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What Manafort’s Indictment May Tell Us About Russian Election Meddling

 

Make no mistake. Paul Manafort’s arrest is very likely directly tied to Russian intelligence operations. Even a quick look at his indictment shows this. In Ukraine, Manafort made millions of dollars between 2006 and 2015 working to advance the agenda of the Party of Regions, a political organization with close ties to Russia. He then, according to the indictment, laundered those millions through Cyprus, a country widely known as the laundromat of choice for wealthy Russians. “Start with Cyprus. Any time you see Russia and Cyprus connected, it’s a huge red flag,” an investment banker with experience in eastern Europe told me months ago after I asked how one would search for financial ties between Trump and Russia.

Given how thoroughly Russian intelligence had penetrated Ukraine’s government by 2014, the Kremlin, at the very least, had to have known about Manafort’s illegal activities, giving it leverage to turn him into an asset. A move straight out of the customary Russian intelligence playbook.

Much of this saga turns on Manafort’s work with the Party of Regions. This organization isn’t your run of the mill political party. The party reportedly draws the majority of its support from the province of Donetsk, where Russian operatives have stoked political and ethnic tensions and are waging war against the Ukrainian government. Its members have reportedly advanced the cause of reintegrating Ukraine with Russia, one of whom apparently did so while holding a powerful seat in the Crimean legislature as Russia moved to annex it. Perhaps its most famous member is former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow (along with his Prime Minister, another party-member) during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution which ousted his government. 

Not only was Manafort, in essence, advancing the Kremlin’s agenda in Ukraine, he was doing so without registering as a foreign agent and then laundering the profits he was making from it. If this information were to be revealed, there was a great chance that Manafort would face arrest in the United States. As soon as he started these activities, Russian intelligence likely had him in its clutches. As Just Security’s Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA official, explained, such a trap would line up well with Moscow’s standard methods for recruiting foreign agents, wittingly or unwittingly, and may have turned Manafort, who has business ties with Russia going back at least to 2006. 

Mowatt-Larssen wrote: 

Any past or existing business deals that violate sanctions and other legal constraints would be another area that the FSB could have sought to find creative ways to exploit vulnerabilities among Trump associates in order to compromise them.  Whether such an approach relies on exploiting simple corruption or greed, or involves a more sophisticated operation, would depend on the wants and vulnerabilities of their specific target and objectives.

The most critical objective for Russian intelligence to engage Trump campaign staffers would not be to consummate business deals, but to use business deals as the basis for developing a target for recruitment purposes. . . .  And remember a Russian strategy is to offer lucrative but illicit deals that many people would have a hard time resisting so as to co-opt, compromise, and recruit that person.

The FBI’s counterintelligence agents likely suspected this, taking out FISA warrants against Manafort starting in 2014. As Asha Rangappa wrote, those initial warrants which had to be approved by a judge every 90 days, eventually expired, offering a possible clue about his involvement with Russian intelligence:

If Manafort was already being developed by Russian intelligence since 2014, and was approached in a more concrete, operational way around summer 2016, then they would likely want him to begin communicating with them through other means than he was already using. If this happened, collection on the lines, accounts, or facilities targeted by the initial FISA order would go dry, and would explain why the surveillance ceased. In other words, there was no longer any foreign intelligence activity happening on the first FISA – but that’s because it was happening somewhere else.

Now the FBI has him, and is likely to press him for all of the information he has on Russia’s involvement in a host of activities, not the least of which involves the 2016 elections and Manafort’s potential role as the sinew connecting Trump’s circle with Moscow. (For more on this, see John Sipher’s Just Security article analyzing the Steel Dossier in comparison to media reports of Manafort’s potential ties to the Russians during the 2016 campaign.)

Once news reports of his shadowy work in Ukraine began emerging, Manafort likely became low hanging fruit for the investigation. We can’t predict what’s coming next, but we do know Robert Mueller’s team will be squeeze Manafort for dirt about others’ involvement in addition to his own.

 Photo: Getty Images

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Managing Editor of Just Security Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).