Ukrainian President Takes Offense At Suggestion Of Quid Pro Quo, Journalist Says | WAMC

Ukrainian President Takes Offense At Suggestion Of Quid Pro Quo, Journalist Says

Dec 5, 2019
Originally published on December 6, 2019 9:35 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The impeachment inquiry report released this week by the House Intelligence Committee concluded that President Trump demanded that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, publicly announce investigations into a political rival, Joe Biden, and into a discredited theory that it was Ukraine - not Russia - that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. To compel the Ukrainian president to do his political bidding, President Trump conditioned two official acts on the public announcement of the investigations - a coveted White House visit and critical U.S. military assistance Ukraine needed to fight its Russian adversary.

So that's what the report says. What does Presidents Zelenskiy have to say about whether there was a quid pro quo? My guest Simon Shuster interviewed Zelenskiy Saturday along with journalists from three leading European publications. Shuster also just interviewed one of Zelenskiy's top aides, who was the point man in meetings with Trump's diplomats and allies. Shuster is Time magazine's Europe correspondent, now based in Berlin, but he worked out of Moscow for many years and has been reporting extensively on Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and connections between Trump allies and oligarchs. When I spoke with Shuster yesterday afternoon, he was in a studio in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Simon Schuster, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with your interview with President Zelenskiy. Did he - what does he say about whether he perceived a quid pro quo in his phone call with Trump or whether he perceived that President Trump was making military aid to Ukraine, aid that was already promised by Congress, conditional on Ukraine doing the president's bidding and investigating the Bidens?

SIMON SHUSTER: No. He says - and he said very consistently that at that time, he was not even aware of any of these connections between military aid being frozen and the requests for investigations that were reaching him kind of secondhand at that point. And often, you know, he points out that we know a lot now in hindsight after the impeachment hearings have provided a lot more clarity and information on what was going on inside the White House and inside the American foreign policy establishment. But at that time, we didn't know a lot of this. We didn't know any of this. And the Ukrainians really were quite in the dark in terms of what the intentions were of President Trump and many of his allies - Rudy Giuliani. They were trying to figure it out, but it was really sort of like stumbling around in the dark in terms of the messages that they were getting.

GROSS: So that's what they say. Does that add up to you? I mean, the president did say in that phone call, do me a favor.

SHUSTER: Yes, that's right. But in terms of military aid, that does add up to me. You know, in terms of the timeline that has been spelled out, it's at least plausible to me that they were not aware of a direct connection, a direct quid pro quo. And he was very clear and adamant in the interview that he did not see it that way. He didn't perceive it that way, and he quite took - he took offense at the idea that he would even enter into such a negotiation because in his mind, that would be putting Ukraine in the position of a pawn on the chessboard of some, you know, great powers manipulating smaller countries. And he refuses to even really be drawn into that kind of conversation, you know, with foreign leaders or journalists at all. He takes offense at it.

GROSS: So President Trump tweeted that Zelenskiy said there was no quid pro quo. Does the fact that Zelenskiy didn't perceive a quid pro quo mean that Trump did not intend for there to be a quid pro quo?

SHUSTER: I don't think it's really my place to parse President Trump's interpretations of what President Zelenskiy said. You know, I think that President Trump is picking and choosing to some extent, you know, what parts of the interview he highlights. And President Zelenskiy did point out that it is unfair, and he pushed back harder than he ever has during this interview at the freezing of military aid, the blocking of military aid for any kind of reason, you know, especially a political reason. He said that's not fair. That's not the way that strategic allies behave, and he said it's not about a quid pro quo. That's just sort of - that goes without saying. It's just a question of kind of common decency or relationships between allies.

But, you know, if you harp on the point that, at the time of that phone call on July 25, President Zelenskiy was not aware of a direct connection between military aid and these investigations that Trump was asking for, I don't think that that proves that that connection didn't exist. I don't think that proves at all that, you know, there wasn't an attempt to use the military aid as leverage to get the investigations because as the weeks unfolded and further diplomats, officials and other players were brought to bear in this pressure campaign, I think things did become more clear to the Ukrainians by - certainly by September.

GROSS: What are your other takeaways from your interview with Zelenskiy?

SHUSTER: I guess my main takeaway was how much he's changed during his very brief stint in office. He was only inaugurated about six months ago. And I met him for the first time during his election campaign in March - actually, backstage of his comedy show in Kyiv. And he was using that comedy show - it's sort of like a variety show with dancing and songs and vaudeville, and he was using it as sort of a campaign vehicle - right? - to get his message across, to appear on TV and so on. And I met him backstage of that, and we had a conversation that really lingers in my mind whenever I think about him because he asked me, hey; what's Trump like?

So we were standing there, you know, talking about his campaign, talking about his plans. And I made the point, your life is really great right now. I just saw your show. Everybody loves you. Everyone's cheering. You're hanging out with really fun people. You have, you know, go-go dancers and wonderful comedians here and all of your closest friends that you've been working with for years. Why would you want to go into politics, where you will, whether you like it or not, have to go to various summits in Brussels or Washington and hang out with people that, I think, are decidedly less fun than the people he was hanging out with back in March? And he sort of paused as if that hadn't really occurred to him so much, and he asked me, really? Are there no fun people among the politicians that I'm going to have to deal with? And I said, well, I don't know. Maybe not. He said, well, we'll try to find some, and if we can't, then I'll just send someone else to go deal with them.

And then he went on to ask me, so what's Trump - he was curious. What is Trump like? As if, you know, every American or every American journalist has some particular insight into Trump - and I told him, you know, I don't particularly know the guy, but I don't imagine he's as fun or easy to deal with as your friends here at the comedy troupe. And he said, you know, really? Yeah? You don't think he's a fun guy? Well, I'll do my best to win him over, and I'm sure we'll get along, and it'll be fine.

Now, that kind of optimism really defined his campaign. His campaign was built on this promise of new, young faces coming in and finally cleaning out the rot of corruption in Ukraine, finally trying to end the war in eastern Ukraine on terms that Ukraine could live with that would not amount to capitulation and really, you know, bringing new faces to the political elites. And it was an extremely optimistic campaign, and he won with an enormous landslide of 73% of the vote - massive victory. And the early days of his campaign were marked by this optimism. He went in, and he very quickly passed some extremely ambitious laws against corruption. He very quickly moved to make headway in the peace talks with Russia.

But when I met him this time, six months later, he was really a changed man. He was not just tired or more kind of realistic about the possibilities of politics, but he'd become quite cynical. And the headline that we put at the top of our interview when we published it - he actually said this twice. He said, I don't trust anyone. And I think that's really the message he wanted to get across - that his six months in office had taught him that there are no reliable allies. There are only interests. And that goes for the Americans. That goes for the Europeans. He trusts no one.

GROSS: You just interviewed Andriy Yermak, who is a top aide to Zelenskiy. And for people making the case that there was a quid pro quo, Yermak is perceived to be a part of that story. Where does he fit in?

SHUSTER: He, from the very beginning, was the man, the friend, the advisor that Zelenskiy delegated to deal with the Americans. By that point, they were - you know, early - very early in their presidency, even before he was inaugurated, they were getting rumblings of strange things going on, right? Giuliani was already making these odd statements about, you know, Ukrainians being untrustworthy. There were already news reports talking about the Bidens in Ukraine and various investigations. So they had some inkling that there was something not right in the relationship, right?

And Zelenskiy, early on, delegated the job of getting to the bottom of that to his close friend Andriy Yermak, who formerly was the lawyer for the comedy troupe that Zelenskiy founded. So he was really front and center throughout this process. He met and talked multiple times with Giuliani. He was the main contact person for the various U.S. diplomats that have testified in the impeachment inquiry. And indeed, he met Trump when Zelenskiy traveled to New York for the U.N. General Assembly in September. So he was really the point man for the relations with the Americans.

GROSS: Now, wasn't there a point in August when the Trump administration was pressuring Zelenskiy to make a public statement saying that he would investigate corruption in Burisma and Joe Biden's son Hunter's role on the board of directors there and other related things that Trump wanted Zelenskiy to investigate? So didn't the Trump administration want Zelenskiy to make a public statement saying he would do these investigations, and wasn't Yermak supposed to be involved with helping him draft it?

SHUSTER: That's right. From the various witnesses that testified in the impeachment inquiry, we now know that there was a clear attempt to essentially - as one of the witnesses, Kurt Volker, the special representative of the Trump administration in Ukraine, a very well-respected diplomat - as he put it, he was trying to thread a needle. And he said this multiple times, and that meant trying to satisfy the demands that Trump and Giuliani were making in relation to these investigations without really putting the Ukrainians in a dangerous spot, without really dragging them into the muck of American domestic politics. And that's a difficult needle to thread, and he talked about that in his testimony.

And when I interviewed Yermak, we talked about that a lot as well. He made clear that the Ukrainians on their side were sort of also trying to thread that needle. They understood, of course, the desire for Trump and Giuliani to see these particular investigations. But they were trying to sort of couch their statements about these investigations in the broader language of corruption. So at the point when the whistleblower complaint sort of blew up and we all found out what was going on behind the scenes, that conversation was still going on in terms of - do we make this announcement of these investigations? How do we phrase it?

And when I talked to Yermak, he said, look. We never did it. We never announced it. We never got dragged in. We never took that step into the abyss of, you know, internal domestic American presidential politics. We never made the statement. So how can you, you know, accuse us of some kind of interference or being a party to these machinations - right? - by Giuliani because we never made that statement? And how do you know what kind of statement we would have made, he said. We might have announced some broader campaign against corruption. Yes, maybe we would have mentioned particularly Burisma or some other cases, but that doesn't mean that we were capitulating to the demands that were being made.

GROSS: You've reported that the Trump administration's pressure to probe Burisma has actually backfired. In what sense?

SHUSTER: So yeah. So that gets a little bit into the weeds of, you know, what investigations are actually ongoing and the history of this company. So this company has been investigated over the years for various, you know, alleged acts of corruption. Its co-owner and co-founder has multiple ongoing investigations that are sort of at various stages in Ukraine. So there's - you know, the prosecutor general of Ukraine, the counterpart of our attorney general, has said publicly that there's about a dozen investigations that relate one way or another to this company. Now, most of them - the vast majority pre-date the time when Hunter Biden sat on the board of that company.

But what has all the noise around this company done? I think it's served as a kind of shield. In my conversations on background with some advisors to Zelenskiy, they've made clear to me that - look. We want to investigate this company not because the Trump administration is telling us to or asking us to, but because it would be ridiculous not to investigate this company if we're really serious about fighting corruption. The co-owner of this company is one of the wealthiest people in the country. He is also one of the people that is reputed to have been involved in various corrupt schemes. So if they're serious about fighting corruption, they have to look at this company.

But these officials that I talked to told me that, given all of the noise around Burisma, they're quite inclined to at least hold off, to wait, at least wait until after the American elections are over. And they're still intent on pursuing the investigations that have already been opened into this company because of various suspicious deals that it's done. But they're sort of very weary of how that would be perceived now, and I think the effect of that for the company itself is to act as a kind of shield, at least delaying investigations that might otherwise be pursued here in Ukraine against that company.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Shuster. He is the European correspondent for Time magazine, and he's been covering Ukraine and Russia. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFANO BOLLANI'S "ALOBAR E KUDRA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Shuster. He's a European correspondent for Time magazine. He's based in Germany, but he's been spending a lot of time in Kyiv and has been covering Ukraine and Russia and the ways in which they tie into the impeachment inquiry.

So Burisma is part of the gas and energy sector in Ukraine, and you've written that the gas sector in Ukraine is notoriously corrupt. Two of Rudy Giuliani's associates, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, tried to have a business relationship with Ukraine's state gas company, Naftogaz, and Fruman and Parnas have been indicted for allegedly violating campaign finance laws. What are their links - or what links did they try to have with Ukraine's state-run gas company, Naftogaz?

SHUSTER: They had this ambition to somehow get involved in the energy trade between the United States and Ukraine. Essentially, they wanted to ship massive amounts of American liquefied natural gas to Ukraine, which would be a very lucrative business if you can manage to worm your way into it. We're talking, you know, billions of dollars. And the way they wanted to do this, you know, according to the reporting that's come out and officials at Naftogaz that I've talked to, including the CEO - the way they wanted to do this was by replacing the leadership of Naftogaz with a set of people who would be more amenable to letting them in, essentially giving them some kind of preferential deals even though they have basically no experience in the gas trade, allowing them to participate - somehow set up a company that would facilitate the sale of American gas to Ukraine.

Now, officials here that I've talked to in the gas sector say very clearly that they rebuffed these guys immediately because they had no clout. They had no experience in the gas sector. And then what these individuals allegedly tried to do is essentially get the senior leadership of Naftogaz fired and try to install a new set of board members who would, you know, help them with their business venture.

GROSS: So while seeking these gas deals in Ukraine, Fruman and Parnas were also helping Rudy Giuliani to pressure the Ukrainian government to open investigations into Biden. What do you make of those two things happening at the same time? Is there any evidence of any connection?

SHUSTER: It's a really tangled web. I think there is evidence of connections. You know, certainly, these two pursuits were happening in parallel. They were happening at the same time, and they were happening with the same players. You know, the same players who were in Giuliani's circle were pursuing these political investigations, and they were also pursuing profits. They were pursuing gas deals.

And it's hard to say at this point, and I think this will come out in the future through, you know, journalistic investigations or maybe other investigations. It's hard to say which was the priority for them. Were they pursuing the political agenda and sort of trying to make some money on the side, or did they actually come here to Ukraine looking to make money, but they were using the political aspect to essentially help them open doors in Ukraine? They were dropping the name of Trump, they were dropping the name of Giuliani, and they were trying to be politically useful to both of those people in order to help them open doors to profitable business deals here in Ukraine. Now, I'm sort of agnostic at this point, but I'm inclined to think that profit was the primary motivation.

GROSS: Was Giuliani involved in that profit-making scheme?

SHUSTER: It's not yet clear. I think the reporting has suggested that - I mean, this is a tough one because Rudy Giuliani has categorically denied that he, you know, was seeking these gas deals, that he was involved in the gas ventures that his two associates were trying to pursue. But I think, you know, there's a lot still to uncover about that. There are executives of Naftogaz, the state gas company in Ukraine, who are testifying to investigators in the southern district of New York. And there's been a lot of reporting in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and elsewhere that those investigators in the southern district of New York are also looking at Giuliani's business dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere. So I think there's still a lot that's going to come out about this, but at this point, it's not clear what, if any, financial interests Giuliani was pursuing in the gas sector in Ukraine.

GROSS: My guest is Simon Shuster, Europe correspondent for Time. After we take a short break, we'll talk about Trump allies and the Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash and how their interests began to merge last summer, and John Powers will review "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," which won the screenwriting prize at Cannes in May.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "BOHEMIA AFTER DARK")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Simon Shuster, who's the Europe correspondent for Time and has been covering Ukraine, Trump administration dealings there and connections between Trump allies and Ukrainian oligarchs. Shuster is based in Berlin and previously was based in Moscow. When we recorded our interview yesterday afternoon, he was in a studio in Kyiv. Ukraine. OK, I want to bring up another Ukrainian energy oligarch you've written about - Dmitry Firtash, who's wanted by U.S. authorities. And what is his place in the current impeachment inquiry?

SHUSTER: Yeah, he's a fascinating character in all this. And again, I think that there's quite a lot more information that we're going to learn in the coming months as, you know, the various strands of this investigation continue. But what we do know is that he hired two close Giuliani associates, two lawyers, this summer to represent him in a bribery case that he's fighting in Chicago. So for the last four years, he's been under indictment in Chicago on a variety of corruption charges, and the United States government has been trying to extradite him to Chicago to stand trial. And he's been fighting that tooth and nail with the best lawyers money can buy out of his current home base in Vienna, Austria.

Now, this summer, he hired two new lawyers who were both very close associates of Giuliani - Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, a married couple and very fierce defenders of President Trump on Fox News. And they essentially began representing Firtash in his bribery case in Chicago. Now, at the same time, they got access to the legal files of Dmitry Firtash in Vienna, and within those legal files, they found very interesting and potentially compromising documents against President Trump's opponents - that includes Joe Biden; that includes investigators who were working for Robert Mueller. So the Firtash legal case, this summer, became a kind of treasure trove of compromising material in Giuliani's quest for dirt on Trump's political opponents.

Are these documents incriminating? It depends on whether you believe what they say. I mean, one of the documents is a long statement by a former Ukrainian prosecutor general, and it alleges a variety of things against Joe Biden personally and his son and the company where his son worked. Now, the problem I have with that document is that it comes from a source that is extremely suspect. So the former prosecutor general who wrote that document is himself accused of, you know, large-scale corruption. Many of the officials I've talked to in Ukraine here say that he is not to be trusted. Moreover, that document was obtained from this prosecutor by an oligarch who is under indictment in Chicago, right?

So I think, you know, before Giuliani or really anyone else goes on TV, waving this document around as, a-ha, clear proof that Joe Biden is corrupt, they should at least explain to their listeners the origins of this document - where it came from, who produced it, who's saying these things, who's making these claims. And I think that's really not in the interest of Giuliani, at least according - you know, from his behavior.

He seems to want to essentially create noise to create the impression, the aura of corruption around Joe Biden, and he is very unscrupulous about what information he's willing to use. And he's getting, you know, a bit of information here from this oligarch trying to get a little bit over here, trying to pressure the Ukrainian government to produce some more. And all of that is part of this sort of broader campaign to keep the noise level around the words Biden and corruption as high as possible with whatever information he's able to get his hands on.

GROSS: So Firtash, the Ukrainian energy oligarch we've been talking about - the U.S. Department of Justice described him as among the upper echelon associates of Russian organized crime. So is he connected to Russian organized crime and to Vladimir Putin?

SHUSTER: He certainly denies any connection to Russian organized crime, but his connection to Putin is pretty indisputable. Firtash made his fortune as a partner to the Kremlin in the European gas trade. He made billions of dollars as a middleman between Russia and, essentially, Europe in the sale of natural gas, and he secured that position with the approval of Vladimir Putin. And that position is so lucrative that it would only go to someone the Russian government trusted and wanted to hold that position.

GROSS: Federal prosecutors in the U.S. want to extradite for Firtash to the U.S. so he could stand trial here. So Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, a married couple who are lawyers who are working on Firtash's legal team and trying to prevent him from being extradited to the U.S., they have interesting connections. Like, they not only have become staunch defenders of President Trump, frequently appearing on Fox News; in 2018, Trump considering hiring them as part of his legal team. They hired Lev Parnas, Rudy Giuliani's associate, to serve as their interpreter in communications with Firtash.

So I don't know what that says, that all of these alliances are so tangled and, you know, lead back to Giuliani and Trump.

SHUSTER: Yeah, I think it's quite clear. The way I think about this is - the two teams merged at some point this summer. There was the team Giuliani that included, you know, various people, including these two lawyers, Toensing and diGenova, included Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. And they were working on a variety of things, you know, including digging up dirt on Joe Biden, including maybe getting some gas deals in Ukraine. And then separately, before the summer - separately - there was the Firtash legal team, which was working to keep him free from extradition, to keep him out of American prison and also continuing to pursue their various gas and business and television interests in Ukraine.

Now, at some point this summer, around June, July, these two teams merged; they sort of found each other. And they found that they had some interests in common and some things that they could do together. So from Firtash's side, it was very enticing to see that Giuliani and his lawyers, the lawyers working with him, could potentially have access to the Justice Department, all the way up to Attorney General Bill Barr. And they could potentially be able to plead his case on a very high level and potentially get his case dismissed, and that was very interesting for Firtash.

Now, from the side of team Giuliani, Firtash was very interesting because he's an extremely well-connected and powerful person in Ukraine. And he could get access to various officials who could - rightly or wrongly, for free or not for free - provide some evidence or documents that would be damaging to Trump's political opponents. So with all the different hiring back and forth, the different connections - right? - as you said, Firtash hired these two lawyers that worked with Giuliani. These two lawyers then hired Lev Parnas, another Giuliani associate. Essentially, that's a sign of these two teams beginning, this summer, to work together.

GROSS: You know, at the same time, Toensing's son - who's diGenova's stepson - Brady Tensing, he was recently hired by William Barr's Justice Department in the Office of Legal Policy.

SHUSTER: That's right. And I think...

GROSS: Interesting. Go ahead.

SHUSTER: (Laughter) Interesting coincidence. I mean, the one that struck me the most and that really was when the lightbulb came on for me that, you know, hey, something strange is going on here in the relationship between Firtash and team Giuliani, and that was in July of this year. You know, I've been reporting on Firtash for years. I've been following his case, you know, very intently since the end of 2016. I interviewed him in 2017 in Vienna, while he was fighting extradition.

And at some point this summer, all of my contacts in Giuliani's circle began to redirect my requests to someone new, someone I'd never heard of, someone I'd never dealt with. And this was a person named Mark Corallo. And I spoke to him, and it quickly emerged that he had, until very recently, been serving as a spokesman for Donald Trump's legal team. So that's when the lightbulb came on, and I knew that there must be some serious connection between team Giuliani, team Trump and the Firtash legal team because you had an individual who had very recently been representing Donald Trump and was now representing and speaking for Dmitry Firtash.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest Simon Shuster is joining us from Kyiv, and he is the Europe correspondent for Time magazine. He's been spending a lot of time covering Ukraine. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BABKO'S "NOSTALGIA IS FOR SUCKAS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Shuster, who is the European correspondent for Time. And he has been spending a lot of time covering Ukraine, and he formerly reported from Russia.

What do you make of the fact that when Parnas and Fruman were arrested by American authorities, they were on their way to Vienna, which is where Firtash is living in exile, and Rudy Giuliani was supposed to go to Vienna the next day?

SHUSTER: Yeah, I mean, that's another one of the red flags to me, that their relationship with Firtash is more interesting, and there's more details are going to come out about, you know, what they were doing and their work together. The most interesting thing for me in terms of their relationship is, you know, it's pretty clear what was in it Firtash in all of this. You know, he wanted to get help in his legal case. He wanted to get help in avoiding extradition to the United States.

And I doubt that he would have gotten involved in all of these, you know, political dealings that Giuliani and his associates were working on in terms of digging up dirt on the Bidens and so on if he didn't feel like there was something in it for him. And the big question to me is, what was Firtash getting out of it? Was there some promise of help from the Justice Department or, you know, senior prosecutors in the United States that if he cooperated somehow in this scheme to get dirt on the Bidens, if he helped out, that he would get leniency?

Now, I don't know. I don't have any proof that that happened, but that's a question that really comes up in my mind, and I think that's something that deserves to be investigated further. What was Firtash promised, and what did he receive from the legal authorities in the United States in terms of, you know, helping him with his legal case in exchange for these - the production of these damaging documents that at least appeared to be damaging toward the Bidens?

GROSS: So that would - if what you're saying - if there was any evidence of what you're implying, that would implicate William Barr, the head of the Justice Department, or at least it would implicate his Justice Department.

SHUSTER: That's right; it would. And we know that there was a meeting between Firtash's lawyers and William Barr at the Justice Department. So after Firtash hired these two lawyers who were close to Giuliani, they managed to score a meeting with the attorney general himself, and that is extremely rare. That doesn't happen. You know, any attorney defending a client in any case would love a private opportunity to sit down with the attorney general and say, look - my client's innocent. You know, you got to let him off the hook. This case is nothing. It's empty. You've got to drop the case. Right? Lawyers would kill for that kind of opportunity.

So clearly, you know, that conversation happened. That's been reported, and it's been confirmed. But William Barr and the Justice Department say that they essentially declined to help; they declined to get involved. And, you know, that perfectly well may be true. I think Bill Barr is certainly smart enough to see the various, you know, problems with getting involved in the case of someone like Dmitry Firtash. But certainly, there was this attempt to get direct help from senior leadership at the Department of Justice for Dmitry Firtash. We don't know if he got that help, but one thing we do know is that his extradition case in Vienna is stalled. It's not clear to me that the American authorities are pursuing it as vigorously as they could be.

He's been in Vienna since 2014, OK? Five years they've been trying to extradite this guy. Yes, he has the best lawyers in the business. He has a lot of ammunition to fight extradition, you know, as well as any wealthy person could. But it's strange to me that, you know, he's - if the case is serious, that the American authorities have not yet been able to convince an ally to extradite this man.

GROSS: And now he also has connections to the president of the United States...

SHUSTER: That's right.

GROSS: ...At the very least through his lawyers, who have connections to the president.

SHUSTER: That's right. I mean - and these lawyers that are working for Dmitry Firtash, they are very well-connected in Trump circles. You know, according to a Politico profile of these two lawyers, they have a direct line to Trump. They talk to him a lot. They also have a direct line to Trump's bedroom through Fox News because they appear constantly on Fox News, again, as some of his most ardent defenders, you know, against the accusations that came out in the Mueller probe and now in sort of Ukrainegate (ph). They are always defending Trump, and they are, you know, on friendly terms with Trump, certainly.

GROSS: So you're covering what's happening in Ukraine, and so much of that is linked to the impeachment inquiry here in the U.S. How is impeachment looking from the Ukrainian perspective? And I'm curious, like, whether people in Ukraine are paying any attention. Certainly, I'm sure people in government are because some of them are involved in the story. But how much interest is there? And does the whole story look really different from Ukraine than you think it does in the U.S.?

SHUSTER: Yeah, certainly. I mean, the level of attention is very small compared to what it is in the United States. I mean, it's been an odd experience actually watching the impeachment testimony recently and watching it in Kyiv. You know, I'm watching it on my computer in my hotel, and I turn on the Ukrainian TV channels, and none of them are showing it or even really reporting it.

And that's - you know, that's not because they're trying to ignore it. It's because people here don't really get it. They don't really care. You know, it's sort of - I think more importantly, they have much bigger issues to contend with. You know, you have to remember there's an ongoing war with pro-Russian separatists in the east. There's constant kind of corruption scandals. There's a new president coming in and trying to push through various reforms. So when people sort of hear all the noise coming from across the Atlantic, they mostly, you know, don't pay attention, certainly not to the degree that Americans have.

And I had this funny experience when, you know, soon after the whistleblower complaint came out - this would have been, I think, the end of September, early October, and the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Presidents Zelenskiy and Trump was released. So, I mean, this was blanket coverage across the United States. And I was in Kyiv at the time, and I had a meeting over lunch with one of Zelenskiy's advisors and old friends. And I was asking her, you know, what do you think of what's going on? And she was like, sorry. Can you kind of fill me in? I haven't really been following it. What's going on? And what's this - yeah, I know about the phone call, but tell me the latest. And I was like, you haven't been following this? And she's like, no, but did you know that Tom Cruise was in town recently?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHUSTER: I was like, Tom Cruise? I don't care about Tom Cruise. You got - a president might be impeached soon. And she's like, I don't care about your impeachment. Tom Cruise was here. And he's, you know, promoting Ukraine, and he might make a movie in Ukraine, and that's awesome. Like, she was super excited about Tom Cruise's visit and not particularly bothered about the impeachment saga.

And I think that that kind of goes also for the President Zelenskiy and the members of his team. They are tired of American journalists who have come here in droves to Kyiv constantly hounding them with these questions. They really have bigger fish to fry in terms of, you know, seeking a peace deal with Russia and many other major, major crises that are raging in this country. So when they look at this, it looks odd to them. They certainly do not follow the play-by-play testimony. I haven't met any government official who's really, you know, read into the various impeachment testimony and transcripts and all of that. Yeah. It's just - you know, they have more important issues to deal with domestically, internationally. So no, it's not as big a story here.

GROSS: Simon Shuster, thank you so much for talking with us.

SHUSTER: Thank you.

GROSS: Simon Shuster is the Europe correspondent for Time. He spoke to us from a studio in Kyiv. After we take a short break, John Powers will review "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," which won the screenwriting prize at Cannes this year. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "SUGAR RUM CHERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.