KYIV — Andriy Telizhenko, his eyes concealed by dark sunglasses, gabbed away between sips of iced tea and puffs of a fat Nicaraguan cigar on the terrace of a glitzy Kyiv hotel in the July heat. A fan blew cool mist in his direction.
As smoke rolled out of his mouth, so did conspiracy theories. He paused only briefly to greet some of the VIP guests who sauntered in for lunchtime espressos or champagne; their bodyguards watched conspicuously from nearby tables.
Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat and associate of fellow cigar aficionado Rudy Giuliani, never drifted far from his obsession: Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
For three years, he has worked to help President Donald Trump get reelected by exposing what he perceives to be the corrupt actions of the Bidens in Ukraine. And he said he’s not done.
Telizhenko first emerged on the political scene in 2017, when he was interviewed for a now infamous Politico article in which he alleged that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election, a charge that has been debunked.
He has since become a darling of the pro-Trump right-wing media and is part of a ragtag group of Ukrainian operatives working with Giuliani and hoping to help Congressional Republicans in the coming weeks surface damaging details about the Biden family.
The operatives have competing personal and political motives but share important similarities: troubles in their past and ties to Russia.
The four are alike in another way too. Despite their lack of success so far, they still talk a big game.
“We are going to expose corruption under the Obama-Biden administration in Ukraine,” Telizhenko said. “There’s a lot of new information still to come.”
Telizhenko’s Ukrainian collaborators, whose names surfaced during the Trump impeachment saga, include a fugitive, a tainted former prosecutor, and the son of a KGB officer who also was trained in Russian spy techniques.
Andriy Derkach was schooled at a KGB academy in Moscow. He became a Ukrainian lawmaker and is remembered for voting for a Kremlin-like set of anti-protest laws that passed during the country’s pro-democracy revolution in 2014.
Kostyantyn Kulyk is a former military prosecutor charged with but never convicted of corruption. He has been accused of pursuing politically motivated criminal cases against his opponents and has admitted having ties to a warlord in eastern Ukraine accused of working for Russian intelligence services.
Oleksandr Onyshchenko is a gas industry tycoon and former lawmaker in the now-defunct pro-Russia Party of Regions. Accused of embezzlement in his home country, he is now on the run.
Collectively, Onyshchenko said, they comprise “Team Giuliani.”
The group seemed to fade away after Trump’s impeachment and as the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests gripped the US. But in interviews conducted in person, over video, and in text messages this month, the Ukrainians told BuzzFeed News that they have been working behind the scenes for months and are now ready to return with a vengeance.
To date, three collections of recordings have been released to the public by Derkach at sparsely attended press conferences inside Interfax-Ukraine news agency. They purport to capture phone conversations between Biden and former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko while the two were in office.
Poroshenko’s office has called the recordings fake, and Biden’s campaign has denounced what it calls a coordinated effort to smear the Democratic candidate. A campaign spokesperson tweeted at Donald Trump Jr. that the contents of one recording amounted to a “nothingburger.”
And, so far, the recordings have done nothing to substantiate, let alone advance, the accusations from Trump, Giuliani, and Republicans of Biden corruption in Ukraine.
Undaunted, the Ukrainians hope to take American media by storm before November and be taken seriously by Republicans in the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which has launched an inquiry into Biden’s Ukraine interactions even as Democrats have denounced the move as political.
Telizhenko and Onyshchenko said they have been asked to be interviewed as part of the Senate inquiry and have shared materials with Republican members of the committee. The two have plans to visit the US soon, and Telizhenko was setting up to attend the Republican National Convention in Florida before it was canceled.
Their actions are drawing comparisons from Congressional Democrats and the Biden campaign to the Trump campaign’s efforts in 2016 to enlist help from Russia to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
On Monday, Congressional Democratic leaders sent a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray requesting a “defensive counterintelligence briefing” for all members of Congress before the August recess, in a sign of mounting alarm over foreign election interference ahead of November.
“We are gravely concerned, in particular, that Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November,” the letter said in a thinly veiled reference to Senate Republicans’ Biden investigation being led by Sen. Ron Johnson.
Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates on Thursday accused Johnson of “facilitating a foreign influence operation to undermine our democracy. Senator Johnson, his staff, and pro-Kremlin Ukrainians have now all confirmed his outrageous engagement with foreign interests attacking American sovereignty."
Spokespersons for Johnson and Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, who is aiding Johnson in the Biden probe, defended their inquiry and use of information from Telizhenko and other Ukrainians.
In a written response to questions, the senators told BuzzFeed News: “As with any inquiry, you get answers by asking questions. Those who restrict themselves from reviewing matters associated with ‘people of ill repute’ won’t have much luck uncovering wrongdoing or improving accountability.”
The four Ukrainian operatives certainly are not held in high repute in their home country.
“They can’t be trusted, as they are pursuing their own agenda and using all sorts of lies and manipulations for that,” Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, told BuzzFeed News about the Ukrainians.
Volodymyr Yermolenko, chief editor of the news site Ukraine World and director for analysis at Internews Ukraine, a media-focused nongovernmental organization, described the four men as “dubious personalities” and “certainly not idealists trying to unmask corruption.”
The four Ukrainians take offense at such descriptions.
Derkach said he recognized the criticism as a common tactic. “If you can’t refute truthful information — discredit its source, or try to switch the [subject] to another issue,” he said during a lengthy text message exchange.
The Ukrainians tend to be tight-lipped about what information in particular they have and their plan to release it.
“Let it be an intrigue,” Kulyk said cryptically in a conversation conducted over text messages.
But Onyshchenko, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on a video call from Hamburg, Germany, where he was enjoying a hotel continental breakfast, said three more releases of recordings will come later this summer and in September, “closer to the election.” He said Derkach would again present them at press conferences.
Derkach said what he has released so far is “really only a small part of the vast volume of records” and that all of it has been “transferred to Ukrainian and American law enforcement agencies.”
BuzzFeed News could not verify the authenticity of the recordings released so far, which appear to have been edited.
The question about their authenticity is legitimate, critics say, because Derkach’s background raises questions about just whom he is working for.
“I’m convinced Derkach’s operations in Ukraine are orchestrated by Russia,” Kaleniuk said, citing Derkach’s biography as well as actions and comments by him that parallel Russian propaganda.
She also pointed to Derkach’s regular appearances on television channels in Ukraine reportedly controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a leader of a pro-Russian faction in parliament and a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he vacations on the Crimean coast. The channels, 112 and NewsOne, are major promoters of Derkach’s Biden “revelations.”
Derkach, who met Giuliani during the former New York City mayor’s visit to Kyiv
in December and again in the US in February to record a podcast, denied working for Russia and said the purpose of his activity is “pursuing the interests of Ukraine” and “exposing international corruption.”
Derkach said Kulyk, who has joined him at the press conferences promoting the material, lends legitimacy to his campaign against Biden because in his former role as a prosecutor he went after corrupt politicians. Kulyk said he is working with Derkach because “he, like me, reveals nuances of an international corruption group” and wants to fight “against evil in all its manifestations.”
The nuances, however, actually work in Biden’s favor. Most of what Biden says in the recordings mirrors what he has previously said publicly, including that he threatened to withhold crucial loan guarantees from Ukraine unless Poroshenko fired his close ally and then–prosecutor general Viktor Shokin.
Shokin was widely viewed in Kyiv and by international observers as an impediment to democratic reforms. His removal was in line with long-standing US policy toward Ukraine, as well as that of EU allies.
Derkach and Kulyk have also alleged that the Bidens made out with $44 million of an alleged $50 million bribe meant for Ukrainian authorities to close an investigation into Burisma, the energy company Hunter Biden worked for. But no evidence to support the charge has come to light.
Moreover, two former Ukrainian prosecutors general — including Yuriy Lutsenko, who cozied up to Giuliani while he hunted for dirt on the Bidens last year and was a central figure in the Trump impeachment saga — have said they never found any evidence of wrongdoing on the parts of the Bidens in Ukraine while investigating and reviewing cases associated with Burisma.
“It’s basically a mountain of lies and innuendo being disguised as due diligence,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert focused on Russia and Ukraine, told BuzzFeed news about the accusations drawn from the recordings. She is the author of the book How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict.
But there is reason to believe the recordings are at least partly authentic. The voices on them are very similar to both Biden and Poroshenko and the topics discussed in them align with real events and White House statements from the time the calls were said to have been made.
To get a hold of such recordings between top-level officials is not an easy task, which is another reason why some critics raise the possibility of Russian involvement.
Derkach and Telizhenko said they secured the recordings separately from an “investigative journalist” they wouldn’t identify, claiming the man did not want to release them himself out of fear of being attacked by Biden supporters. On top of the recordings, Telizhenko said he obtained 96 pages of Ukrainian-language transcripts he said were made by Poroshenko’s office. (Poroshenko’s office has denied this.)
Derkach said he did not know how the recordings were made, but Telizhenko claimed the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was behind them.
The SBU does have a reputation of being skilled at wiretapping and for overextending its powers. The agency is also known to be susceptible to infiltration by its Russian counterpart, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, due to their shared legacy as former offices of the Soviet Union’s KGB — further raising the possibility of Russian involvement with the recordings.
There has at least been some concern about the source of the recordings on the part of Republicans. In March, as Johnson began ramping up his Senate inquiry, he abruptly called off a subpoena vote for information from Telizhenko after federal authorities shared concerns that Telizhenko could be spreading Russian disinformation, the New York Times reported.
While Johnson hasn’t changed his mind, Politico reported that he is considering a subpoena for a company that previously employed Telizhenko and worked for Burisma.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has suggested the Republicans may be helping guide the Ukrainians in their search for the recordings.
In comments to BuzzFeed News, he said his Republican counterparts had requested transcripts of calls between Biden and Ukrainian officials from the State Department. But before they received any of them, he said, “Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian official and Republicans’ star witness, and other foreign nationals then leaked those conversations.”
Added Wyden: “I’m deeply alarmed that their letter may have sent a signal that leaking the contents of a secure call between Vice President Biden and the former president of Ukraine would be a welcome development.”
Giuliani, on the other hand, was not worried about the origin of the information, according to Telizhenko, who said the two “spoke on the 4th of July” after Giuliani left the White House following a holiday visit.
He said he warned Giuliani that cozying up to Derkach might not be a good idea because of his “pro-Russia associations.” But Telizhenko said Giuliani told him it was more important to get the documents than to worry about where they might have come from.
Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Telizhenko said he passed everything to a “guy in the US government” in Washington. He said the government official, whom he wouldn’t identify, then delivered the recordings to the conspiracy-minded One America News (OAN), a favorite network of President Trump.
OAN White House correspondent Chanel Rion, who accompanied Giuliani to Kyiv last December and regularly posts photos on her Instagram account with Trump and the president’s family members, began airing what she called an investigative series on Biden that included the recordings in three July reports.
Onyshchenko told BuzzFeed News that he was also in possession of the recordings, some of which he said he received from a source who allegedly got them from the SBU as far back as 2016.
He said he tried to give some of the recordings to Andrew Weissmann, a former US Justice Department official and a top member of Robert Mueller's special counsel team, when the two met in Madrid in December 2016. Weissmann could not be reached for comment, but the FBI confirmed that in December 2016 its officials had met with Onyshchenko but cut contact with him afterward.
The purpose of that meeting, Onyshchenko said, was to give the DOJ information about corruption on the parts of Biden and Poroshenko. But when the DOJ did not accept what he was offering, Onyshchenko said, he grew angry.
On one of the recordings that Derkach has shared with the public, which Onyshchenko said he also has, Poroshenko is heard telling Biden that Onyshchenko holds a Russian passport and is working in Russia’s interests to destabilize Ukraine. Biden is heard assuring Poroshenko that the FBI is not working with Onyshchenko.
That was enough, Onyshchenko said, to motivate him to join forces with Telizhenko, Derkach, and Kulyk to get back at Biden and Poroshenko. In attempting to do so, he reached out to Giuliani by phone in early December, he said.
“When I told Giuliani about these tapes, he was very excited,” Onyshchenko said, adding that Giuliani told him later that he would call Trump and tell him he had “something very important.”
Onyshchenko said he was supposed to give Giuliani the recordings when he arrived in Washington late last year, but German authorities arrested him three days before his planned flight.
Onyshchenko has been on the run from Ukrainian law enforcement since 2016. Authorities in Kyiv accuse him of fraud and money laundering; he denies the charges. German authorities briefly arrested him in December at Ukraine’s request, but a court ruled against his extradition in May.
A free man once again, Onyshchenko is able to return to a lavish lifestyle that includes riding horses and mixing with celebrities, documenting it all on Instagram. He devotes much of his time to coordinating with the Ukrainians how and when to release the Biden-Poroshenko recordings.
Onyshchenko said he has also been invited by Johnson and fellow Republicans to be interviewed as part of their Senate inquiry. Spokespersons for Johnson and Grassley declined to comment on who may be in contact and sharing materials with committee investigators.
Invited or not, Onyshchenko plans to visit the US this summer to meet with Republicans, right-wing media, and anyone else who may be interested in helping the Ukrainian crew. Derkach will not be joining him, however, because he claims his US visa has been revoked, a decision he chalked up to his criticism of Biden. Kulyk, too, plans to remain in Ukraine.
Telizhenko said he was also invited by Johnson’s office to be interviewed for the Republicans’ inquiry but never received a follow-up to confirm anything. He made a short trip to Washington last week but said he did not meet with any politicians.
His first stop? Trump International Hotel. He took a selfie at the lobby bar and a photograph of an expensive bottle of whiskey he ordered to celebrate Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone's sentence.