WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden’s visit Saturday to support Ukraine’s fragile democracy came soon after his youngest son was hired by a private Ukrainian company that promotes energy independence from Moscow.
Yet that company leases natural gas fields in the breakaway Russian-backed state of Crimea and is owned by a former government minister with ties to Ukraine’s ousted pro-Russian president.
The hiring of Hunter Biden, 44, by Burisma Holdings Limited in April was approved by the company’s owner, a former senior minister and political ally of Viktor Yanukovych, the exiled Ukrainian president. Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after protests erupted over his efforts to establish closer economic ties with Moscow.
Hunter Biden’s employment means he will be working as a director and top lawyer for a Ukrainian energy company during the period when his father and others in the Obama administration attempt to influence the policies of Ukraine’s new government, especially on energy issues.
There’s no indication that Hunter Biden, his father or Burisma is crossing any legal or ethical lines, although ethics experts appear divided over the implications of Hunter Biden’s new job.
American conflict-of-interest laws and federal ethics rules essentially do not regulate the business activities of adult relatives of those who work in the White House.
“The primary problem here is the fact that Hunter Biden has set up a financial arrangement with someone who might have business pending before this administration,” said Craig Holman, an ethics expert with Public Citizen, a Washington-based government reform organization.
Joe Biden led the U.S. delegation at Saturday’s inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, and announced $48 million in additional aid for the Kiev government. Biden met Poroshenko and said “there is a window for peace and you know as well as anyone that it will not stay open indefinitely … America is with you.”
Ukraine is an important natural-gas and petroleum-liquids transit country. Two major pipeline systems carry Russian gas through Ukraine to Western Europe.
Burisma is headed by Nikolai Zlochevskyi, who held senior posts over natural resources, environment and defense in Ukraine. The company has aggressively bought up Ukrainian oil and natural gas leases and companies.
Hunter Biden’s new company says it aims to reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas and oil, a goal that parallels U.S. efforts to aid Ukraine’s energy industry.
As a Burisma director and the company’s top lawyer, the younger Biden has yet to take any public actions on behalf of the company.
But the timing of his hiring is politically awkward for the administration’s efforts to shore up Ukraine’s pro-Western government, and poses potential complications from Burisma’s growing energy interests and the background of Hunter Biden’s new boss, Zlochevskyi.
At least two oil and natural gas fields leased by subsidiaries of Burisma are in Ukrainian territories where pro-Russian sentiments remain strong, according to government and media releases, independent energy maps and Burisma’s website.
One is in the breakaway Russian-backed state of Crimea; the other is in the eastern Ukrainian Kharkiv region. Instability there could force the younger Biden’s new company to coordinate with pro-Russian separatists whom the U.S. considers illegitimate.
White House officials declined to comment on Hunter Biden’s association with Burisma and the company’s holdings in Crimea and east Ukraine.
The vice president’s spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, previously said that Biden’s son is a private citizen and a lawyer, and that Joe Biden “does not endorse any particular company and has no involvement with this company.”