To fold Ukraine back into his Greater Russia, Putin first had to break its emerging ties with the West. To do so, he engaged former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.
Manafort, along with Roger Stone, was one of the founders of Black, Manafort & Stone, a lobbying firm that helped shape Ronald Reagan’s profile for his 1980 victory. That firm also gained another name around the world, where it became known as “The Torturer’s Lobby” for its starring role in helping to promote such figures as Philippine authoritarian Ferdinand Marcos, Angolan mass murderer Jonas Savimbi, and Zairian military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
As Spy magazine put it back in 1992, “The well-compensated flacks at Black, Manafort stand at the pinnacle of organizational apologism. Name a corrupt despot, and Black, Manafort will name [a price].”
That price was often quite high. Mobutu signed a million-dollar per year deal in 1989, but from all accounts, he got his money’s worth, because as The Washington Post said at the time, “Black Manafort counts some of the heaviest hitters in politics among its clientele, including President Bush and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp. … Paul Manafort, a partner in the firm, admitted to ‘influence peddling’ to win HUD contracts for his clients, including a housing project in New Jersey that local officials called a horrible waste of taxpayers money.”
What did Manafort’s influence-peddling get for Mobutu? Quite a lot. “[Mobutu] keeps coming back to Washington with his hand out, and Congress keeps filling that hand, in spite of the human rights abuses in Zaire and the inexplicable lack of progress by the country under his reign.”
In 2004, it was Ukraine’s turn.
In the decade following the Kharkiv water disaster, Ukraine had seen ample evidence that stronger ties to the West offered the nation’s best chance for progress. The nation was negotiating potential affiliations with both NATO and the European Union. Meanwhile, Putin was directly fueling corruption and instability in the country, as well as providing both literal and philosophical ammunition to those who wanted to see Ukraine hustle back under Russia’s wing.
The pro-Russian Party of Regions party had both an unsavory reputation as a group of oligarchs and crime bosses supported by Russia. In fact, the party had been created with Russian support as a means of pushing a pro-Russian viewpoint within Ukraine. While they had been successful at getting a lot of publicity, they had little success in placing their candidates in parliament. But in 2004, the Party of Regions officially shifted their positions to become more popular, embracing both many of the promises of the Communist Party and at the same time agreeing that Ukraine needed stronger ties to Europe. The party also brought in a group of high-priced political consultants—from Russia—to assist in planting propaganda about their opponents. Coincidentally, the leading candidate of the most popular party was disfigured by an unknown poison a month before election day.
The previously unsuccessful Party of Regions appeared to squeak out a surprise marginal victory, making candidate Viktor Yanukovych the new president. That lasted only long enough for the second round of voting, in which Yanukovych lost decisively. The period of instability between and around those elections, including the “Orange Revolution” calling for Yanukovych’s removal, eroded Ukraine’s progress toward becoming a stable democratic state.
Following this period of disruption, Yanukovych and the Party of Regions decided that they needed to bring in a real expert — Paul Manafort.
Two years later, as part of growing ties between Ukraine and NATO, U.S. Marines were visiting the Ukrainian city of Feodosia. The Marines were supposed to be part of a military exercise that would see NATO troops and Ukrainian military working together—a precursor to bringing Ukraine into NATO. Except the Marines fell under attack from “angry locals.”
“We had rocks thrown at us,” reported one Maine. “Rocks hit Marines. Buses were rocked back and forth. We were just trying to get to our base.”
The violence was bad enough that Marines were unable to reach either their base or their supply ship. Eventually, the situation was described as an anti-NATO “riot.” The joint exercise was canceled. However, later analysis of that “riot” showed it to be anything but a spontaneous outbreak of anti-Western sentiment.
American diplomatic cables and Ukrainian prosecutors say the anti-US, anti-NATO protests that threatened these Marines were largely partisan plants, organized by politicians who consulted with Paul Manafort, now the prominent campaign aide to presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Manafort’s staged riot did more than cancel a single exercise. It became the “evidence” that Ukrainians didn’t really want ties with NATO. Nine years later, Vladimir Putin directly cited this event to support his claim that Ukrainians supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine that resulted in the occupation of Crimea.
By the time a spiraling list of charges against Manafort caused him to step back as the official head of Trump’s campaign. Manafort had been paid over $12.7 million by pro-Russian forces inside Ukraine. Over a 15-year relationship, one that continued even as he was working for Trump, Manafort helped to spread propaganda, protect corruption, and conduct illegal lobbying in the U.S. all in support of increasing Russia’s claim on Ukraine.
And it wasn’t all filtered through the Party of Regions. In 2005, in between his being hired to help Yanukovych and the attack on those U.S. Marines, Manafort went to Russian officials directly. At that meeting, Manafort “offered to help Vladimir Putin advance Moscow’s interests.” In a memo obtained by the Associated Press, Manafort wrote to oligarch Oleg Deripaska to ensure the Putin ally that he could provide: “a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.” Deripaska would then sign Manafort up for a $10 million contract.
As the Republican-led Senate report on Trump’s connections with Russia in 2016 found:
“Paul Manafort’s connections to Russia and Ukraine began in approximately late 2004 with the start of his work for Oleg Deripaska and other Russia-aligned oligarchs in Ukraine. … The Russian government coordinates with and directs Deripaska on many of his influence operations.”
Something else that Manafort did in 2005 — he hired Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik as an employee of his consulting firm. Kilimnik would go on to become Manafort’s primary operative in Ukraine, as well as his intermediary in dealings with Vladimir Putin.
With Manafort’s help, and the injection of untold millions from Russia, the Part of Regions gradually absorbed other Ukrainian parties, inked a supposed commitment to the European parliament, and pushed for prosecutions of officials in the ruling party. By 2010, Yanukovych was president for a second time. However, despite having campaigned on support for an already initialed agreement that would make Ukraine an affiliate of the European Union, Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement. Instead, he signed onto a deal that strengthened Ukraine’s connection with, and dependence on, Russia. The result was two years of protests eventually leading to Yanukovych’s ouster (again) in 2014.
It was only in the wake of this second collapse that ledgers and records began to reveal the extent of Manafort’s role in keeping Ukraine broken and unable to stand up to Putin.
The handoff from Manafort to Trump, when it comes to the ongoing injury to Ukraine, was a smooth one. As the Senate report described in 2020:
“Manafort hired and worked increasingly closely with a Russian national, Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer. Kilimnik became an integral part of Manafort’s operations in Ukraine and Russia, serving as Manafort’s primary liaison to Deripaska and eventually managing Manafort’s office in Kyiv.”
And when it came to the Trump campaign:
“Prior to joining the Trump Campaign in March 2016 and continuing throughout his time on the Campaign, Manafort directly and indirectly communicated with Kilimnik, Deripaska, and the pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine.”
That included injecting into the Trump campaign a “peace plan for eastern Ukraine that benefited the Kremlin.”
Trump’s association with pro-Russian oligarchs and the remnants of Yanukovych’s failed regime would then become the basis of the second act for Ukraine and Trump — the one in which Trump tried to leverage Ukraine into a weapon he could use against Joe Biden.
With Rudy Giuliani acting as his agent on the ground, Trump established ties with disgraced prosecutors, exiled oligarchs, and a series of corrupt officials. All of them were willing to give Trump what he wanted: False claims against Biden and his son, Hunter. What they wanted was never in doubt — support for Russia’s goals inside of Ukraine.
To clear the way for this activity, Trump dismissed a well-respected and experienced ambassador so that Giuliani could operate more freely. This came shortly after the New York Times began running a series of false claims by Giuliani that undercut Ukraine’s sitting government and applied a broad brush of corruption to the people and agencies tasked with ending the corruption being sponsored by Putin through Deripaska, Kilimnik, and others.
Ultimately, Trump would attempt to blackmail the president of Ukraine by putting him into an impossible position. In exchange for vital support, Trump would require the Ukrainian government to not only lie about Clinton, but to prove that it was just as corrupt as the opposition claimed. To give Trump what he wanted, president Volodymyr Zelensky wouldn’t have been just lying about Joe Biden, he would have been undercutting the foundation of his own government. There was no right solution to the dilemma Trump posed—just a choice of roads to destruction.
When Trump and Putin met in 2018, Putin said that Trump agreed that Crimea belonged to Russia, and that he would “help resolve the conflict” by following the plan Manafort and Kilimnik created, essentially dividing Ukraine down the middle and handing one half to Russia.
But of course, Trump didn’t stop with battering Ukraine. He also helped Putin from the other end. Throughout his time in the White House, Trump constantly attacked NATO, dangled the possibility of the U.S. dropping out of the alliance, and suggested simply destroying the organization. Trump’s actions not only led to an extreme distrust of the U.S. as an ally—especially after the sacrifices NATO nations made in Afghanistan—it left divisions in the organization that are still affecting the ability to mount an effective opposition to Putin’s threats.
The thread that runs from Putin to Manafort to Trump is far from the only infiltration that the Russian leader has made into the Republican Party. Americans have seen such spectacles as Republican senators choosing to spend their 4th of July holiday visiting with Putin. Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson have become reliable mouthpieces for Russian disinformation, and Republican admiration for the authoritarian leader of the Kremlin has been boundless.
Republican actions demonstrating love for Putin is too widespread to be contained in this or any article. So is Russian expertise in using social media to widen social and political divides in the United States. Even definitive proof that Russia engaged in campaign interference that included sending Russian agents to put “boots on the ground” in the U.S. in order to create fake “grassroots” protests, did nothing but deepen the Republican bonds to the Russian dictator. That Russian state media now has an entire network devoted to strengthening the bonds between Putin and wannabe authoritarians around the world doesn’t hurt.
But over the last few weeks, Fox News has conducted a spectacular display of how willing they are to join in with Russia to invade and dismember a U.S. ally, and how eager they are to consider protecting democracy a “threat” that deserves attack.
While this theme has pervaded Fox’s broadcasts, nowhere has it been so jaw-droppingly straightforward as in the weeks Tucker Carlson has spent forwarding the Kremlin’s agenda. That’s included praising Putin’s “strength,” talking up Russia for its “energy resources,” and dismissing the whole idea that there is anything admirable about supporting a long-time ally.
As the situation on Ukraine’s borders gets worse, so does Carlson.
If this looks like a fifth-column effort to forward Russia’s agenda in the United States, that’s only because that’s exactly what it is. Not only that, it’s an effective fifth-column effort.
Paul Manafort was instrumental in making possible Putin’s first (and still ongoing) invasion of Ukraine. Now the legacy of Donald Trump, paired with ongoing efforts from pro-Russian Republicans and Fox News, are key to utterly destroying a longtime U.S. ally. Currently, more than 100,000 Russian forces now located just outside that nation. There is little doubt that, should Putin decide to attack, he can overwhelm the nation’s defenses in a matter of days and install pro-Russian puppets in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Fox News continues to undermine support for defending Ukraine with a pro-Russian position that the station has been pushing for months.
With the possibility of conflict not just on the horizon, but facing both the U.S. and Ukraine hour by hour, it’s worth noting that the answer to Tucker Carlson’s question of “Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?” is a simple one: Because Ukraine has been a U.S. ally for decades, to whom we’ve made both diplomatic and military promises. On the other hand, Russia is a longtime antagonist—if not an outright enemy—which has worked tirelessly to undermine the U.S. position at home and abroad, including direct interference in U.S. elections and engaging in extensive propaganda efforts designed to weaken America through raising racial tensions.
There is no world in which Ukraine represents a threat to Russia. It does, however, represent a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s vaunting ambitions to stitch together a Russian empire in the shape of the expired Soviet Union. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and has occupied Crimea since that time. It has also funded rebels in eastern Ukraine—some of whom are certainly Russian military forces—creating a constant crisis that drains Ukraine’s resources and resolve.
Support for Ukraine by NATO—and support of NATO within Ukraine—is far from a new thing, and far from something pushed only by the United States. The same thing goes for other connections between Ukraine and the West. This is a former Soviet republic that has desperately sought to escape from the criminal organization that is Putin’s Russia, but has failed to make that escape, in large part because Republicans in the U.S. have been complicit in shoving them back toward Moscow.
What happens now is still up in the air, but any situation that doesn’t end with Ukraine being strong, whole, and more closely supported by the West, is a win for Putin and his minions: Tucker Carlson, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump.