was willing to go to be able to win that presidency.
WARD: So what do you think then got Ukraine and Russia where they are now?
PARNAS: Well, since Putin came into power, for the past almost 30 years or somewhat, he’s wanted to reinstate the USSR, bring back the old countries. But you can't just invade. So he has been waiting for the right moment. And if you're looking back, the one thing the United States always stood strong on was that we will always be united when it came to the Soviet Union or foreign powers and situations.
So Putin was never able to have his window of opportunity. But then Trump came into office, and Putin got his wish basically. He got a present handed to him because of Trump's inept understanding of world politics combined with his admiration of Putin and his efforts to dismantle NATO.
I mean, Putin was probably sitting there probably having parties every day about that.
If you recall, when Zelensky came to the U.S., Trump met with him in New York; he didn't even have him come to the White House. And then, when Trump sat down with him, [Trump] even made a comment to the effect, "Well, you and Putin should talk and make up."
Zelensky's face cringed because Ukraine and Russia are at war. I mean, they got half their- I mean, a part of their country annexed by Russia’s Crimea.
They’ve got two other states, Donbas and Luhansk, that are being bombarded on every day by Russian soldiers and separatists. And you’ve got a hundred thousand troops all over surrounding Ukraine, and Trump's telling him, "You go make peace with Putin, and everything is going to be fine."
So, obviously Putin hoped that Trump would win the U.S. 2020 election.
WARD: But Trump didn’t win.
PARNAS: Well, once Biden won, Putin needed to get back some relevance. He wants a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. But he doesn't want war. He doesn't want bloodshed. I mean, these are like brother against brother. Most of these people have family on both sides. They speak the same language. It would be too intertwined. Plus, Ukraine is such a huge, vast country. Putin doesn't want another Afghanistan and go in there and all that, but he understands that by doing this politically, pressuring on the border, he's destroying Ukraine.
Their economy's going to nothing. The gryvnya, their currency, is almost devalued. Nobody wants to go do business there. Nobody wants to go visit there. The country's in turmoil. And now with Nord Stream 2 [the pipeline running from Germany to Russia], he controls the gas. He's going to shut off the gas. It's not even going to go through Ukraine. So eventually Ukraine itself is going to fold if it keeps going like this and beg Russia to take over, because the Ukrainian people are going to need to survive.
So I don't think it's a matter of him trying to invade. I think it's a strategic way of just being relevant and showing his power, flexing it.
And nobody's even realized this, but he took over Belarus.
WARD: Yes, I saw that troops are there but Lukashenko [the President] said they are to defend Belarus.
PARNAS: Belarus is not really officially Russia. I mean, Lukashenko just basically gave up and allowed Putin to bring his troops into Belarus. And every day, rhetoric is coming from Lukashenko that if Ukraine dares to attack Russia, that he's going to go in and go after Ukraine. You got to understand, Belarus is so sanctioned that there is nothing the world could do to Byelorussia [the historical name for what is officially the Republic of Belarus] that it hasn't done already. So Lukashenko’s only path to survive is to now align himself with Russia.
So it's a lot deeper and a lot more than what you see on TV. When U.S. pundits say, "Oh yeah, Putin is going to invade Ukraine," it doesn’t make sense. They are already at war. But, as I’ve said, I don't think Putin is trying to invade. But there’s the chance something stupid happens. When you got so much tension on the border, all it takes is that somebody shoot the gun the wrong way or some news to come out the wrong way, and, all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose and you can't stop it.
But taking that aside, Putin is able to put troops on the border because of the way Trump divided our country. It's the first time in history, I think, that we have Republican congressmen, senators, and national Fox TV media like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson going out saying we should support Russia over Ukraine.
With Putin seeing that, he knows he could press, because what's going to happen is it's going to come back here, and you're going to have the Congress divided, the Senate divided. And he knows with that happening, nobody's going to attack him, and nobody's going to go after him. So he's going to be able to press as hard as they want. His only fear and the only way he could be scared is when America's united. When we're united, then Putin backs off. Take a look at history. So this is happening because Trump gave him the opportunity. He divided us to such a degree that it's a no brainer for Putin.
WARD: I've got you. And so, I mean, presumably you are talking to a lot of people in Ukraine, right?
PARNAS: Absolutely. I know everybody there. I have friends, family, all sorts of people in high places, as you know. I know them all.
WARD: So Zelensky is expecting to sort of be overthrown?
PARNAS: No. That's why I think Zelensky got very upset at the Biden Administration for sounding the panic alarms, because that's exactly what Putin wants. Putin wants turmoil. Putin wants there to be like turmoil between us and the United States, between Ukraine and the world.
WARD: Right. I'm seeing that. So Zelensky is saying it's not helping, that the panic is not helping in the west?
PARNAS: Of course not, because it's feeding into Putin's hand, because that's what he wants, because I mean—just think about it. He's achieving everything he wants without actually invading.
WARD: So you mean it doesn't help Zelensky? It just helps destabilize Zelensky?
PARNAS: Yeah, because, like I said to you, nobody's going to do business in Ukraine. Putin is destabilizing the country. He's winning.
WARD: I got you. Gosh. And how do you, first, personally feel about all of this? I mean, you are Ukrainian. I know you're American, but you were born—
PARNAS: I feel bad for both countries. I feel very bad for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, because Trump used them as pawns and now they're being continued to be used as pawns in this bigger fight in the world. And I feel extremely bad for the American people, because they're unfairly pulled into this unforsaken situation for no reason, just because of Trump's political gains. I mean, basically, right now we should be united as a country against Russia and telling them to back off. And, if that were the case, Putin wouldn't even put the troops out there. He wouldn't dare, because America united—Putin knows all it takes is Congress to pass something, and anything could happen. But now he knows, especially with the midterms coming up, he knows that the Republicans might take over the House.
You’ve got to understand. Putin, the Russian oligarchs, I mean, all these lobbyists that run around Washington D.C. are on their payroll. They're on their payroll. They have all the information now. I mean, I've lived it. I've seen it. It's funny. It's hilarious.
WARD: Got you.
PARNAS: Just how crazy our system is. So, again, Putin's not doing anything new. He's been wanting to do this, has been doing this—playing different war games and propaganda as long as he could. What stopped him before was that North America would not allow him to do it. And here he just got the opportunity, basically all thanks to Trump.
Vicki... please consider me a fan... and a new one... but the interview on Ukraine left out some details that I think are relevant to the story if someone does not have a "hate Trump" bumper sticker." 1) Crimea was invaded and taken over on Obama's watch. 2) The Hunter Biden Director fees is relevant and deserves to be called "corruption" hiding in plain sight. 3) Trump had many issues to contend with in his first 2 years in office and it is possible that he did not stop to focus on Ukraine given focus on ISIS, Afghanistan, tax policy, economic malaise and endless "Russian Collusion" investigations. It is not unimaginable that he was not a policy expert on nearly 200 countries in the world. Also, I think that Parnas may be trying to sanitize his standing in light of his dealings. I respect that you have to be friendly to get the story. But I think the context is important. I am not trying to be am apologist for Trump. He has plenty of responsibility for his predicament and hope he does not run again because there are several excellent R alternatives. I am still a fan but think some context is warranted in this story. Just finished "Chasing Guislaine." Ready to start other books by you. Steve