SCOOP: Leaked emails of Trump-linked ‘Russian spy’ Kilimnik reveal full story of Ukraine back channels to the EU

SCOOP: Leaked emails of Trump-linked ‘Russian spy’ Kilimnik reveal full story of Ukraine back channels to the EU
bne obtained the emails of Konstantin Kilimnik, assistant to Trump’s now disgraced election campaign manager Paul Manafort, that show how they built back channels to the EU for Yanukovych in an effort to move Ukraine towards the west / wiki
By Graham Stack in Berlin August 31, 2020

The US Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian meddling in the US 2016 election named Konstantin Kilimnik – assistant to Trump’s now disgraced election campaign manager Paul Manafort - a Russian spy, but failed to get hold of his communications. bne IntelliNews has now read hundreds of Kilimnik’s emails, which reveal the details of his and his boss Manafort’s previous influence operation, aiming to build Western support for Ukraine’s controversial president Viktor Yanukovych by means of European Union integration and reforms.

The August 20 US Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections named Konstantin Kilimnik a Russian intelligence officer and called his partnership with Trump’s one time campaign manager Paul Manafort “a grave counterintelligence threat” to the US.

The report found that “Manafort's presence on the [Trump’s 2016] Campaign and proximity to Trump created opportunities for Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign.”

Manafort and Kilimnik were part of a Trump campaign back channel to the Kremlin, argued the report, resulting from “Trump's desire to deepen ties with Russia, to pursue unofficial channels through which Russia could conduct diplomacy.”

At the same time, the Committee acknowledged it “has no records of, and extremely limited insight into, Kilimnik's communications."

bne IntelliNews has now obtained hundreds of Kilimnik’s mails from 2009-2016 to gain insight into the mysterious Russian, his relationship to Manafort, and their joint relationship to Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych European campaign

Yanukovych was elected in 2010, but ousted by Ukraine’s opposition in February 2014 during the Euromaidan demonstrations after months of protests following his decision to reject the EU’s Association Agreement during the Vilnius EU summit in November 2013. Yanukovych then fled for Russia after his police shot down protestors in the heart of Kyiv.

The leaked emails reveal how Manafort and Kilimnik had previously built a back channel for Yanukovych, similar to the one they allegedly attempted for Trump.

Manafort’s Ukraine back channel kept plans on track for Ukraine to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, but ended up triggering domestic turmoil – just as the 2016 Trump election did in the USA.

Manafort’s lawyer declined to comment on the emails. Kilimnik did not respond to attempts to contact him via social media. He has previously denied working as a Russian intelligence officer since 1994.

"[Manafort]  was a figure who was moving Yanukovych and his administration in the Western direction. In a sad way he is a hostage of intentional lies and superficial understanding of Ukraine by the Western elites.(...) My importance was way overblown because a Russian body was needed to make the Russiagate sexy," Kilimnik told bne IntelliNews via email. Kilimnik was not the source of the emails seen by bne IntelliNews. 

‘Friends of Ukraine’    

Yanukovych won the Ukrainian presidency from then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a hard-fought second round of elections on February 7, 2010. His winning margin was only 3%. Yanukovych came from the Russian-speaking East of Ukraine and he had committed to not pursuing NATO membership for Ukraine, so all eyes were on which capital city he would visit on his first international trip as president. This would be a sign of whether he would lead Ukraine back to Moscow or forward to the West.

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. It didn't happen as he was never satisfied with deal that Brussels offered – there were too many strings and not enough cash.

On March 1, his first foreign trip as newly minted president was to the EU capital of Brussels. In a meeting with European Commission President, he named integration with the European Union as Ukraine’s key foreign policy priority. On the table was a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area as well as an Association Agreement, which together would irreversibly commit Ukraine to Europe.

The leaked emails show that Manafort influenced Yanukovych’s decision to visit Brussels as first stop, working in concert with his assistant Konstantin Kilimnik and Yanukovych’s chief of staff – and Manafort’s paymaster – oligarch Serhiy Lovochkin. 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. But Yanukovych often ignored their advice.

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.”

The back channel was operational by the time of Yanukovych’s first EU-Ukraine Vilnius summit in November 22, 2010. Manafort met with Bildt and Sikorski in the run-up on November 17.

“He reported back that after the “very positive” meeting, the two foreign ministers “are ready to work in a number of directions that we want. Moreover, they now believe they have a channel to the Ukrainian leadership that will have long-term significance and benefit for helping Ukraine in relations with the EU”,” the emails say. As a result “on November 22 both sides will commit to reaching agreement on the free trade zone as fast as possible.”

The November 2010 summit suggested that Ukraine could sign the Association Agreement by end of 2011. Kyiv’s main concern over the DCFTA was the need for adjustment time, since Ukraine was reeling after a 20% collapse in GDP 2008-9, having been the world’s worst hit country during the global financial crisis.

Beyond the EU summit, the next big goal for Manafort and Kilimnik was to score a summit meeting between Yanukovych and US president Barak Obama – preferably in Ukraine. The ideal venue for this would be the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe on April 26, 2011. This would be a symbolic moment given Obama’s campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and Yanukovych’s readiness to discard Ukraine’s remaining stockpile of enriched uranium.

Manafort and Kilimnik set all gears in motion to achieve this. Manafort held a succession of meetings with top US foreign policy officials, including members of the US National Security Council such as Daniel Russel, with Larry Silverman, Director of the Office of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus Affairs, and with US ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft. The challenge was tall: “He [Obama] doesn’t much like travelling, but we should keep pushing for this,” Manafort told Yanukovych. “We have to pressure [Tefft].”

Tymoshenko trials

The Obama visit never happened. Instead of Obama visiting Ukraine in April, Yanukovych only got a frosty telephone call with Biden on March 2. The reason: Ukraine’s prosecutor general had started a criminal investigation of opposition leader Tymoshenko in December 2010, prompting international accusations of political persecution.

Manafort and Kilimnik tried to convey to Yanukovych the damage done. “We see the results of the persecution already today in the stance of Western governments to us and in the attitude of the Ukrainian electorate,” they wrote to him. “The persecution has revived the instability and chaos that people associate with the rule of [former president Viktor] Yushchenko and Tymoshenko [2006-2010]. The most important thing is to stop the persecution of Tymoshenko,” they implored Yanukovych in January 2011.

But Yanukovych ignored them. By the summer of 2011, as the trial moved towards sentencing, the full impact of Tymoshenko imprisonment on Ukraine’s chances of integration with the EU was clear. “If Tymoshenko is found guilty and sentenced to prison, we have to understand that the atmosphere will boil over and become very negative towards you. Essentially we are talking about the government of Ukraine being pitted against all of world opinion,” Manafort wrote to Yanukovych in August 2011.

“The meeting and talks I have had after our meeting in New York bear witness that the atmosphere will become very emotional and extremely negative towards you. (…) The voices of our friends are becoming quieter and their ability to help us is dwindling rapidly. Within the EU a consensus is forming that all talks with Ukraine should stop (…) the ‘freezing’ of relations with Ukraine will last until the Tymoshenko question is settled positively,” Manafort continued.

Manafort and Kilimnik begged Yanukovych to push for an “insufficient evidence” verdict for Tymoshenko, so that she walk free from the courtroom, while Yanukovych saved face. It didn’t happen. On October 11, 2011, Tymoshenko received a seven-year sentence for exceeding her powers as prime minister.

Habsburg Group

The Tymoshenko debacle divided the West into two camps on Ukraine, Manafort and Kilimnik told Yanukovych: the supporters of Tymoshenko and the geopolitical supporters of Ukraine. The former “believe that Tymoshenko’s persecution is the decisive event in Ukrainian politics and that the Association Agreement and DCFTA - and basically the entire policy of integration with Ukraine - should be stopped until the political persecution of Tymoshenko ceases,” they wrote to Yanukovych.

The second group were for continuing fast integration of Ukraine in Western structures, despite Tymoshenko’s jailing. They included the stalwarts of Manafort’s back channel: Sikorksi, Bildt, Fule, Biden and to a lesser extent Barroso. Manafort and Kilimnik told Yanukovych he could strengthen this group’s position by carrying out pro-EU reforms. “Our friends in the West have not abandoned us, but they need help from us to withstand the pressure from the Tymoshenko supporters,” they wrote in August 2011.

Yanukovych took this advice: in 2013 he passed an EU-approved reform of criminal justice that swept away repressive Soviet-era structures, and also electoral law reform according to EU requirements.

In 2012, to amplify the back channel, Manafort hired the ‘Habsburg Group’ – a group of European elder statesmen who received millions from Ukraine to lobby Europe and the US in favour of Ukraine’s Association Agreement, as reported earlier by bne IntelliNews. The Habsburg group included former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former President of the European Commission Roman Prodi and former Chancellor of Austria Alfred Gusenbauer.

The main thrust of their talking points provided by Manafort was that Europe should not link the Association Agreement to freedom for Tymoshenko, but to Ukraine’s reforms. Strengthening Manafort’s hand was that Poland’s Kwasniewski held an official mandate from the European Parliament to work for Tymoshenko’s freedom. But at the same time Lovochkin and Manafort were secretly paying him to lobby for the EU to sign Ukraine’s Association Agreement, as reported by OCCRP.

Kwasniewsi denied there was any conflict of interest in comments to bne IntelliNews, or that he had received any money from Manafort, whom he described as “pro-Europe.” Gusenbauer said he nothing to add to previous reporting, while Prodi’s office did not respond to request for comments.

Manafort’s and Kilimnik’s back channel won through: the EU finally agreed to sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine at the summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, November 2013, although Tymoshenko still languished in jail.

The Empire strikes back

Yet again, Yanukovych threw a spanner in the European project’s works. Under huge pressure from the Kremlin, which was threatening an all-out trade war, he postponed signing the Association Agreement – triggering the Euromaidan protests that ended with his ouster in February 2014. His vacillation over Europe plunged Ukraine into crisis.

Manafort’s experience in building a back channel for Yanukovych later moved him to try the same trick for Trump in 2016. And like in Ukraine, the back channel triggered domestic turmoil – in the form of spiralling partisan polarisation.

Both back channels then backfired on Manafort. The Robert Mueller Special Counsel investigation into alleged collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia saw Manafort get sentenced to 7 and a half years. But he was not sentenced for any back channel created for Trump, but for his back channel work in Ukraine - in hiring the ‘Habsburg Group’ - as well as not paying taxes in the US on his Kyiv revenues.

The leaked emails obtained by bne IntelliNews do not shed light on Manafort and Kilimnik’s alleged activities for Trump, since - as the US Senate investigation states - they switched to using encrypted messaging apps around that time. The Mueller Special Counsel investigation found no evidence of collusion.

Kilimnik is now holed up in Russia, where he tweets about his glory days in Ukraine under a pseudonym. Manafort is under house arrest in Florida, due to the risk of COVD-19 in prison. He is desperately hoping for a pardon from Trump, after Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, another Republican Party operative involved in the Trump 2016 election campaign and indicted by the Mueller investigation. The irony of Manafort’s being now in the same situation as Tymoshenko in 2013 is probably lost on him.