Questions from a U.S. District Court judge recently in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s case against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort illustrate a common point of confusion on the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election: What’s Ukraine got to do with it?
In the mystery of whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia, Ukraine keeps coming up: The charges against Manafort relate to his years-long political consulting work for a former president of Ukraine. A Soviet army veteran alleged to be linked to Russian intelligence managed Manafort’s office in Kyiv. President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, met early in the administration with a Ukrainian politician who recently told Politico he’d been called to testify to the grand jury in the Mueller probe.
But the focus on Ukraine is leading some to believe that Mueller might be straying from what they believe should be the central mission of his investigation.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis in Alexandria, Virginia, peppered prosecutors from Mueller’s office with questions and comments on their case during a May 4 hearing on a motion to dismiss charges of bank fraud, tax evasion, and failing to report overseas bank accounts.
It was one of two Mueller indictments against Manafort at the time; the other, on charges of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.
All the charges in the two cases related to Manafort’s work in Ukraine long before joining the Trump campaign, opening the way for his lawyers to argue that Mueller had stepped beyond the bounds of his investigation of Trump campaign collusion in Russian election interference.
“I don’t see what relation this indictment has with what the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” Ellis said, according to Politico. “There’s no mention in the indictment of any Russian individuals or any Russian bank or any payment to Manafort by the Russians.”
Ellis has yet to rule. But in the Washington D.C. case, Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected a similar motion to dismiss by Manafort’s attorneys.
“Manafort was, at one time, not merely `associated with,’ but the chairman of, the presidential campaign, and his work on behalf of the Russia-backed Ukrainian political party and connections to other Russian figures are matters of public record,” Jackson wrote in her ruling. “It was logical and appropriate for investigators tasked with the investigation of ‘any links’ between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign to direct their attention to him.”
In Mueller’s most recent indictment on June 8, Ukraine connections strike again. Mueller charged Manafort with obstruction of justice, along with a Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, who ran Manafort’s Kyiv office and has been described by federal investigators as having “active” ties to Russian intelligence.
That superseding indictment again illustrates how the threads of an investigation into Russian election interference run through Ukraine. In the case against Manafort, the connections arise via his work for Kremlin-connected billionaires and a Russian-aligned Ukrainian presidential candidate, as well as through his own direct ties to Moscow.
Dan Fried, who was U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs when Manafort was working in Ukraine, said he doesn’t recall meeting him but certainly knew of him as “Yanukovych’s American political fixer and consultant.”
Manafort, a longtime Republican political operative who’d worked for the U.S. presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, sought to position Yanukovych in the U.S. perspective as perhaps not ideal, but the most reform-minded Ukrainian presidential candidate who also would be palatable to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It became clear over time that “ultimately Yanukovych was under Putin’s thumb,” said Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Manafort was also cultivating his own Russian ties, even before his work for Yanukovych. Bloomberg News reported that the idea for Manafort to work in Ukraine originated in 2004 with Oleg Deripaska, who controls Russian aluminum producer Rusal and is close to the Kremlin. Rusal is currently struggling to survive under U.S. sanctions imposed in April against Deripaska and his companies over “malign activity around the globe” by him, six other Russian oligarchs and various Russian officials and entities. Manafort also was involved in a private equity fund with Deripaska, who sued Manafort and partner Rick Gates in the Cayman Islands in 2014 and in New York earlier this year for defrauding him, according to the Washington Post.
Manafort also advised steel and coal magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who though Ukrainian, hails from the mostly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. Repeatedly listed as the country’s richest man, Akhmetov was a onetime key supporter of Yanukovych and his Party of Regions.
Manafort also hired Kilimnik, who’d been forced from his previous job for an American organization in Kyiv after questions arose about his links to Russia’s military intelligence arm, known for its Russian initials GRU.
“Why would Manafort hire a revealed GRU agent?” asked Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Swedish economist who has served as an economic advisor to Russian and Ukrainian governments.
Furthermore, “Yanukovych’s security organization was profoundly infiltrated from the top by Russian agents/citizens, including the minister of defense and the head of the Ukrainian security services,” Åslund wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. And “during nine years as Yanukovych’s top political advisor, Manafort controlled Russian television coverage of Yanukovych, which requires extensive and intensive contacts with Russian intelligence.”
Among the significant backers of Yanukovych’s presidential aspirations, in addition to Akhmetov, was Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian who became wealthy via gas deals with the Russian state-controlled Gazprom, according to Reuters. Though a spokesman for Putin said Firtash was not acting on behalf of Russia, Viktor Chumak, previously the head of an anti-corruption committee in the Ukrainian parliament, described him to Reuters as “a political person representing Russia’s interests in Ukraine.”
Another figure named as a potential Ukraine-linked figure in the Russian collusion saga is Viktor Medvedchuk, often described, as he was in an August 2016 RFE/RL article, as Putin’s defacto personal representative in Ukraine. Putin is the godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter. Medvedchuk says he met Manafort once in 2014, though the details are unclear, according to McClatchy, which reported that an earlier Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, had said in a recorded conversation that Medvedchuk “was a KGB agent, 100 percent.”
The same year he met Manafort, Medvedchuk landed on a U.S. sanctions list over the annexation of Crimea “to impose costs on named individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
Åslund noted that the deal that drove Ukrainians into the streets in revolt against Yanukovych was his abdication of the European Union association agreement in favor of a $15 billion bailout loan from none other than Putin.
Manafort either “brought into the Trump campaign a lot of the Russian connections, or those Russian connections were already there and Manafort added to them – probably the latter,” Fried said. Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, told the McClatchy news group in November that Manafort “never – ever – worked for the Russian government.”
Other reported links between Ukraine and figures in the Russian election collusion probe also extend to Moscow. Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, met in January 2017 with Ukrainian Member of Parliament Andrii Artemenko, ostensibly so that the lawmaker could pitch a “peace plan” to end the war in eastern Ukraine. The proposal reportedly would have favored Russia. Artemenko had entered the Ukrainian parliament after Yanukovych’s ouster as part of the remaining corps that went into opposition against the new pro-Western government, according to the New York Times.
Felix Sater, a Russian-American business associate who had helped Trump identify deals in Russia, connected Artemenko with Cohen, the Times reported. When the meeting with Cohen became public in early 2017, Artemenko was stripped of his parliamentary seat and his citizenship because the peace plan was deemed to be favorable to Russia, Ukraine’s adversary in the struggle for the return of Crimea and the military battle for control of the Donbas, according to McClatchy.
Last month, Politico quoted Artemenko as saying that he has received a subpoena from the Mueller investigation to appear before a grand jury.
The persistent references to Ukraine in the Russia investigation raise questions in some minds about whether the country is complicit in some way. The answer is no, for two reasons.
First, Ukraine’s role is mainly one of geographic happenstance. Russian oligarchs and other power players – and a few Ukrainians of the same ilk – cross easily between the two countries while pursuing their primary business and allegiances with Moscow. Most Ukraine-linked individuals under scrutiny in the Mueller probe have always been more closely connected to Russia.
Ukraine happened to be where Manafort found particularly lucrative consulting and advising work starting in the mid-2000s, most pivoting on individuals and business linked to Russia in one way or another, especially when Putin-aligned Yanukovych was in power in Ukraine. Yanukovych was so beholden to Moscow that he upturned plans for a long-anticipated association agreement with the European Union and faced an uprising against him as a result — the 2014 Maidan Revolution. He quickly fled his seat in Kyiv for – tellingly – Moscow.
The current Ukrainian government of Petro Poroshenko, on the other hand, leans West rather than East, and has little connection with Moscow and most of the Yanukovych-era players.
“Generally, Ukraine doesn’t have a lot to do with this,” said Fried.
In fact, a report in Politico just before Trump’s inauguration noted how Poroshenko’s government was scrambling to make nice with the incoming Trump administration, after allegations that individuals linked to the Ukrainian government were trying to thwart the Trump campaign and help Hillary Clinton with various revelations, including information on Manafort. Moreover, the current Ukrainian government is engaged in a quite literal – and deadly — war with Russia on its eastern flank to regain control over the Donbas region. And it continues to consider the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal.
The New York Times in May reported that Ukraine’s current government had halted cooperation in Mueller’s probe, but Ukraine’s rationale was less favoritism to Trump than fear that his administration would scotch a deal to sell anti-tank missiles that Ukraine has long requested for its fight against Russian-backed rebels in the country’s east.
That and many other instances related to the Mueller probe of possible Trump campaign collusion in U.S. election interference illustrate the role of Ukraine in the often jaw-dropping drama. While many roads seem to lead to Kyiv, they don’t stop there but rather extend on to the east, to Moscow and, specifically, President Putin and his associates.