The recordings, which were first played at a news conference Tuesday in Kyiv, shed relatively little new light on Biden’s role in ousting Ukraine’s prosecutor general four years ago. But Zelensky’s comments Wednesday could have been aimed at appeasing Trump, discrediting a rival in Poroshenko and deflecting to investigators all in one swipe.
“As to Poroshenko and Biden, yes, I have heard, I will comment,” Zelensky said. “I think it’s not the last sign that Ukrainians will see. The prosecutors, law enforcement bodies should react. The prosecutor general of Ukraine registered criminal proceedings at the request of deputy [Andriy] Derkach yesterday. They will investigate.”
Hours before Zelensky’s news conference, he wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “the impeachment story was not comfortable for me.”
“It took American and international attention away from the issues that mattered most to Ukraine and turned our country into a story about President Trump,” he added.
The Biden-Poroshenko audio appears likely to have the same effect. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office announced Wednesday that it has opened an inquiry on counts of high treason and abuse of power or office based on lawmaker Derkach’s allegation that the tapes point to Biden’s influence on Poroshenko.
Oleksander Kachura, a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People political party, also announced Wednesday that he intends to create a parliamentary “temporary investigative commission” to look into Derkach’s claims.
The recordings showed that Biden, as he has previously said publicly, linked loan guarantees for Ukraine in 2015 to the ouster of Viktor Shokin, then the country’s prosecutor general. But Derkach, an independent member of Ukraine’s parliament who previously aligned with a pro-Russian faction and has past links to Russian intelligence, used the new clips to make an array of accusations not proven by the tapes.
Derkach said he received the tapes from “investigative journalists” and alleged they were made by Poroshenko.
“The audio samples published by Derkach, a pro-Russian MP, were fabricated to discredit Ukraine and artificially pull in the American electoral campaign,” Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party said in a statement.
“In essence, this is a Russian provocation that has nothing to do with reality. Its goal is to undermine the United States bipartisan support of Ukraine that had been built up for over five years by President Petro Poroshenko and to return our state to the sphere of Russian influence, as well as to weaken the international pro-Ukrainian coalition.”
The political rivalry between Zelensky and Poroshenko dates back to the presidential election last year, which Zelensky won in a landslide. Poroshenko accused Zelensky of being a tool of oligarchs and Russian interests, while Zelensky accused Poroshenko and his administration of corruption and gross mismanagement.
“I’m not your opponent — I’m your verdict,” Zelensky told Poroshenko during their one presidential debate.
Since leaving office, Poroshenko has been interrogated as a witness in more than a dozen criminal investigations, and in February, prosecutors threatened to arrest him if he failed to appear for questioning.
Western officials have raised concerns that the former president is being singled out for political retribution, but Ukrainian authorities deny there is any political motivation behind the cases.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, who serves as Trump’s personal attorney, met Derkach during a trip to Kyiv in December. The tapes released offered no evidence to back Giuliani’s long-standing accusation that Biden pushed for Shokin’s removal to help his son, Hunter Biden. At the time, the younger Biden was earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a month on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, whose owner, a former government minister, was under investigation in Ukraine.
At no point in the clips released Tuesday does Biden mention Burisma or his son. Shokin’s firing was not a unilateral action directed by Biden but was prompted by a push for anti-corruption reforms developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. Paul Sonne and Rosalind S. Helderman in Washington contributed to this report.