A US farmer remains detained in Ukraine as tensions escalate in Russia

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WASHINGTON (AP) — When Kurt Groszhans left North Dakota for Ukraine in 2017, he was eager to connect with his family’s ancestral homeland and farm the rich, black soil the land is known for.

But his farming venture with a law professor who is now a senior Ukrainian government official soon collapsed into bitterness and accusations, culminating in his arrest last November on charges of plotting an assassination attempt on his former business partner. His family and supporters say the allegations are false and designed to silence Groszhan’s allegations of corruption in Ukraine, a country torn between Russian and Western interests and struggling to bolster its reputation for bribery and nepotism to get rid of.

The case unfolds as Ukraine prepares for a possible Russian invasion and the US has ordered the families of American staff at the US embassy there to evacuate. The upheaval has left Groszhan’s family concerned that the North Dakota farmer could be left behind as the US government worries about possible military action and geopolitical chaos.

“We are afraid for my brother’s well-being right now, especially with everything you’re hearing on the news about Russian troops at the border,” his sister Kristi Magnusson said in an interview with The Associated Press. Fearing an invasion could force the evacuation of US diplomatic personnel, she urged the Biden administration and State Department to “use their leverage” to bring him home.

“If the embassy isn’t there to check on him and make sure he’s okay, we don’t know what will happen,” she added.

Asked for comment, the State Department said the government takes its responsibility to help detained Americans seriously and is closely monitoring the case, but declined to comment further.

Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who recently visited Groszhans at the detention center where he awaits trial, said the episode created “at least between me and them, if not between our two governments, friction that.” should be mitigated”. if the interests of the US and Ukraine should be aligned in countering the threat from Moscow.

“This friction is unnecessary,” he added. “And I think we could all break free of that just by releasing Kurt.”

Groszhans, a 50-year-old farmer from Ashley, North Dakota, traveled to Ukraine, where his ancestors are from, in 2017. The chance to work the country’s coveted black soil was a “dream come true,” and he invested heavily to get a farm up and running, his sister said. In a country with a valuable agricultural sector, Groszhans is proud of his work, she said, sending pictures of his harvest to his family.

There he connected with a law professor, Roman Leshchenko, who offered to be a native speaker with knowledge of local agriculture and regulatory requirements. Grozhans appointed him director of his company.

Things fell apart quickly.

Groszhans has claimed in a lawsuit and in a web post that Leshchenko began embezzling money from him, swindling him out of a total of over $250,000 and wire funds to a family business. Groszhans has been vocal about his allegations, describing himself as a “humble” but deceived investor in a Medium post in August.

“I’m probably not the first nor the last American investor to make a mistake with the person hired as manager. But the personality of this manager makes my case unique,” he wrote.

Leshchenko declined to comment to AP but has denied the embezzlement allegations in interviews with Ukrainian media and insisted the men had agreed that Leshchenko’s company would run the farming business.

He has made his own allegations against Groszhans, claiming that the American farmer was growing genetically modified soybeans that are not allowed to be grown or sold in Ukraine, and that this discovery prompted Leshchenko to resign from the company and was the source of their dispute.

Ukrainian media covering the conflict reported that Leschenko used part of the funds to contribute around $60,000 to the 2019 campaign of current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who later appointed Leschenko to become the government’s Minister of Agricultural Policy and Food appointed.

The AP could not independently confirm the post. Zelenskyy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Amid the controversy surrounding the post, Leshchenko was interviewed by the Kyiv Post last year. The article said the $60,000 donation came from Leshchenko’s dying father. Leshchenko said he and his father saw Zelenskyy “as the only person who wants to change Ukraine and bring about structural reforms.”

Magnusson says Leshchenko eventually gave her brother some money back, but also threatened to have him arrested if he didn’t stop speaking publicly about his allegations of fraud.

In November, Groszhans was arrested along with his assistant on charges of conspiring to assassinate Leshchenko. Allegations that Groszhans’ supporters say are entirely fabricated but may stem from Groszhans hiring a private investigator to investigate Leshchenko as part of his lawsuit.

The arrest, his family and supporters believe, was a pretext to silence his allegations, particularly in a country that has sought to bolster U.S. diplomatic and military support with assurances it is making serious efforts to curb corruption.

“My brother in his 50 years of life has never … been in trouble with the law,” Magnusson said. “And we don’t think any of that can be true, because why would you want to murder someone when you’re trying to reclaim money legally owed to you?”

His supporters are urging the Biden administration to officially designate him as a wrongful prisoner, a classification that would allow his case to be referred to the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department.

But his family fears the window for attention on Groszhan’s case may be limited given the potential for a Russian invasion and the dwindling U.S. diplomatic presence

“It worries us more and more for him and his safety knowing that those people might leave and Kurt will be forgotten and he’ll be left behind,” Magnusson said.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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