Spies, War, Trump: We Still Don’t Really Understand What Paul Manafort Is Up To

The ultimate practitioner of the art of the deal makes his return
ALEXANDRIA, VA - MARCH 08: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (2nd R) arrives with his wife Kathleen Manafort (R) at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse for an arraignment hearing as a protester holds up a ... ALEXANDRIA, VA - MARCH 08: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (2nd R) arrives with his wife Kathleen Manafort (R) at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse for an arraignment hearing as a protester holds up a sign March 8, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort was scheduled to enter a plea on new tax and fraud charges, brought by special counsel Robert Mueller's Russian interference investigation team, at the Alexandria federal court in Virginia, where he resides. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Entertain this scenario for a minute: there’s a country sitting on a geopolitical fault line between the U.S. and one of its main adversaries, Russia.

Its population is becoming increasingly pro-western; its governing and business elite largely remains beholden to Russia.  

After years of fraudulent elections, a politician with a mafia past, widely seen as a stooge for Russia, comes to power in this contested country. The rise of The Stooge is seen as a breakthrough moment for Russia, a roadblock in the path of the country toward closer ties with the West.

And yet, an American political consultant and insider in the traditionally hawkish Republican Party, who has worked with anti-communist guerillas around the world, has been quietly working his way into the inner circle of The Stooge and his backers. Once The Stooge is in power, The Consultant sets to work. Once in place, he works to whitewash The Stooge’s worst abuses and corruption, but all for a greater goal: persuading both The Stooge and a neighboring multi-state western polity that now is, in fact, the perfect time for the country in question to sign treaties cementing its move not toward Russia, but westward. 

By this point in the story, you may have a guess about which country we’re describing, and even, perhaps, who that consultant was. This is an unfamiliar way of telling one version of the story of Ukraine in the run-up to its 2014 revolution, and of Paul Manafort’s role in it as adviser to President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled after being deposed amid the tumult. It’s the version Manafort, convicted in a case stemming from the Mueller investigation and later pardoned by Trump, would like you to believe. And, it’s one that we may be hearing more of — and which has increased relevance given Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a last-ditch, violent effort to gather Ukraine’s lands into Russia’s immense embrace before it could slip away into the west. As Ukraine’s spirited defense begins to falter amid a GOP hold on U.S.-supplied ammunition, Manafort is making his return to the limelight. Per multiple stories this week, Manafort is expected to officially reenter Trump’s orbit this year as a campaign adviser, potentially taking on a fundraising role just as multiple court cases have left Trump strapped for cash. 

I’ve covered Manafort extensively for TPM and, before that, for the Kyiv Post in Ukraine. He’s a fascinating and unique figure who’s work has done more to shape the past decade and a half of American history than is commonly understood, largely via his up-close involvement in Ukrainian politics before its 2014 revolution. It’s that revolution which set Ukraine on a course westward, prompted Russian military aggression, and fatally poisoned ties between Washington and Moscow for the past decade. And while its clear Manafort was a key character in the story, the exact nature of what, exactly, he was up to, remains shrouded in questions.

From Russia’s perspective, Manafort may not seem quite so deserving of the pro-Putin branding that he’s received in the West. The covert lobbying scheme he was eventually prosecuted for was overtly aimed not at keeping Ukraine within Russia’s orbit, but at instead pressuring western officials and Ukraine’s leadership into signing an association deal with the European Union.

At the same time, and as subsequent years showed, he brought tons of baggage along with him: he lacked liquidity, and was seeking millions of dollars he said he was owed from Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska (Deripaska says that Manafort owed him money). There was also a lot from Ukraine which could damage his reputation. In the mid-2010s, as Manafort reemerged in American politics, his name was found on a supposed bribe ledger which appeared in Kyiv; his daughter’s phone was hacked, revealing embarrassing personal details. Several of his close associates in Ukraine would later be accused by western governments of being on the payroll of Russian intelligence; Manafort himself was later found to have given a close associate, allegedly a Russian spy, internal Trump campaign polling data in August 2016 which eventually made its way to Russian intelligence services. That associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, would in 2021 be labeled a “Russian agent” and sanctioned by the Treasury Department. 

During the Trump administration, as the Mueller investigation ramped up, Manafort was uniquely creative in finding ways to block law enforcement from determining what had happened. He successfully used encrypted messaging apps to delete messages, placing them beyond recovery; after being convicted on multiple fraud charges, he admitted to the unregistered lobbying campaign, before pulling a brazen move: he lied to prosecutors during the period of his supposed cooperation, preventing them from getting to the bottom of his involvement. That may have also allowed Manafort to become not a cooperator, but a kind of spy; his lawyers reportedly fed Trump’s legal team information about the Mueller investigation. 

But throughout all the murkiness and knottiness in his biography, one quality stands out: Manafort is a savvy dealmaker. Everyone has a price, everything can be traded; all that matters is a link to people in influence. It’s a rough-and-tumble mixture of business and politics which flourished in the countries left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Closely examining Manafort’s career unveils a byzantine story, a hall of mirrors which bears the hallmark of any good spy tale: its characters all master the interstitial space between one side and the other, where they can maintain the kind of fundamental ambiguity that allows them to project plausible allegiance to any actor. That’s the ambiguity which Manafort exploits for his central defense to the charge that he was working for a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, or for a Russian oligarch. Rather, Manafort claims that he remained committed to American interests through that work, in spite of how unsavory his clients may have been. At one point, his zeal for allowing market forces to guide his political consulting landed him in Angola, working for anti-communist guerilla Jonas Savimbi. 

 President Ronald Reagan (L) meeting with Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. (Photo by Diana Walker/Getty Images)

“There was no way I was going to, all of a sudden, change a lifetime of work against communism, the Soviet Union, and now Putin,” Manafort wrote in a 2022 memoir

The man with a price on his head

Without addressing how bizarre it is for a person with the ties he has, and who is the subject of accusations he is, to exist within 100 miles of a presidential campaign, let alone as a close adviser to the candidate, Manafort’s story and the characters around him reveals just how “grave” a “counterintelligence threat” he presents, as a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report put it.  

Apart from Yanukovych, Manafort worked closely in Ukraine with several lesser-known figures. They include Kiliminik, who currently has a $250,000 price set on his head by the FBI. 

But they also include two other people: Oleg Voloshyn and Volodymyr Sivkovych, both Ukrainian officials in Yanukovych’s government. 

At the time, Yanukovych had a problem: Ukrainians wanted closer ties with the EU, on offer via the potential association agreement. Whether Yanukovych was serious about this or not remains unclear, but it would be very difficult for him to even go through the motions: he had imprisoned his main political rival Yulia Tymoshenko in what had been decried as a sham trial. European officials were refusing to move forward on negotiations over the association deal as long as Tymoshenko remained imprisoned, creating a domestic political headache for Yanukovych. 

That’s where the covert lobbying campaign for which Manafort was later indicted came into being: Manafort allegedly convened groups of European officials (and an American law firm) to whitewash Tymoshenko’s prosecution. 

Oleg Voloshyn worked with Manafort on this in Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He told me in 2018 that “the West could have sacrificed Yulia [Tymoshenko] for the sake of getting Ukraine in its orbit.”

In fact, the EU did try to make that sacrifice: in September 2013, its leaders looked the other way and attempted to sign an association agreement with Ukraine. Russia applied massive pressure on Yanukovych not to sign; he buckled under that pressure, sparking mass protests across Ukraine. It ended with Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. Russia responded to Yanukovych’s ouster, which it cast as a coup, by annexing Crimea, starting, in 2014, first phase of the Russo-Ukrainian war. In Russia’s telling, Ukraine had descended into anarchy, and its role was to restore the peace.

Those events — and Manafort’s role in trying to coax Europe to accept Ukraine with his client Yanukovych at the top — set the stage for where we are today: the largest land war in Europe since 1945, with a new iron curtain descending across Europe.

Picking a side

Yanukovych’s downfall inflicted financial and personal catastrophe on those who worked around him. Manafort lost his income, and was facing financial ruin.

Those he worked with in Kyiv quickly gravitated towards Russia and pro-Russian parties. 

One of Manafort’s original employees in Kyiv, per testimony from his 2018 fraud trial, Vladimir Sivkovych, fled to Moscow in February 2014. The Treasury Department later accused him of cooperating with a “network of Russian intelligence actors.” Ukrainian law enforcement has accused him of being recruited by Russian intelligence in the late 1990s. 

Voloshyn stayed behind in Ukraine, eventually becoming a member of parliament for a pro-Russian party. He traveled to Washington D.C. in September 2019, as Trump faced impeachment for his efforts to blackmail Ukraine into creating dirt on the Biden family. In February 2022, the Treasury Department sanctioned him as an “FSB pawn.” Within days, he had left Ukraine — just before Russia’s full-scale invasion. He told TPM at the time that the West was “resorting to threats of open violence” against him. He was later flagged by western intelligence agencies as someone who might make up a potential Russian government in Ukraine should Putin achieve a quick victory.

Kilimnik stayed behind in Ukraine for several years, before moving to Moscow in the late 2010s. During Trump’s first campaign, he had allegedly conspired on a proposed Ukraine peace deal with Manafort which would have seen their benefactor — Yanukovych — return to power. Multiple U.S. government agencies have described Kilimnik as linked to Russian intelligence in various ways. 

It was also during Trump’s first campaign that, as part of an effort to recoup payment from Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, Manafort gave internal Trump campaign polling data to Kilimnik. Per the Treasury Department, that information found its way to Russian intelligence. 

It all comes back to the same big questions: who was Manafort working for while in Ukraine? Was he pro-Ukraine accession to the EU? Pro-Yanukovych? Only pro-Manafort? Might Manafort, a savvy political operator, have understood that two of his Kyiv associates — Kilimnik and Sivkovych — had ties to Russian intelligence? How does that fit into his behavior during the 2016 campaign? 

Manafort went to creative lengths to suppress the answers to all of this, and, nearly a decade after he reemerged in U.S. politics, some of the original questions about what he had been up to while abroad remain unanswered.

Now, after receiving a pardon from Trump and mostly laying low during the Biden administration, Manafort is reportedly back, reportedly in part to help Trump “fundraise” as the candidate faces down massive judgements against him and looks for money wherever he can.  

That leads to yet another question about why he, in particular, is the man for the Trump campaign to tap at this moment. His old clients and colleagues from Ukraine have picked, or been forced to pick, a side; to a man, they’ve fled to Russia — some, like Voloshyn, as part of a potential pro-Russia shadow government-in-waiting. Manafort’s the only one with a question mark hanging over his head.

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Notable Replies

  1. Manafort represents himself, first, last and always. I don’t know what honey he’s dripping into TFG’s ears, but I’m sure he is firmly in the hands of Putin. It’s the continuing shame of his campaign that he associates with people like Ostrich Suits. He can not be re-elected next November; it is truly inconceivable.

  2. Manafort exudes sleaze, and there is no separating him from Roger Stone. They both belong in lock-up.

  3. Lots of very good questions, and excellent context.

    Thanks, TPM.

  4. I believe characterizing Manafort with a question mark as to his allegiance is way too generous.

  5. He and his old pal Stone are both straight-up psychopaths. Period. (Not that psychopaths have “pals” in the sense you or I would use the term).

    That is precisely what has made them malignant wildfire tumors on the body politic since they were working for Nixon.

Continue the discussion at forums.talkingpointsmemo.com

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