If you have some spare time on your hands, you can listen to me talking about Russiagate, Trump, and related issues on the Scott Horton show here.
Despite the secondary roles played some bit part actors in the Russiagate drama, the central figure in allegations that Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government to be elected as president of the United States has always been Trumps’ onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort. The recent US Senate report on Russian ‘interference’ in the 2016 presidential election thus started off its analysis with a long exposé of Manafort’s comings and goings.
Simply put, the thesis is as follows: while working in Ukraine as an advisor to ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Manafort was in effect working on behalf of the Russian state via ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian oligarchs as well as Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska (a man with ‘close ties’ to the Kremlin). Also suspicious was Manafort’s close relationship with one Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the US Senate claims is a Russia intelligence agent. All these connections meant that while in Ukraine, Manafort was helping the Russian Federation spread its malign influence. On returning to the USA and joining the Trump campaign, he then continued to fulfill the same role.
The fundamental flaw in this thesis has always been the well-known fact that while advising Yanukovich, Manafort took anything but a ‘pro-Russian’ position, but instead pressed him to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). Since gaining independence, Ukraine had avoided being sucked either into the Western or the Russian camp. But the rise of two competing geopolitical projects – the EU and the Russia-backed Eurasian Union – was making this stance increasingly impossible, and Ukraine was being put in a position where it would be forced to choose. This was because the two Unions are incompatible – one can’t be in two customs unions simultaneously, when they levy different tariffs and have different rules. Association with the EU meant an end to the prospect of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union. It was therefore a goal which was entirely incompatible with Russian interests, which required that Ukraine turn instead towards Eurasia.
Manafort’s position on this matter therefore worked against Russia. Even The Guardian journalist Luke Harding had to concede this in his book Collusion, citing a former Ukrainian official Oleg Voloshin that, ‘Manafort was an advocate for US interests. So much so that the joke inside [Yanunkovich’s] Party of Regions was that he actually worked for the USA.’
If anyone had any doubts about this, they can now put them aside. On Monday, the news agency BNE Intellinews announced that it had received a leak of hundreds of Kilimnik’s emails detailing his relationship with Manafort and Yanukovich. The story they tell is not at all what the US Senate and other proponents of the Trump-Russia collusion fantasy would have you believe. As BNE reports:
Today the Yanukovych narrative is that he was a stool pigeon for Russian President Vladimir Putin from the start, but after winning the presidency he actually worked very hard to take Ukraine into the European family. As bne IntelliNews has already reported, Manafort’s flight records also show how he crisscrossed Europe in an effort to build support in Brussels for Yanukovych in the run up to the EU Vilnius summit. …
On March 1, his first foreign trip as newly minted president was to the EU capital of Brussels. … The leaked emails show that Manafort influenced Yanukovych’s decision to visit Brussels as first stop, working in concert with his assistant Konstantin Kilimnik … In a memorandum entitled ‘Purpose of President Yanukovych Trip to Brussels,’ Manafort argued that the decision to visit Brussels first would underscore Yanukovych’s mission to “bring European values to Ukraine,” and kick start negotiations on the Association Agreement.
The memorandum on the Brussels visit was the first of many from Manafort and Kilimnik to Yanukovych, in which they pushed Yanukovych to signal a clear pro-EU line and to carry out reforms to back this up. …
To handle Yanukovych’s off-message antics, Manafort and Kilimnik created a back channel to Yanukovych for Western politicians – in particular those known to appreciate Ukraine’s geopolitical significance vis-à-vis Russia. In Europe, these were Sweden’s then foreign minister Carl Bildt, Poland’s then foreign minister Radosław Sikorski and European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule, and in the US, Vice President Joe Biden.
“We need to launch a ‘Friends of Ukraine’ programme to help us use informal channels in talks on the free trade zone and modernisation of the gas transport system,” Manafort and Kilimnik wrote to Yanukovych in September 2010. “Carl Bildt is the foundation of this informal group and has sufficient weight with his colleagues in questions connected to Ukraine and the Eastern Partnership. (…) but he needs to be able to say that he has a direct channel to the President, and he knows that President Yanukovych remains committed to European integration.”
Beyond this, the emails show that Manafort and Kilimnik also tried hard to arrange a meeting between Yanukovich and US President Barack Obama, and urged Yanukovich to show leniency to former Prime Minister Yuliia Timoshenko (who was imprisoned for fraud).
It is noticeable that the members of the ‘back channel’ Manafort and Kilimnik created to lobby on behalf of Ukraine in the EU included some of the most notably Russophobic European politicians of the time, such as Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski. Moreover, nowhere in any of what they did can you find anything that could remotely be described as ‘pro-Russian’. Indeed, the opposite is true. As previously noted, Ukraine’s bid for an EU agreement directly challenged a key Russian interest – the expansion of the Eurasian Union to include Ukraine. Manafort and Kilimnik were therefore very much working against Russia, not for it.
The idea, therefore, that Paul Manafort was an agent of influence for the Russian government flies against everything we know about what he actually did. As for Kilimnik, maybe he is a Russian intelligence agent – I’m not in a position to say. But if he is, he’s a very weird one, who spent years actively pushing the Ukrainian government to pursue a policy which directly contradicted Russian interests.
None of this, needless to say, appears in the US Senate report. Instead, the report chooses to focus on the apparently shocking revelation that Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, as if this sharing of private information was in some ways a massive threat to national security and proof that Manafort was working for the Russians. The fact that both Manafort and Kilimnik spent years doing their damnedest to undermine Russia is simply ignored. Go figure!
The rumours, it appears, were true. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate alleged Russian interference in the US election, has brought charges against former Trump adviser Paul Manafort for conspiracy to launder money.
It seems bad for Trump, you might think. But, stop! Money laundering has nothing to do with Russian interference. Moreover, who was Manafort working for when he committed his alleged crime? Not Russia. No. Ukraine! For sure, it wasn’t the current Ukrainian government, but that of the supposed (but in reality not at all) ‘pro-Russian’ president, Viktor Yanukovich. But still, there’s no Russian connection here.
Maybe, the conspiracy theorists might claim, but Manafort will now surely spill the beans on Trump, the Russians, and all their his evil doings. As the BBC says, ‘Mr Manafort will be under growing pressure to co-operate with the Mueller investigation. If he offers up useful information about his time during the campaign, this could be just the first domino to fall.’ But if Manafort actually had any relevant information about Russian interference in the election, he’d have offered it up by now. In the past weeks, reports have suggested that Mueller was pressuring Manafort to tell all in return for some deal, but Manafort told Mueller that he couldn’t cut a deal because he didn’t know anything.
Having not seen the charge sheet, I can’t say for sure where the evidence to indict Manafort came from, but it seems likely to have been the data about payments from Yanukovich to Manafort provided by the current Ukrainian authorities during the US presidential campaign, data which led to Manafort resignation from Trump’s team at that time. In short, it derived from Ukrainian interference in the US election.
Russia-wise, it appears that so far Mueller has drawn a blank. All he’s managed to come up with is charging someone for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of the Ukrainian government. Perhaps everybody has been chasing the wrong target.
UPDATE: You can read the charge sheet against Manafort and co-defendant Richard Gates here. I found paragraph 19 interesting. It says:
MANAFORT and GATES engaged in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign in the United States at the direction of Yanukovich, the Party of Regions, and the Government and Ukraine. MANAFORT and GATES did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law.
It’s an interesting outcome from an investigation set up to examine Russian interference in US politics.
‘Donald Trump has a responsibility to disclose campaign chair Paul Manafort’s and all other campaign employees’ and advisers’ ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities.’ So says Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook. This follows allegations in The New York Times that Manafort received millions of dollars in cash payments while serving as an advisor to the Ukrainian Party of Regions prior to the 2014 revolution which drove the party and its leader, President Viktor Yanukovich, from power.
Mook’s demand builds on previous allegations linking Trump to leaked documents from Clinton’s email server, which were supposedly hacked by the Russian intelligence services. The Democratic tactic appears to be to convince the American public that Trump is some sort of puppet of the Kremlin, who if elected would sell out American interests to Russia.
Unfortunately for this narrative, the most important fact is that the source of Manafort’s alleged money isn’t actually Russian – it is, or rather was, Ukrainian. Nevertheless the Clinton campaign and some of the media are tying the case to Russia by calling the Party of Regions ‘pro-Russian’. This is a misnomer. Yanukovich and his party were only pro-Russian to the extent that they were not Ukrainian nationalists or avidly pro-Western. They drew most of their support from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, especially although not exclusively in the south and east of the country. They passed legislation which gave minority languages, including Russian, some legal recognition; they renewed Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol; and they opposed NATO membership for Ukraine. But that was about the extent of their pro-Russianness.
Yanukovich, in fact, resisted Russian efforts to persuade Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union, and was far from being opposed to closer relations with Western Europe. One of the major reasons why Yanukovich’s November 2013 decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union caused an uproar was that he himself had been promising such an agreement for a long time. Had the EU offered him acceptable terms, he almost certainly would have signed up. Russia found Yanukovich to be a very unreliable partner, and he was certainly not a mere ‘Kremlin stooge’.
It seems that the Russians actually found it easier to do business with the supposedly pro-Western Yulia Timoshenko in her time as Ukrainian Prime Minister than they did with Yanukovich. It is worth noting why Timoshenko ended up in prison – for signing a gas supply deal with Russia which allegedly betrayed Ukrainian interests in favour of Russia. Yanukovich’s government, in other words, imprisoned Timoshenko for being too pro-Russian!
The division of pre-Maidan Ukrainian politics into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps is overly simplistic. The competing political groups in the country represented different oligarchic and other interests, whose primary concern was promoting those interests, not pursuing alliances with this or that foreign power. As a Russian official once put it to me, ‘Yanukovich isn’t pro-Russian, he’s pro-Yanukovich’.
Similarly, the Party of Regions wasn’t pro-Russian, it was pro-Party of Regions. Paul Manafort denies taking cash payments from the party, saying that ‘the New York Times has chosen to purposefully ignore facts and professional journalism to fit their political agenda.’ But even if he had actually taken the money, it wouldn’t have proved that he had ‘ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities’, because the Party of Regions wasn’t such a thing. It may suit the Clinton campaign to use this story to suggest that Trump and the Kremlin are closely connected, but this story doesn’t show anything of the sort.