Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry released a blistering statement Saturday accusing the first and only Ukraine-born U.S. lawmaker of playing politics over Russia’s war.
The extraordinary statement comes after Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) asked President Joe Biden to brief Congress on years-old allegations against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. Earlier this week, the freshman lawmaker also slammed both Biden and Zelenskyy for their approaches to the ongoing war, infuriating officials in both countries.
“We advise Ms. Spartz to stop trying to earn extra political capital on baseless speculation around the topic of war in our country and the grief of Ukrainians,” Oleg Nikolenko, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, said in a lengthy statement on Facebook. “Especially cynical are manipulations about Ukraine and its leadership from congresswomen of Ukrainian origin.”
For the most part, Ukrainian officials have bit their tongues when it comes to criticism of their country and its officials emanating from the fringes of American politics. But Spartz’s posture has clearly rankled the Ukrainian government, with Nikolenko noting in his statement that Ukraine is “deeply grateful” to Congress as well as to Biden personally for the billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid the U.S. has provided since the war began.
Nikolenko accused Spartz of trying to “bring back into American politics classic narratives of Russian propaganda about Ukraine’s leadership’s seemingly ties to Russia and to drag our state into U.S. domestic politics.” He also pushed back on her claims that there isn’t enough oversight of the unprecedented transfer of weapons to Ukraine.
Ukrainians have largely put their domestic political battles on the backburner, emphasizing the need for unity as they fend off Russian invaders. But Spartz’s allegations caught the attention of Zelenskyy’s political opponents — namely members of the opposition European Solidarity party of former President Petro Poroshenko.
“This is all very serious, because such letters don’t come out of Congress without thorough suspicions,” tweeted Volodymyr Ariev, a lawmaker in Poroshenko’s party.
“The morning started off fine. I like it,” Borislav Bereza, a former member of parliament, wrote in a tweet about Spartz’s letter that was shared widely on social media. In another post on Facebook, he bashed Nikolenko, calling him a “fool” over the Foreign Ministry’s response.
“Such a statement by the Foreign Ministry spokesman is an attempt to show loyalty to Yermak and Tatarov, as well as to lick their asses,” he wrote.
Nikolenko suggested in his statement that the Ukrainian government views Spartz’s recent comments as an effort to reprise those domestic squabbles, and said her criticisms are undermining the current flow of U.S. aid to Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian side interacts with American partners as openly as possible, providing them with comprehensive information about the use of equipment,” Nikolenko added. “Further bureaucratization and prolongation of the process, which Victoria Spartz obviously wants, will only contribute to the further advance of the Russian invaders. The Kremlin is counting on such a scenario.”
The Ukrainian Presidential Office declined to comment. Yermak and representatives for Spartz did not respond to requests for comment.
Spartz, 43, has traveled to Ukraine a handful of times since Russia’s invasion began in February, and has helped to educate her colleagues in Congress on the war. But she has also been dogged by claims of a hostile workplace environment in her Capitol Hill office, where former staffers described to POLITICO a boss who berated and belittled her aides. Her staff retention rate is among the worst in Congress.
Spartz’s allegations aren’t totally ungrounded. Since being tapped by Zelenskyy to lead his office in February 2020, Yermak, a former film producer who is now widely considered to be the second most powerful person in Ukraine after the president, has been accused by political opponents and analysts in Kyiv of having close ties to Moscow. While he had some business ties in Russia, he has denied the allegations of being pro-Russia and no evidence has emerged of him being in the pocket of the Kremlin.
Oleh Tatarov, a deputy chief of Zelenskyy’s office, is also named by Spartz in her letter. Tatarov, a controversial figure in Kyiv, served as head of the main investigative department of the Interior Ministry under former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia during the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014. The Yanukovych era was marked by large-scale graft and corruption that drained state coffers. The former leader was found guilty of state treason by a Kyiv court in 2019 and sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison.
Tatarov, appointed by Zelenskyy in August 2020, was charged that December with bribery by Ukrainian authorities in a case concerning state-provided housing for National Guard members. Tatarov denied the charges against him.
Anti-corruption activists gathered more than 25,000 signatures in an online petition calling for Tatarov’s dismissal last year, but Zelenskyy refused to fire him. In January, Kyiv’s Shevchenkivskyi District Court dropped the charges against Tatarov.
Spartz’s concerns about inadequate oversight of the U.S. military aid packages have been echoed in recent weeks by progressives, too, who worry that the advanced weapons and military equipment could end up in the wrong hands. Some lawmakers have even suggested that they might not back another aid package unless the Biden administration can prove that the aid is being delivered efficiently with proper guardrails.
In an interview with POLITICO in Washington last month, a Ukrainian delegation led by David Arakhamia, the majority leader in Ukraine’s parliament and a close Zelenskyy ally, said that Kyiv has never been opposed to the Biden administration appointing someone to oversee the billions of dollars in aid streaming into the country. (An effort to do so as part of the previous Ukraine aid package failed.)
“We actually welcomed this,” he said.