In what will doubtless be remembered by historian as a terrible political miscalculation, the Ukrainian government did not take Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seriously enough in 2016. The Poroshenko administration had made transparent overtures to Hilary Clinton, and when the campaign was coming down to its final frenzied weeks, they doubled down on that tacit support. At the very least, Kyiv did nothing to dispel the impression of having taken sides. Admittedly, they were very far from being the only ones to have made that costly mistake. When Trump ultimately ascended to power, those overtures were not forgotten or forgiven. As is now well known by anyone who keeps track of Kyiv politics, the Ukrainians have since paid for their lack of foresight with months of anxiety and the necessity of having to engage in bouts of hectic lobbying during the first months of the Trump presidency.
Last Wednesday, Andrew Kramer of The New York Times published a stunning article in the exact aftermath of the official Ukrainian confirmation that advanced American Javelin anti-tank missiles had been delivered to Ukrainian warehouses. Kyiv had long campaigned to receive the symbolic and lethal aide which had been denied to them by the outgoing Obama administration, with the final decision to sell them having been made last December. Kramer alleged a direct causal link between the final sale of the missiles and Ukrainian legal action in relation to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager. Manafort, who had made millions of dollars in consulting for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, before he was deposed at the conclusion of the 2014 Maidan revolution, is now widely viewed as a pivotal figure in the ongoing Russian collusion probe being led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Kramer’s Times piece boldly posited that Ukraine had brokered at the presidential level a transparent political deal with Trump, releasing the prized missiles in exchange for Ukraine dropping pursuit of Manafort in the numerous cases opened against him. The allegations were quickly seized upon in many circles as a logical continuation of the Russia collusion story. In that purview, President Trump is seen as one more pliant oligarch for President Poroshenko to strike a deal with. The allegation was received with naked partisan glee despite being, at this juncture in time, a tendentious claim that remains to be proven definitively.
The Political commentator Matthew Yglesias laid out the American domestic implications of the piece quite cogently:
It’s also a country that’s at the center of Mueller’s legal case against Paul Manafort, and scoring legal wins against Manafort may be an important step in trying to turn him into a cooperating witness against President Trump or other members of his family. Naturally, then, Mueller and his team are interested in securing the Ukrainian government’s cooperation with his investigation since financial records and business dealings in Ukraine are critical to some of the charges. Conveniently for Trump, there’s no indication that US officials directly told the Ukrainians that shutting down cooperation with Mueller was a condition of getting the anti-tank missiles.
Kramer’s article is certainly a useful contribution, and his core assumptions and framework are undeniably correct in positing that president Petro Poroshenko has largely succeeded in framing a transactional relationship with Trump based on commonality of practical interests rather than appeals to geopolitical values or any other sort of values. It is the sort of pragmatic business relationship that one would expect to blossom between two billionaire business executives turned heads of state.
In the days after the publication of this important piece, a lively debate broke out over it among journalists, analysts, and political operatives who work on Ukrainian issues. Many in my circle questioned the subtext of the article as well as its possible implications. Yet the Times investigation was neither airtight in terms of legal procedure in proving a quid pro quo, nor did Kramer go far enough in asking Ukrainian officials the difficult and embarrassing questions. There are also multiple interpretations of the details that emerged in Kramer’s story, as well as issues that have been questioned by critics. Notably, Volodymyr Ariev, the influential Poroshenko bloc member of Parliament who is quoted in the article as having readily acknowledged that Kyiv put the investigation of Manafort’s activities “in the long-term box,” took to Facebook after the piece was published to insist that he had been quoted out of context. Ariev insisted that his lengthy and nuanced quote about his own assumptions about possible issues had in fact been shortened.
Granted, the Ukrainians are incredibly sensitive to international criticism, and their first impulse in light of damaging press would be to deny everything. Yet Kramer’s article does conclusively demonstrate a previous lack of an official American request for Ukrainian bilateral cooperation with the Mueller investigation. Serhiy Horbatyuk, the special investigations head of the General Prosecutor’s office, explicitly states in the article that his January missive had gone unanswered. Horbatyuk also claims that he has no authority to continue his investigation, having recently been blocked from continuing to do so (though of course questions of jurisdiction arise). Whether the prosecutor is a trustworthy and reliable narrator is a question that we shall return to later.
Likely disquieted by the international furor that was created by the story, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko (who is very much a Poroshenko loyalist) quickly signaled his willingness to coordinate with the US on the Manafort case, and complained of not having gotten results previously. “The ball is on the U.S. side… (we) can’t finish our investigation without their results” he is quoted as saying.
Special prosecutors Horbatyuk and Mueller can only engage with law enforcement agencies in other countries on the ministerial level, operating along well defined international protocols. They cannot just call each other, even as both would likely want to. The deep and sensational conclusion of Kramer’s story for various seasoned Ukraine analysts and journalists was exactly the stunning implication that Lutsenko’s counterpart, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was blocking official requests for Manafort-related investigations from either Mueller, the Ukrainian authorities, or both.
Ukrainian-American lawyers familiar with legal procedures in both countries have informed Tablet that the US Attorney General is explicitly designated as the receiving authority of any such requests on the American side, according to the bilateral treaty obligations. They also further wondered about the issue of the attorney general having designated a deputy for dealing with any Ukrainian-Mueller related issues after he had recused himself from the Russian investigation. If an official request had indeed been blocked, that would certainly constitute a scandal and a significant story. It would also point to a deal having been struck between the Bankova (the seat of Kyiv’s presidential administration and the White House), but such a deal is at this point purely speculative. If the Ukrainian authorities had (reasonably) decided of their own accord to avoid antagonizing Trump, and no official requests had come from the Americans, well who could blame them for downgrading the importance of the Manafort probe?
There is however a great deal of insider politics on the Ukrainian side that needs to be taken into account in ascertaining the deeper meaning of what might very well be targeted planting of information by elements within the Ukrainian government. As I reported for Tablet a year ago in my interview with the reformist opposition MP Serhiy Leshchenko (he spoke about this to multiple other outlets as well), all the Manafort material that we have was leaked by the NABU (National Anti-Corruption Bureau), the anti-corruption prosecutors who compete with the General Prosecutor’s office. Those people are not Horbatyuk’s friends, and having been created to be independent of the GPO they are not under the political control of the Ukrainian president either.
Horbatyuk is chiefly known in Ukraine for having—depending on your politics and allegiance—either failed dismally in his mandate to bring cases of the Maidan killings to trial after four years or, conversely, for having tried to do so heroically despite institutional roadblocks in his path. Some Ukrainians that I spoke with view his comments as being transparent attempts to deflect attention from a perceived lack of effectiveness in his role. Others, including a prominent Maidan activist and journalist, informed me that he is widely respected, especially by human rights activists. Horbatyuk’s intentions to prosecute as they are outlined in the Times piece are, under another view, rather inconsequential because of the obvious jurisdiction issues. That is with the exception of the intentions of prosecuting any Manafort-related cases that took place on Ukrainian territory (rather than say in Cyprus or America).
One logical question that Kramer might have asked his interlocutors is what additional information is there for Mueller to have received from the Ukrainian side? The particulars of Manafort’s financial dealings with Yanukovych and the massive cash payouts that he took are by now well known by everyone, though of course hard evidence of the financial operations that took place on Ukrainian soil would need to be provided to complete the circle for Mueller’s investigation. The ledger of illegal payments left behind by fleeing pro-Russian politicians is embarrassing for sure, but it is weak tea in terms of evidence proving collusion. Paul Manafort’s widely reported connection to the Kremlin-linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska is the most obvious likely connection that Mueller would have to attempt to leverage in proving possible collusion between the Trump administration and the Russian government.
Kramer’s article concludes with speculations that veer off in the wrong direction, including the infamous “black ledger” payments. If what the Ukrainian intelligence agencies have—I have been informed by people involved in the intelligence world that they have been observing Manafort carefully since at least 2005—is a serious threat to Trump, it is certainly not the black ledger. David Sakvarelidze, a former deputy prosecutor general, is quoted at the very end of the article, but he was sacked two years ago by Lutsenko’s predecessor. There is no reason for him to have details of government deliberations. Was the cooperation of various Ukrainian authorities with the Times part of an exceedingly clever gambit to telegraph their intentions to the Trump administration? Some of my more cynical colleagues certainly seem to think so. Or, was it an even more guileful attempt to plague the administration by revealing to anyone who is seriously paying attention that attorney General Jeff Sessions is stonewalling Mueller’s investigation in Ukraine? For Kyiv, a Trump administration reset with Russia must be avoided at all costs, and Ukrainian elites may very well have calculated that Trump should be conditioned by a mutual destruction pact to fear Ukrainian revelations as much as some now think he fears Russian ones.
On a grander level of course, all this points to the larger problem for countries that wish to be allied with the United States on a foundation of shared interests and values, but instead find themselves forced into alliances with one American political party or the other, making an enemy of the other party. American partisan warfare now engulfs the entire planet, harming both American interests and the interests of our prospective allies. The Ukrainians in many ways charted their course years ago, and are now ensnared in having to engage in internecine American party politics in order to continue receiving security guarantees. For years, both sides in the Washington political class have been taking Ukrainian money. The Ukrainians now find themselves locked into that relationship to the detriment of what they actually need: Stability, political neutrality, and the experience of having to make formal arrangements with rule-based political systems and depersonalized institutions rather than individuals. Ukraine is now deeply entrenched in American party politics in a way that is fairly bizarre, and the Ukrainianization of American politics continues apace. We have only ourselves to blame.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.