Ukraine Investigates Trump Allies Amid Reports of Surveillance of Marie Yovanovitch
MOSCOW — Ukraine has opened a criminal investigation into allies of President Trump, following reports that they had the United States ambassador under surveillance while she was stationed in Kyiv, the Ukrainian government said on Thursday.
The move was a remarkable departure from past practice for the new government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, which has tried hard to avoid any hint of partisanship in its dealings with Washington.
The current situation has heightened those sensitivities, with Ukraine caught in the middle of the conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the impeachment of Mr. Trump for his pressure campaign on Ukraine.
But the recent release of documents in Washington has prompted a change of course. On Tuesday, just before Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate was scheduled to begin, Democrats in the House of Representatives published text messages to and from Lev Parnas — an associate of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer — pointing to surveillance of the ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch.
The Internal Affairs Ministry of Ukraine said in a statement released on Thursday that “the published messages contain facts of possible violations of Ukrainian law and of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, which protect the rights of diplomats on the territory of another state.”
Ukraine “cannot ignore such illegal activities” on its territory, the statement said, adding that the national police had started criminal proceedings after analyzing the new material.
“Our goal is to investigate whether there were any violations of Ukrainian and international laws,” the ministry said in the statement. “Or maybe it was just bravado and fake conversation between two U.S. citizens.”
Also on Thursday, Ukraine said it had asked the F.B.I. for help investigating the reported penetration of computer systems belonging to Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, by hackers working for Russian intelligence.
Mr. Parnas was involved in a campaign, led by Mr. Giuliani, to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democratic presidential candidate, and his son, Hunter Biden, over the younger Mr. Biden’s lucrative time on the board of Burisma.
As part of the pressure campaign against Ukraine, Mr. Trump’s allies were trying to remove Ms. Yovanovitch from her post, seeing her as an impediment to their business dealings as well as the campaign to force the government to investigate the Bidens.
Last March, an exchange between Mr. Parnas and another man, Robert F. Hyde, indicated that Mr. Hyde was in contact with people watching Ms. Yovanovitch.
“They are willing to help if we/you would like a price,” one message from Mr. Hyde read.
Mr. Parnas said in a televised interview on Wednesday that he had not taken Mr. Hyde’s offer seriously.
Mr. Hyde told the Sinclair Broadcasting host Eric Bolling in a television interview on Wednesday that he had been “absolutely not” monitoring Ms. Yovanovitch. He said he had been under the influence of alcohol when he sent his messages to Mr. Parnas.
“It was just colorful, we were playing — I thought we were playing,” Mr. Hyde said.
The State Department did not reply to a list of questions about the text messages, surveillance of Ms. Yovanovitch, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s knowledge of the matter and role in her ouster.
Until now, Ukraine’s government has tried to stay out of the impeachment debate as much as possible. Washington is Kyiv’s most powerful ally in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, and Ukrainian officials have sought to build a good relationship with Mr. Trump.
At the same time, Ukrainians are aware that a Democrat could win the White House in November. They have refrained from making moves — such as publicly announcing an investigation related to Mr. Biden, as Mr. Trump’s emissaries sought — that could leave Ukraine open to accusations of interfering in domestic American politics.
In a sign that Ukrainian officials remain concerned about such accusations, the statement on Thursday revealing the investigation said that Ukraine’s position was “not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States of America.”
But Ukrainian law and international obligations to protect the rights of diplomats serving on its territory had forced the country to respond, the statement said. It called on the F.B.I. to provide all available “information and materials” related to people “who may be involved in a possible criminal offense.”
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, said the United States should take part in the investigation.
“Ukraine expects the United States of America to respond promptly and looks forward to cooperation,” the Interior Ministry’s statement said.