The Paulie Plot in Ukraine

Last weekend, the UK formally released an intelligence assessment that part of Russia’s plans in Ukraine involve a plot to replace Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a pro-Kremlin functionary.

The NYT version of the story noted that the four people named in the alleged plot all have ties to Paul Manafort.

All four of the other Ukrainians named in the communiqué once held senior positions in the Ukrainian government and worked in proximity to Paul Manafort, former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign manager, when he worked as a political adviser to Ukraine’s former Russian-backed president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. After Mr. Yanukovych’s government fell in 2014, they fled to Russia.

It also claimed that, because of a division of labor within the Five Eyes, this intelligence came from the UK.

In Washington, officials said they believe the British intelligence is correct. Two officials said it had been collected by British intelligence services. Within the informal intelligence alliance known as “Five Eyes,” Britain has primary responsibility for intercepting Russian communications, which is why it played a major role in exposing Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

I noted that you might make such a claim if the collection point (reflected in the Manafort tie) were not a legal NSA target to the US.

Indeed, NBC’s Ken Dilanian explained (but did not include in his story) that this was US intelligence announced by the UK.

It would make sense that this kind of intelligence came from the US — though if it did, it might well come from the FBI, not NSA.

When Manafort traded campaign strategy to Russia for relief from his debt to Oleg Deripaska on August 2, 2016, his cooperation in a series of similar efforts to install a Russian functionary to head Ukraine was part of the deal. Citing numerous documents obtained from Manafort’s devices, Mueller made public Manafort’s participation in the effort through the time he went to jail in 2018.

We can be certain that FBI has continued its investigation of such issues. We can be sure of that because we know (in part from Treasury’s increasing focus on Kilimnik) that FBI has developed a better understanding of Konstantin Kilimnik’s role in both 2016 and his ongoing efforts to undermine US democracy in 2020. We know that because DOJ continues to protect large swaths of  Mueller’s files on Kilimnik’s other American partner, Sam Patten, which significantly focused on who was who in Ukraine and the various tools Russia used to manage the country via client politicians. The same is true of Rick Gates’ interviews. But we also know that, thanks in part to Trump’s continued ties to anti-democratic efforts in Ukraine, the FBI has continued to investigate what has been going on in Ukraine. Not only has EDNY conducted an investigation into Andrii Derkach, but Special Master Barbara Jones just handed over a bunch of Rudy Giuliani’s communications involving such issues to the FBI.

One thing we learned from all those investigations was that Paul Manafort was the guy Oleg Deripaska had employed, for years, to use the tools of modern campaigning, leavened by a great deal of corruption, to install puppet governments who would cater to Deripaska’s business interests. In 2016, Russia deployed Manafort to the United States to do the same thing in the US.

With the distance of almost six years, it may be safe to say that Russia succeeded in their 2016 attempt to interfere in the US election not so much from a failure of US intelligence collection in Russia (after all, the FBI warned the DNC it was being hacked in real time). It was — in addition to a misunderstanding of the WikiLeaks operation — a failure of US intelligence collection in Ukraine, whence the human side of the operation was significantly launched. The US has dedicated a good deal of energy to addressing that failure in recent years, though Russia continued to use Ukraine as a platform from which to undermine US democracy through the 2020 election.

Ukraine was then, as now, the test ground for Russia’s larger efforts to either subject “democracy” to the whims of kleptocracy or discredit democracy beyond the ability to govern. Among the things Russia tested on that ground was the 2017 NotPetya attack, which did devastating damage to a slew of companies who did nothing more than do business with Ukraine; I would be surprised if Putin hadn’t at least entertained similar efforts in the months ahead.

Before 2016, the US had the hubris to believe its own democracy was immune from such efforts (and that its tolerance for money laundering would not, in fact, foster kleptocracies on the other side of the world that could damage the US in turn).

Amid debates about how (or whether) the US should respond to Russia’s aggression, some have raised real questions whether, in the wake of January 6, the US has any place lecturing Ukraine about its democracy and whether the US wouldn’t be better, instead, putting its own house in order. It’s a fair question. But it misunderstands how 2016 led directly to January 6. It also misunderstands Russia’s project in Ukraine and beyond, which is of a piece with its earlier attack on  American democracy.

We may not have a NATO commitment to defend Ukraine from Russia’s assault (though we do have a NATO commitment to defend NATO allies that Russia has likewise threatened). But we’ve recently seen that attacks on Ukraine are just the prototype for larger attacks elsewhere.

Update: Both Jonathan Swan and Jonathan Weisman have pieces out today attempting to explain why Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Greene Taylor are rooting for Putin in his aggression against Ukraine that don’t mention that Putin helped get Trump elected.

The backstory: Two observable shifts have happened in the GOP electorate over the past 15 years. The first is a growing skepticism about foreign intervention in general — frustration and anger still fueled by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The second is a more recent warming towards Russia — initiated by the party’s most powerful figure, Donald Trump.
  • Trump’s rhetoric about Putin was a far cry from 2012 when the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney warned that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” (Prominent Democrats mocked Romney at the time but in the age of Trump endorsed his view and apologized).
18 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    Reading this, I am reminded that Manafort received a narrow pardon that covered the offenses that he was convicted of. Contrast that with Steve Bannon’s more expansive pardon, covering acts for which he was charged, as well as “any other offenses” that may arise or be charged coming out of that investigation.

    From the post:

    When Manafort traded campaign strategy to Russia for relief from his debt to Oleg Deripaska on August 2, 2016, his cooperation in a series of similar efforts to install a Russian functionary to head Ukraine was part of the deal.

    Two thoughts:

    (1) Manafort may have thought that giving Russia the Trump campaign strategy information would get him relief from his debt to Deripaska, but it actually only placed him in more danger. “Paul, Paul, Paul. It would be a shame if CNN were to learn of the documents that you have given us. But there is a favor you could do, that might make us less likely to share that story with others . . .”

    (2) Given the intensifying US/Russia clash over Ukraine, I am certain that State and CIA are turning over every rock to see what the earlier administration (and its unofficial proxies) were doing in Ukraine. That has to be making Manafort very very nervous. His tradecraft was abysmal — see the ham-handed ways he tried to hide his financial dealings from the IRS and state tax investigators — and his pardon will not shield him. With every day that passes with no overt approaches from the FBI, Manafort will be getting more and more schizophrenic. “Maybe I’m in the clear . . . or maybe they are just waiting to surprise me . . .”

    However you look at things, Paulie has to be sweating bullets right now. And if he isn’t, he’s stupider than I thought.

  2. John Paul Jones says:

    Just curious: whatever Patten is being looked at for, and thus potentially charged with, is there a statute of limitations problem? Apologies if this is a dumb question, but though I read EW every day, I have difficulty keeping all the strands in my head, and am frankly awed that Dr Wheeler is able to do so.

  3. FiestyBlueBird says:

    Reading this, I am reminded of the young practicing baton twirler in the gym the other day, two spinning batons in the air, one baton briefly in hand for its next toss a fraction of a second before another catch and release in the repeated flow.

    Marcy’s mind and the girl in the gym…


  4. arbusto says:

    Interesting little aside about US disinclination pursuing money laundering since tfg is/was well known for his laundry service but, I believe, never indicted.

  5. Rapier says:

    One can easily posit a scenario where Russia begins cyber attacks which scramble ordinary life, testing every aspect of public safety and the personal well being of tens of millions, used as a trigger for armed attacks by militias on any damn target that springs into their drama queen heads.

    Nobody seems to recognize that one likely outcome would be the complete dislocation of the financial markets and financial system. In a few weeks everything you think you know about living in the US will be obsolete.

    • Rayne says:

      Trashing the financial system would be mutually assured destruction. If this were an option for Putin he wouldn’t be whining so much about SWIFT or the Magnitsky Act or other financial sanctions because he’d be fully divested from the system.

      And if he took down the global financial system he could no longer count on other countries which don’t trust the US.

  6. jasondamus says:

    I’m a frequent reader and Marcy’s analytical synthesis is indispensable when it comes to cutting through the firehose of falsehood. That being said, this was the post that jarringly crystalized and brought home the whole of the interconnected web of corruption. It put things into perspective… my only hope, and I know they’re working post-haste, is that the January 6th committee gets their work done accurately and expeditiously and that the DOJ picks up what they’re laying down.

  7. MyUncleFred says:

    Great post.

    But what has worried me more is this: there are indicators that tfg and Manafort are hardly outliers among the oligopolistic classes of the US. It appears that their are many who at best have divided loyalties caused by opportunities (either economic or political power) associated with Putin’s Russia. There appear to be others who see his form of kleptocracy as being in alignment with their personal interests and something to emulate in the US. Meanwhile, there can be no doubt that there are many other compromised individuals beyond the obvious grifters exposed in tfg’s circle.

    A great deal of (private) organization exists among the privileged classes in America. Organization of which we only see the smallest bit. But I believe it is reasonable to conclude that some substantial portion of these powerful people would rather align with Putin than with their fellow countrymen. After all, kleptocracy is great for those at the top.

    • Leoghann says:

      That article, as a sideline, also exposes the incestuous nature of Republican politics. Not only did Wead coauthor a book with Poppy Bush, he’s being represented in this felony case by Jay Sekulow and Jane Raskin.

      His partner in crime, Jesse Benton, ran Moscow Mitch’s Senate campaign in 2014, before an early felony investigation (he’s had several charges and a couple of convictions, all campaign related) caused him to lay low. He is married to the first cousin of another Kentucky politico we all know and love, Rand Paul. That makes him Ron Paul’s grandson-in-law. And he has worked for both Pauls off and on for years, as an aide and a campaign manager.

  8. ThomasM says:

    I asked a right winger I know what she thought about the Ukrainian situation, without missing a beat she declared that Russia should take over. I guess I was a little surprised, a random person on the right apparently all in for Russia, Maybe I shouldn’t be, after all it was no secret the former president liked Russia….trump is a subordinate to Putin but now their gangs are apparently united?

  9. Zinsky says:

    These are excellent observations and background material. I also recall a lawsuit that Oleg Deripaska filed against Manafort and Rick Gates for $25 million. Details here:

    Is this lawsuit still active? Is Deripaska going to call in this marker anytime soon? With all the great intelligence minds on this site, I would be curious, if anyone has any updates. Thank you!

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