Tag Archives: Ukraine

Why the experts think Belarus isn’t going to be Putin’s next Ukraine

If there is a glimmer of a silver lining for Canada, the U.K. and its allies as they watch the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in Belarus, it’s this: Russia probably doesn’t want another Ukraine — and it certainly can’t afford one.

The imposition of sanctions by both countries Tuesday against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his son and six other Belarusian government officials in the wake of a disputed presidential election was the outcome of a delicate diplomatic dance that took weeks — even though some European nations chose to remain wallflowers.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said the Magnitsky-style sanctions would have had more punch if they’d been part of a wider multinational effort.

“In the case of Belarus, we have gone after the kingpins and we hit them where it hurts — their pocketbooks and ability to travel,” he said. “It would have been better if it were a G7 rather than just Canada and the U.K., but I guess it’s a reflection of EU solidarity.”

Some experts, meanwhile, say they think there’s a better-than-even chance that — although they’re not aimed at Russia — the economic penalties will prompt dialogue and lead to de-escalation.

“The Russians don’t want another Ukraine,” said Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior Canadian defence official now with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “They don’t want another problem on their border.”

Police detain a demonstrator during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (Associated Press)

While surface comparisons can be made between the situation in Belarus now and the six-year-old war in Ukraine, the geopolitical and economic landscapes are different, said Rasiulis, who once ran the Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy at the Department of National Defence.

Unlike the Ukrainians who took part in the anti-government, post-election protests in Kyiv that preceded the Russian invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, those demonstrating in Minsk are not demanding closer association with the West or using much anti-Russian rhetoric. Belarusians are, primarily, rising up to demand good government.

And Moscow is in a weaker economic position now than it was in 2014 — in part because of the punishing sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea and armed intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Dec. 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For Belarus, getting hit by international sanctions following a presidential election is almost a regular thing.

In 2006, in reply to a heavy-handed response to protests, the U.S. and European Union levelled sanctions on dozens of Belarusian individuals and state-run companies. The EU eased up in 2016 when Lukashenko released political prisoners, but Washington has maintained an array of restrictions on Belarusian officials, including the president himself.

Penalizing the powerful

Robertson said the West has learned the hard way that targeted punishments, such as those imposed on Tuesday, will be more effective in the long run.

Experts at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and elsewhere have warned repeatedly over the past decade that targeting key Belarusian state-owned enterprises (such as chemical and petrochemical industries) and restricting the flow of capital would cause higher economic damage to the country as a whole and hurt many ordinary citizens.

The chances of political concessions appear to be higher when you hit the business elite and the cronies, says one recent study by the think-tank.

That report, which looked at Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe and ways to contain it, said efforts to promote a more liberal Belarus were unlikely to succeed and could provoke a strong response from Moscow.

Convincing the Kremlin

William Courtney and Michael Haltzel, two noted U.S. experts on Eastern Europe, argued in a RAND Corporation blog post last month that western countries should support mediation and calls for a new presidential election with credible international monitoring.

Russia, they said, is the key — and Moscow could be enticed to go along.

“A more democratic, Eastern Slavic state on Russia’s border might be difficult for the Kremlin to accept, but the European Union and the United States could make clear that any improvement in relations with Moscow would depend on it not intervening coercively in Belarus,” wrote Courtney, a former ambassador, and Haltzel, a former policy adviser to U.S. Senator (now Democratic presidential nominee) Joe Biden.

Canada, Latvia and other western nations have called for mediation, said Rasiulis — who is convinced Moscow is more interested in keeping Belarus in its orbit than in Lukashenko’s political survival.

The Institute for the Study of War, another prominent U.S. think-tank, has warned that some of the Russian army units which took part in a recent joint military exercise may not have returned home from Belarus last week as planned.

Rasiulis said that while it’s clear Russian is keeping the option of force on table, he has a hard time believing Moscow would launch a violent crackdown because of how it would alienate the people of Belarus.

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Black box transcript confirms illegal interference with jet downed in Iran, says Ukraine

The transcript from the black boxes from a Ukrainian jet accidentally shot down by Iran on Jan. 8 confirm the fact of illegal interference with the plane, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Yevhenii Yenin said Kyiv was expecting an Iranian delegation to visit Ukraine next week for talks.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board said on Thursday an international team examining the black boxes from the jet had completed a preliminary analysis of the data in France.

“Grateful to all partners who helped bring this moment closer. Black boxes from #PS752 were read out and deciphered successfully. The transcript confirmed the fact of illegal interference with the plane,” Yenin wrote on Twitter.

Iranian forces say they downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet after mistaking it for a missile at a time of high tensions with the United States. All 176 passengers on board died, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this month that it was too soon to blame human error for the shooting down of the airliner and that many questions remained unanswered.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February that Kyiv was not satisfied with the amount of compensation Iran had offered.

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Iran sending black boxes of downed plane to Ukraine, report says

Iran is sending to Ukraine the black boxes of the Ukrainian passenger plane that its military accidentally shot down this month, Tasnim news agency reported on Saturday.

The Iranian authorities are also prepared for experts from France, Canada and the United States to examine the data from the boxes, the semi-official news agency said.

All 176 people aboard the plane were killed when Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 was shot down on Jan. 8 shortly after takeoff from Tehran en route to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

“With the use of the expertise of the countries of France, Canada and America we will try to read the [flight data recorder] in Kyiv,” Hassan Rezaifar, a director in charge of accident investigations at Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, was quoted as saying by Tasnim.

“If this effort is unsuccessful then the black box will be sent to France.”

The black boxes will not be read in Iran, Rezaifar said, according to Tasnim.

Fifty-seven of the dead were Canadian. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been pressing for a full investigation into the plane downing, said on Friday that Iran should send the black boxes to France for analysis.

France was one of the few countries with the ability to read the flight and cockpit data recorders from the jet, which were badly damaged, Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa.

Iran has faced a deepening crisis abroad and at home over the plane disaster, with authorities taking several days to announce that its military had accidentally shot the plane down.

The downing occurred as Iran was on high alert for possible retaliatory action following its strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

Those strikes were in revenge for the U.S. killing of top military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone attack in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

(Joan Dymianiw/CBC)

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Ukraine opens probe into possible surveillance of U.S. ambassador

Police in Ukraine are investigating whether the U.S. ambassador came under illegal surveillance by an unknown party before the Trump administration recalled her from Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday.

The announcement Thursday came two days after Democratic lawmakers in the United States released a trove of documents that showed Lev Parnas, an associate of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, communicating about the removal of Marie Yovanovitch as the ambassador to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry, which runs the police forces, said in a statement that Ukrainian police “are not interfering in the internal political affairs of the United States.”

The ambassador’s firing last spring was at the centre of the inquiry launched by House Democrats that led to the president’s impeachment. But it was the newly released information from smartphones belonging to Rudy Giuliani associate Parnas that prompted the Ukrainian police investigation.

In text messages to Parnas, Republican congressional candidate Robert F. Hyde gave updates on Yovanovitch’s location and cellphone use. Hyde suggested in a tweet this week that the messages that made it sound like the ambassador was being watched were a joke.

‘A first in American history’

Parnas has said Hyde’s texts shouldn’t be taken seriously, but officials in Ukraine indicated they have a legal obligation to determine if the former ambassador was subject to surveillance by an unknown party.

“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,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The Interior Ministry said it has asked the FBI to provide relevant materials. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov also “suggested that the U.S. side take part in the investigation,” the statement said.

There was no immediate comment from the State Department — which one former diplomat assessed as extraordinary.

“This has to be a first in American history,” Nick Burns, who rose to become the third-ranking official at the State Department before his retirement, wrote on Twitter. “A foreign government rushing to the defence of a senior U.S. career ambassador to defend her from people deputized by the President of the United States. And the Secretary of State refuses to say one word in her defence.”

Lev Parnas arrives at court in New York on Dec. 2, 2019. Parnas, a close associate of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has provided a trove of text messages that has now prompted Ukrainian police to open an investigation. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Democrats in the House of Representatives released the documents, text messages and photos from Parnas’ phones this week as they prepared to send articles of impeachment to the Senate for Trump’s trial.

The communications included Hyde and Parnas’ exchanges about Yovanovitch.

“She’s talked to three people. Her phone is off. Her computer is off,” Hyde wrote in one message. He said the ambassador was under heavy security and “we have a person inside.”

Hyde texted: “They are willing to help if we/you would like a price,” and “guess you can do anything in Ukraine with money … is what I was told.”

Parnas texted back: “lol.”

In another move touching on the Trump impeachment, Ukraine said it was opening an investigation into reports that Russian hackers gained access to computers of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

Hunter Biden, the son of Trump opponent and former U.S. vice president Joe Biden, was on the board of that company. The impeachment inquiry began with allegations that Trump had tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Burisma by withholding promised military aid.

The FBI also has been invited to take part in the Burisma hacking investigation, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said.

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63 Canadians among dead after plane crash in Iran: Ukraine foreign minister

Ukraine’s foreign minister says 63 Canadians are among the dead after a Ukrainian International Airlines flight crashed near Iran’s capital, killing everyone aboard the airliner.

The passenger jet carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday, just minutes after taking off from Tehran’s main airport, turning farmland into fields of flaming debris.

Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko said Iranian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Afghan, British and German nationals were also aboard the plane. CBC News has reached out to Global Affairs Canada but has not heard back.

The crash of the Ukraine International Airlines flight came hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers, but both Ukrainian and Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical issue brought down the Boeing 737-800 aircraft. However, the Ukrainian embassy in Iran later said any previous comments about the cause of the crash were not official.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky extended his condolences to the families of the victims. His office said he had cut his visit to Oman short and was returning to Kyiv because of the crash. The country’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk confirmed the casualty toll.

Cause of crash not yet clear

“Our task is to establish the cause of the crash of the Boeing and provide all necessary help to the families of the victims,” said parliament speaker, Dmytro Razumkov, in a Facebook statement.

Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran after the crash.

Hassan Razaeifar, the head of air crash investigation committee, said it appeared the pilot couldn’t communicate with air-traffic controllers in Tehran in the last moments of the flight. He did not elaborate.

A relative of a victim of the Ukraine International Airlines plane that crashed after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport reacts at Boryspil International Airport, outside Kyiv. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Ukrainian authorities have offered to help with the investigation of the plane crash. “We’re preparing a group of specialists in order to help with the search operation and the investigation of the cause of the crash,” Honcharuk said.

Boeing Co. was “aware of the media reports out of Iran and we are gathering more information,” spokesperson Michael Friedman told the AP. 

Din Mohammad Qassemi, who lives near the crash site, said he had been watching the news about the Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq in revenge for the killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani when he heard the crash.

“I heard a massive explosion and all the houses started to shake. There was fire everywhere,” he told The Associated Press. “At first I thought (the Americans) have hit here with missiles and went in the basement as a shelter. After a while, I went out and saw a plane has crashed over there. Body parts were lying around everywhere.”

Transport Canada had previously said that it was “monitoring the situation closely in the Middle East and are in close contact with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.”  It said that Air Canada, the only Canadian carrier to operate in the affected area, “has altered its routes to ensure the security of its flights into and over the Middle East.”

More to come.

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Ukraine, eastern rebels swap prisoners in move to end war

Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine began exchanging scores of prisoners Sunday in a move aimed at ending their five-year war.

The move was part of an agreement brokered earlier this month at a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

A rebel government official and the Ukrainian president’s office confirmed that the swap had started at a checkpoint near the rebel-held city of Horlivka.

The total number of people freed was not immediately known, though authorities said earlier that 142 were expected to be involved in the exchange — 55 released by the rebels and 87 by Ukraine.

Those to be released by Ukraine included five former members of the now-disbanded special police force Berkut who were charged in the killing of protesters in Kyiv in 2014, Ukrainian news site Hromadske quoted their lawyer, Igor Varfolomeyev, as saying.

Ukrainian war prisoners escorted by armed Russia-backed separatist soldiers walk to buses to be exchanged near the Maiorske checkpoint in eastern Ukraine on Sunday. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)

Ludmila Denisova, human rights envoy for the Ukrainian parliament, said the first group released by the rebels included Ukrainian soldiers.

Exchange agreed upon at summit in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement welcoming the exchange that was agreed upon by Ukrainian and Russian leaders at a summit in Paris earlier in December.

“The prisoner swap that was completed today is a long-awaited humanitarian measure,” said the statement from the French president’s office. “In line with the decisions taken at the Paris summit, it must now be followed by the full implementation of the ceasefire.”

The last major prisoner swap between separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces took place in December 2017, with 233 rebels exchanged for 73 Ukrainians.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014. It began about two months after Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president fled the country amid massive protests in Kyiv. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula soon followed.

Hopes for an end to the fighting have risen since the spring election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been more amenable to negotiations with Russia on ending the war.

But prospects for peace are still troubled by questions over allowing local elections that would ensure the rebel regions more autonomy and about Ukraine regaining control of its border with Russia in the rebel areas.

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Impeachment report claims Trump misused office to solicit election help from Ukraine

The House intelligence committee released a sweeping impeachment report Tuesday outlining evidence of what it calls Donald Trump’s wrongdoing toward Ukraine, findings that will serve as the foundation for debate over whether the 45th U.S. president should be removed from office.

The 300-page report from Democrats on the committee makes the case that Trump misused the power of his office and, in the course of its investigation, obstructed Congress by stonewalling the proceedings. Based on two months of investigation, the report contains evidence and testimony from current and former U.S. officials.

“The president placed his personal political interests above the national interests of the United States, sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security,” the report said.

The panel will vote later Tuesday, in what is expected to be a party-line tally, to send the document to the judiciary committee ahead of a landmark impeachment hearing Wednesday.

Ahead of the release, Republicans defended the president in a rebuttal claiming Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for a “favour” — investigations of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. They say the military aid the White House was withholding was not being used as leverage, as Democrats claim, and that the $ 400 million US was ultimately released, although only after a congressional outcry.

Trump at the opening of a NATO leaders’ meeting in London on Tuesday criticized the impeachment push as “unpatriotic” and “a bad thing for our country.”

The findings released Tuesday will lay the foundation for the House judiciary committee to assess potential articles of impeachment starting Wednesday, presenting a history-making test of political judgment with a case that is dividing Congress and the country.

Trump said he will not watch the judiciary panel’s hearing, saying it’s “all nonsense, they’re just wasting their time.”

More to come

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Trump doesn’t think he’ll be impeached, continues to push ‘Ukraine server’ conspiracy

President Donald Trump on Friday promoted a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, a day after a former White House adviser called it a “fictional narrative” and said it played into Russia’s hands.

Trump called in to Fox & Friends and said he was trying to root out corruption in the Eastern European nation when he withheld aid over the summer. Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is at the centre of the House impeachment probe, which is looking into Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate political rivals as he held back nearly $ 400 million.

He repeated his assertion that Ukrainians might have hacked the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016 and framed Russia for the crime.

“They gave the server to CrowdStrike, which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian,” Trump said. “I still want to see that server. The FBI has never gotten that server. That’s a big part of this whole thing.”

Trump’s claim on Ukraine being behind the 2016 election interference has been discredited by intelligence agencies.

CrowdStrike is an internet security firm based in California. They investigated the DNC hack in June 2016 and traced it to two groups of hackers connected to a Russian intelligence service — not Ukraine.

One version of the debunked theory holds that CrowdStrike is owned by a wealthy Ukrainian. In fact, company co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a Russian-born U.S. citizen who immigrated as a child and graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

On the final day of witness testimony, former Russia adviser Fiona Hill and State Department adviser David Holmes testified the U.S. president and his lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, both pushed for Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden. 3:00

Continues to criticize former ambassador

The president repeated his claim one day after Fiona Hill, a former Russia adviser on the White House National Security Council, admonished Republicans for pushing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill testified before the House impeachment inquiry panel. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

Democrats have said the so-called Crowdstrike theory makes little sense, the latest being Ted Lieu of California.

“Emails stolen from that server hurt Clinton & HELPED TRUMP,” said Lieu.

Trump in the interview also worked to undercut witnesses at the hearings, including the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump recalled from her post in Kyiv. The president called her an “Obama person” and claimed without evidence that she didn’t want his picture to hang on the walls of the embassy.

“There are a lot of things that she did that I didn’t like,” he said, adding that he asked why administration officials were being so kind to her. “‘Well, sir, she’s a woman. We have to be nice,’ he said they told him. Without providing details, Trump said he viewed her differently. “She’s very tough. I heard bad things,” he said.

He previously lashed out at Yovanovitch on Twitter while she was appearing before the House intelligence committee on Nov. 15, leading intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff to get her reaction in real time.

The final day of hearings is over. Catch up with a recap of the day’s testimonies  21:06

Trump said he does not expect to be impeached, claiming Democrats have “absolutely nothing” incriminating, despite days of public testimony by witnesses who said Trump withheld aid from Ukraine to press the country to investigate his political rivals.

“I think it’s very hard to impeach you when they have absolutely nothing,” Trump said, adding that if the House did vote to impeach him, he would welcome a trial in the Senate.

Trump told Fox & Friends that “there was no quid pro quo,” in his efforts to push Ukrainian President Zelensky to open investigations of former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son’s dealings in Ukraine.

The president’s assertion is at odds with sworn testimony by impeachment witnesses.

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Impeachment witness Volker says he ‘should have seen’ link between Ukraine aid and push to investigate Biden

Trump impeachment: Day 3 of public testimony

  • Watch live on CBCNews.ca or CBC News Network. 
  • Kurt Volker, special representative to Ukraine, and NSC official Tim Morrison testifying in second session of the day.
  • Volker said he understands now, thanks to hindsight and the testimony of other witnesses, that Trump was using aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son.
  • Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman described Trump-Zelenksy call as ‘improper.’
  • Pence aide Jennifer Williams said she hadn’t heard Trump request a favour on other calls.
  • Testy exchange over protecting whistleblower’s identity.
  • Missed previous hearings? Watch Day 1 highlights here. Get key moments from Day 2 here.

The second round of testimony in Tuesday’s impeachment hearings is underway in Washington, with witnesses Tim Morrison of the National Security Council and Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine.

Both have already testified behind closed doors in House Democrats’ impeachment investigation of U.S. President Donald Trump and his dealings with Ukraine.

Volker said he should have realized — as many of his colleagues did — that Trump was holding up military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate the president’s political rival Joe Biden.

Volker said he understands now, thanks to hindsight and the testimony of other witnesses, that Trump was using the aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter, and his role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.

Watch: Kurt Volker explains the roots of President Trump’s negative view towards Ukraine

In his opening statement at the impeachment inquiry, former U.S. envoy Kurt Volker said President Trump had a long-held negative view of Ukraine and that view was fuelled even further by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. 2:08

But he insisted he did not know of the push at the time, despite his deep involvement with Ukrainian officials on a statement — never released — that would have committed the country to investigating Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. Nor did he make the connection after Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, mentioned the allegations against Joe Biden during a July 19 breakfast, Volker said.

“In retrospect I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” Volker said Tuesday in his opening statement.

Former State Department special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker makes an opening statement before testifying with former National Security Council Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs Tim Morrison to the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Volker was the first person to testify behind closed doors in the inquiry that started in September, resigning his position shortly before he did so.

Morrison, who stepped down from the National Security Council shortly before he appeared before House investigators behind closed doors last month, has said he was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed on Trump’s July 25 call, something Republicans have repeatedly highlighted.

“As I stated during my deposition, I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate,” he said Tuesday. “My fears have been realized.”

He told lawmakers Tuesday that the transcript of the call was incorrectly placed in a highly secure location.

“It was a mistake,” he said, merely “an administrative error.”

Morrison has confirmed to investigators that he witnessed a key September conversation in Warsaw between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and a Ukrainian official. Sondland told the official that U.S. aid might be freed if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mic and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison said in previous closed-door testimony.

‘Improper’ and ‘unusual’

Earlier, two top national security aides who listened to Trump’s July call with Ukraine’s president testified in turn on Tuesday that they found the exchange between the leaders “improper” and “unusual.”

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, his counterpart in Vice-President Mike Pence’s office, said they had concerns as Trump spoke on July 25 with Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodomyr Zelensky about a political investigation into Joe Biden.

“It was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent,” said Vindman, who said he felt that he had to report the concerning call “without hesitation” up the NSC chain of command.

Ambassador Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, left, and Tim Morrison, a former official at the National Security Council, right, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Nov. 19, 2019. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

“Frankly I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said at another point during his testimony.

When asked what he made of Trump’s asking Zelensky for a “favour,” Vindman said he believed it was clear the request came with heavier implications.

“The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request. It’s to be taken as an order,” said Vindman, who arrived at Capitol Hill in military blue with a chest full of service medals.

Watch: Security aide testifies on the unusual nature of Trump’s Ukraine call

U.S. foreign service aide Jennifer Williams testified at the impeachment hearings that she found President Donald Trump’s call with Ukraine’s new president to be unusual because it appeared to involve domestic politics. 1:04

Utah Republican Chris Stewart later dismissed Vindman’s interpretation that it was mandatory as “nonsense,” pointing to Zelenksy’s public statements about not feeling that he was being pressured by the U.S., as well as the fact the investigations were ultimately never announced by the Ukraine president.

Williams said she had been privy to about a dozen Trump calls previously, and it was unlike the others, though she said she wouldn’t theorize about the president’s motivations.

“I found the July 25th phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter,” Williams said in opening remarks.

Through a whistleblower complaint and previous testimony in the House, a narrative has emerged of an “irregular channel,” as one diplomat described it, in U.S. dealings with Ukraine, led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

It has been alleged that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of Ukraine energy company Burisma for over two years while his father was U.S. vice-president, for corruption.

‘No ambiguity’ about investigating Bidens

As well, Trump requested that Zelensky investigate unproven allegations that entities in Ukraine were allied with the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election and involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. A Republican-led Senate committee, among others, has concluded that Russian cyberactors were involved in the DNC operation.

Watch: Key U.S. national security adviser testifies at Trump impeachment hearing

Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman recalls high-level meeting where pressure for ‘investigations’ caused clash between U.S. ambassador and EU and John Bolton 1:02

The overriding question is whether nearly $ 400 million US in military and security aid to Ukraine was held up for two months until Zelensky committed to doing Trump’s bidding.

Vindman, responding to Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley, said he was unaware of any official in the NSC and the Department of Defence vocally supporting withholding aid.

Republicans say the aid was eventually given and that Trump’s administration has been more friendly and muscular in their support for Ukraine than predecessor Barack Obama, pointing to the sale of Javelin missiles that Obama’s White House declined to approve.

Opening the second week of live televised hearings, the Democratic chairman leading the probe, Adam Schiff, noted that Trump tweeted against Williams over the weekend, while Vindman had seen “far more scurrilous attacks” on his character by the president’s allies.

The top Republican on the intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, began the hearing with an extended attack on the media and dismissed last week’s testimony as “second-hand and third-hand conversations.” He blasted the hearing as a “hoax.”

Vindman, a 20-year military officer, said Tuesday he brought his concerns forward because of the “national security implications,” expressing surprise it led to having to appear before a congressional committee.

Jennifer Williams, left, adviser to Vice-President Mike Pence for European and Russian affairs, and National Security Council Director for European Affairs, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, arrive to testify before the House’s intelligence committee in in Washington on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

He added that Trump did not bring up Ukraine’s corruption problem in either an April congratulatory call or the now-infamous July call, despite talking points provided by NSC staff beforehand on the subject.

Vindman said he was not aware of any credible information to support the so-called Ukraine server theory, and that it was a theory promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The transcript of the July call was put into a secure system even though it didn’t contain sensitive national security information. Vindman refused to ascribe anything “nefarious” to that decision but acknowledged it could prevent leaks and limit access to the call.

During an unsettling July 10 meeting at the White House, Ambassador Gordon Sondland told visiting Ukraine officials that they would need to “deliver” before next steps, which was a meeting Zelensky wanted with Trump, the officer testified.

“He was talking about the 2016 elections and an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman testified, referring to the gas company in Ukraine where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.

“The Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens,” he said. “There was no ambiguity.”

Pence went to Canada, not Ukraine

Williams, a State Department employee detailed to Pence’s office, said the vice-president did not request the investigations in his own conversations with Zelensky.

New York Republican Elise Stefanik got Williams and Vindman to agree that the younger Biden’s sinecure on the Ukrainian board while his father was U.S. vice-president had the potential for a conflict of interest.

Williams also said she had understood that Pence was to lead the U.S. delegation at Zelensky’s inauguration, but the vice-president was ultimately told to stand down even before Ukraine officials set a date for the swearing-in. She wasn’t clear on the reasons why, and the U.S. ultimately sent a group led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Nunes asked the witnesses who else they talked to about their concerns, bearing down once Vindman acknowledged one was from the intelligence community.

“I do not know who the whistleblower is,” Vindman said. He has previously said it is not him.

Nunes pressed: “You can plead the fifth [amendment], but you’re here to answer questions.”

“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” Schiff said.

Watch: Nunes, Schiff, Vindman scuffle over questions of whistleblower’s identity

At the impeachment hearings in Washington, Ukraine specialist Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman declines to answering some questions directly for fear of outing the whistleblower, much to the ire of Republican ranking member Devin Nunes. 4:15

At one point when Nunes called Vindman “Mr. Vindman,” the colonel reminded him to address him by his rank.

Republican Steve Castor got Vindman to admit that he had received offers of employment in the Ukrainian government on three occasions. Vindman said he notified the appropriate U.S. officials that the offers had been made. He dismissed the notion he had any divided loyalties.

“I’m an American, I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers,” he said.

The line of questioning angered Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes.

“That was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opportunity to attack your loyalties,” said Himes.

“It’s the kind of thing you say when you’re defending the indefensible,” he added.

Sondland is set to give testimony on Wednesday.

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White House budget official tells impeachment probe about holdup of Ukraine military aid

A White House budget official testified Saturday in a closed-door session of the Donald Trump impeachment inquiry in Washington, D.C., about the holdup of military aid to Ukraine.

Mark Sandy is the first person with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to testify on Capitol Hill before the U.S. House of Representatives inquiry after three political appointees defied congressional subpoenas to appear.

Sandy complied with a subpoena issued to compel his testimony, an official working on the impeachment inquiry of the U.S. president said as the inquiry was set to continue public hearings next week.

Later in the day, the House intelligence committee overseeing the inquiry released transcripts of depositions from former National Security Council official Tim Morrison and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice-President Mike Pence.

Trump’s pressure on Ukraine is at the heart of the Democratic-led inquiry into whether the Republican president misused U.S. foreign policy to undermine former vice-president Joe Biden, one of his potential opponents in the 2020 election.

Watch: Key moments from Day 2 of the Trump impeachment inquiry

Highlights of Friday’s testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, Washington’s former ambassador to Ukraine 16:00

In a disclosure that drew the most attention on Wednesday’s first day of public hearings last week, acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor pointed to Trump’s keen interest in getting the eastern European ally to investigate Biden, and reiterated his understanding that $ 391 million US in U.S. security aid was withheld from Kyiv unless it co-operated.

Morrison, who was on the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky, said he had reviewed Taylor’s testimony and did not dispute it on any significant points.

Williams, the Pence aide, that Trump’s insistence that Ukraine carry out politically sensitive investigations “struck me as unusual and inappropriate.” Williams testified her notes from the July 25 call, which she listened to, included a mention of Burisma by Zelensky, the firm that had hired Biden’s son Hunter Biden as a director.

The word was absent from the White House’s rough transcript of the call.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the House judiciary committee and the committee on oversight reform, told reporters Sandy was testifying to shed light on whether military aid was held up for political reasons. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democratic member of the judiciary and oversight committees, said Sandy was brought in to shed light on whether military aid was held up for political reasons.

“This is a technical part of our investigation,” Raskin told reporters outside the interview room. “We want to know exactly how the president translated his political objective to shake down the Ukrainian government for the favours he wanted [into] the budget process.”

On Friday, Trump launched a Twitter attack on a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine while she was testifying to an impeachment hearing in Congress, in an extraordinary moment that Democrats said amounted to witness intimidation.

Marie Yovanovitch, a Montreal-born career diplomat, explained on the second day of televised impeachment hearings how she had fought corruption in Ukraine and how the Trump administration abruptly removed her from her post earlier this year.

Diplomat’s deposition key

While Yovanovitch’s testimony dominated headlines on Friday, a closed-door deposition lawmakers held later in the day with David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official in Kyiv, could prove more consequential.

Holmes told lawmakers he overheard a phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in which the president inquired about Ukraine’s willingness to carry out investigations of Biden and his son.

The phone call occurred one day after the now-infamous July 25 phone conversation between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart at the heart of the impeachment probe.

David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official in Kyiv, walks to a closed-door deposition on Friday. He told lawmakers overheard a call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the EU, in which the president inquired about Ukraine’s willingness to carry out investigations of the Bidens. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked Sondland, referring to Zelensky, according to Holmes’s testimony.

“He’s gonna do it,” replied Sondland, adding the Ukrainian president would do “anything you ask him to,” according to Holmes.

The testimony by Holmes, an aide to top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor, ties Trump more directly to a pressure campaign in Ukraine to investigate the Bidens led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Holmes’s statement appears to contradict Sondland’s previous sworn testimony about his interactions with Trump, in which he did not mention the July 26 phone call with the president.

Sondland, who has already revised his testimony once, is scheduled to testify publicly on Wednesday.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told reporters on Saturday that House leaders were considering bringing Holmes in for a public hearing.

“In that [Holmes] statement that was released there was a lot to be concerned about, particularly that more witnesses described the president’s obsession with investigating his political opponents,” Swalwell said.

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