Wheels up: Paul Manafort's flight records show how he supervised EU top brass in the run-up to Ukraine revolution

Wheels up: Paul Manafort's flight records show how he supervised EU top brass in the run-up to Ukraine revolution
US political lobbyist Paul Manafort was working for Ukraine until a few months before he was hired by Trump / bne IntelliNews
By Graham Stack in Berlin July 2, 2018

Infamous US lobbyist Paul Manafort organised EU luminaries to plead with Brussels to sign off on an Association Agreement with Ukraine without the freeing of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in 2012-2013, his flight records, revealed by bne IntelliNews for the first time, show.

Manafort organised the lobbying campaign on the orders of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by mass demonstrations in Kyiv when he eventually failed to sign the deal.

The information backs up allegations made by US special consul Robert Mueller that, as part of the campaign to do an Association Agreement deal, Manafort retained EU “super VIPs” to lobby for Yanukovych.

The flight records also reveal Manafort remained a player in Ukraine after the Maidan revolution until as late as 2015 – only months before he signed up as US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign manager.

And Manafort’s relationship to a top Yanukovych aide, who turned against his master during the Euromaidan movement, raises questions about the spin doctor’s role in Ukraine’s 2013-14 revolution.

VIP trips

The story starts with a key meeting in Rome in 2013. Flanked by EU elder statesmen, all former heads of their respective states, Yulia Lovochkina, a Ukrainian MP, addressed a select gathering in Rome on the topic of Ukraine’s goal of signing an Association Agreement with the EU.

 “Ukraine has made its irrevocable choice and is committed to being a part of Europe, part of the European Union,” she said, referring to plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU at a summit in Vilnius slated for November 2013. “The president of Ukraine reiterated that he is ready to implement all the necessary measures,” she added.

The date of the Rome meeting was March 6, 2013, and the speaker Yulia Lovochkina was none other the sister of Serhii Lovochkin, Yanukovych’s powerful chief of staff. Despite the assurances of commitment to the EU, less than a year later, Yanukovych’s security forces would massacre 100 pro-EU protestors in the heart of Kyiv. Three days later he fled Ukraine for Russia.

Tymoshenko, leader of Ukraine’s opposition at the time, was languishing in prison. She had lost to Yanukovych in the presidential elections of 2010 - and Yanukovych promptly jailed her in 2011. The international community were outraged, calling her jailing politically motivated and linking her release to the passage of the Association Agreement deal.

All the speakers at the Rome meeting were united by a desire to do the Association Agreement deal, but the undercurrent to their speeches was an insistence that the signing of the agreement and Tymoshenko’s fate were two separate issues, which was in stark contrast to Brussels’ initial line.

In her speech, Lovochkina was explicit: the Association Agreement should be signed independently from Tymoshenko’s case. “It [signing the Association Agreement] cannot be held hostage by a single criminal case […] by the future of Yulia Tymoshenko because it is an issue concerning the future of Ukraine,” she said.

As a representative of the Yanukovych administration, Lovochkina’s line was predictable. But more surprisingly was the support she got from the eminent European VIPs who backed her up. Using a variety of euphemisms, they pushed essentially the same argument: that the issue of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, and the issue of Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, should be kept separate from each other.

“The question of the destiny of Ukraine and its European future cannot depend on one single case,” Alfred Gusenbauer, former chancellor of Austria, said. “In the case of Tymoshenko it is necessary to look for solutions without making a complicated situation more complicated,” said Alexander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland, who was also the senior partner in the European Parliament’s “monitoring mission” to Ukraine that had been tasked with resolving the impasse caused by Tymoshenko’s imprisonment.

Concluding the conference, Roman Prodi, former prime minister of Italy and president of the European Commission, argued that the European Parliament monitoring mission to Ukraine — run by Kwasniewski — should examine the Tymoshenko case as “the correct framework for a European Union that helps promotes rights, but at the same time does not close off a relationship which is valuable for Ukraine and Europe.”

As the audience applauded the awkward grouping on the podium, one man in the audience may have been particularly happy: US spin doctor Paul Manafort, who had flown to Rome that day with Lovochkina in one of the Lovochkin family’s private jets. Manafort had assembled the speakers sitting in front of him on the podium, and was pulling the strings at the meeting.

Jailing Yulia Tymoshenko

A few months earlier Western leaders and EU officials had made Ukraine’s signing of an Association Agreement conditional on the release of Tymoshenko.

At Ukraine’s prestigious Yalta European Summit conference on September 9, 2012, EU commission head José Barroso said that in the light of Tymoshenko’s jailing, “[w]e still don't see the necessary political conditions to take another step towards the signing of the Agreement.”

But Yanukovych refused to back down over Tymoshenko. He was running a kleptocracy that had already triggered economic stagnation. Yanukovych faced re-election in early 2015 and his recipe for staying in office was to win kudos (and cash) by signing the Association Agreement with the EU – while keeping opposition leader Tymoshenko out of politics.

Manafort was Yanukovych’s ace in the campaign to win over the west.

In part as a result of Manafort’s lobbying efforts, by November 2013 the EU had agreed to sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine in Vilnius, without having secured Tymoshenko’s release. Instead she was to be allowed to leave Ukraine for medical treatment, exiling her from Ukraine.

This was Manafort’s hour of triumph. But Russian fury at the thought of Ukraine slipping from its grasp meant that it was short-lived. On November 21, 2013, Ukraine’s government announced it would not sign the Association Agreement with the EU on November 28.

The Hapsburg PR

Five years on, and the convoluted history of Yanukovych’s Association Agreement tango with the EU has resurfaced, but in an entirely different context. It has become a central theme of the inquiry into collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign — which Manafort ran from March to August of that year — and the Kremlin.

On February 28, US Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted Manafort for illegal lobbying. The details of the indictment point to Manafort pulling the strings at the March 6 Rome conference.

Mueller’s indictment states that Manafort “secretly retained a group for former senior European politicians to take positions favourable to Ukraine. The plan was for the former politicians, informally called the “Hapsburg Group,” to appear to be providing an independent assessment of the government of Ukraine actions, when in fact they were paid lobbyists for Ukraine.”

According to the indictment Manafort paid over €2mn to the “super VIPs” from offshore accounts in 2012 and 2013.

While the politicians were unnamed, the indictment specifies a European “chancellor” as heading the group. An initially unredacted document filed on June 13 identified former Austrian chancellor Gusenbauer by name as part of the Hapsburg group.

The document was a memorandum to Manafort authored in June 2012 by Italian-based US journalist Alan Friedman — the man who chaired the March 2013 conference in Rome.

In the memo, Friedman suggested recruiting Kwasniewski to the group. But he noted that Kwasniewski would have a conflict of interests because Kwasniewski was the leading figure in the European Parliament’s monitoring mission to Ukraine.

The monitoring mission was tasked with judging whether Ukraine was fit to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. A leader of the monitoring to mission could hardly also publicly lobby in favour of Ukraine.

Friedman then suggested to Manafort that Kwasniewski appear at conferences together with Gusenbauer, with conferences planned for Berlin, Rome and Brussels. Those recruited for the group would “take direction from us informally and via Alfred [Gusenbauer].”

“I participated in several international conferences as a speaker and for this reason, like other participants, I have received a honorarium,” Kwasniewski acknowledges. “I have not received any financial gratification from the [Manafort-linked lobbyists] Centre for Modern Ukraine or Mercury, I have never received any suggestions for my contributions from Mr. Manafort, Mr. Friedman or anyone else. In all my political activities I have presented my own opinions,” Kwasniewski added.

In Kwasniewski’s ghost-written account of his activities in Ukraine 2012-2014, he describes having had a “double-hatted role … as Ukraine's ambassador in Europe and the United States and as ambassador of the transatlantic community in Ukraine.”

“It [the monitoring mission] always kept an eye on its independence and impartiality […] not allowing any side to use the mission for its own purposes […] it is our belief that this independence and impartiality was fully achieved,” European Parliament press officer Sanne De Ryck said.

”Alexander Kwasniewski had a double role, working for Ukrainian oligarchs and the EU […] This creates conflicts of interest, which is indeed problematic,” Stefan Meister, expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations told bne IntelliNews.

Flight-tracking Manafort

bne IntelliNews obtained flight data for Manafort’s Ukraine visits for those years. His flight data made it possible to track his lobbying activities in 2012-2015, in the run-up to the Euromaidan revolution of February 2014 and its aftermath.

The flight data points to intensive Manafort supervision of the “Hapsburg Group” members such as Gusenbauer, Kwasniewski, and Prodi. Manafort frequently flew on the Lovochkin family’s personal jets between Ukraine and Europe to attend their conferences or meet individually.

Manafort’s representative Jason Maloni declined to comment on the flight data. A source close to Manafort, however, argued that he had “consistently advocated for Ukraine to have closer ties to the West.”

Kwasniewski confirmed this. “He [Manafort] was in favour of signing the Association Agreement.”

Yulia Lovochkina acknowledged owning an executive jet business. “Its services were open to everyone on the market,” she said. She also acknowledged flying with Manafort to the Rome conference on one of the planes. She “paid for the ticket herself and had her own agenda for the trip,” she said.

Manafort lost little time after the creation of the Hapsburg group in June 2012. On September 20, 2012, Gusenberg and Prodi spoke at a conference organised by the Otto Renner Institut. Manafort flew to Vienna on its conclusion the following day. 

On October 23, 2012, he flew on a one-day trip from Kyiv to Berlin, where the Hapsburg group — including Kwasniewski — were appearing at a conference organised by the Eastern Economy Committee. Kwasniewski confirmed a meeting with Manafort here.

By the end of 2012, the lobbying effort was beginning to pay off. The crowning came on December 18, 2012, when Manafort’s visit to Kyiv coincided with the 11th Cox-Kwasniewski mission visit. Kwasniewski confirmed meeting Manafort on this occasion.

Yanukovych, originally scheduled to be visiting Moscow, cancelled on the Kremlin with no notice to meet Cox and Kwasniewski

In return, Cox and Kwasniewski heaped praise on Ukraine’s then prime minister Mykola Azarov on the occasion of his birthday in an open letter. This was a huge turnaround compared to seven months earlier, when President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy had told journalists that Azarov “should stay at home” instead of visiting Brussels.

The road to Vilnius

The lobbying effort accelerated in 2013, starting with the March 2013 Rome conference. The EU’s Vilnius summit slated for November 2013 was approaching where Ukraine was expected to sign the Association Agreement.

On May 15-17, 2013, Manafort flew again for a weekend in Warsaw and Brussels, returning on a Lovochkin executive jet. In Warsaw he met one-on-one with Kwasniewski. On May 17, Prodi and Gusenbauer were in Brussels for the Ukraine on the road to Vilnius conference.

Two months later, Manafort was again air bound on a Lovochkin plane, on a one day visit from Frankfurt, landing from the US, bound for the Crimea on July 29. He flew back from Crimea to Frankfurt on the same day.

One day before, Russia and Ukraine had jointly celebrated the Soviet-era Navy Day with a shared display of their two fleets that was attended by Putin and Yanukovych. Join manoeuvres displayed the close contacts between the top brass of the two fleets that prefigured Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula only nine months later.

But it was not for Navy Day that Manafort flew to Crimea, together with his assistant Konstantin Kilimnik, one day later. His mission was to bolster Yanukovych’s decision to go for Europe.

Cox and Kwasnievski arrived in Crimea on the same day as Manafort. On the morning of July 30, they were scheduled to meet with Yanukovych in Crimea for another session on Tymoshenko’s fate. Kwasniewski said Manafort did not meet with the monitoring mission in Crimea that day.

But as the pace of events quickened in summer and autumn 2013, Manafort had a series of one-to-one meetings with Kwasniewski in Warsaw, the former Polish president acknowledged.

These culminated in Manafort flying to Warsaw on October 18 — on Lovochkin’s plane — to meet Kwasniewski. Later the same day Yanukovych said he would be ready to let Tymoshenko depart to Germany for treatment, as soon as Ukraine’s parliament passed legislation enabling this.

The Firtash connection

The private jet flights and personal connections show that Manafort’s partner in this lobbying effort was Yanukovych’s chief of staff Lovochkin.

Lovochkin said that he had also “always been a strong supporter of the European integration of Ukraine,” but denied that he had supervised Manafort’s lobbying. Kwasniewski confirmed that Lovochkin was in the pro-EU camp.

Lovochkin is the junior partner of billionaire oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who had made his fortune trading gas via notorious company Rosukrenergo, that allegedly skimmed off hundreds of millions of dollars for the Russian and Ukrainian elite. Lovochkin and Firtash together also control Ukraine’s largest TV channel, Inter.

Manafort’s continued participation in post-Yanukovych Ukraine also points to his ties to Lovochkin and Firtash. While most members of the Yanukovych administration fled to Russia or were arrested after February 2014, Lovochkin has continued his political career with impunity, despite having served at the heart of Yanukovych’s regime for four years.

Post Yanukovych’s ousting, Manafort may have attended top-level Ukrainian political meetings where the oligarchs decided who would govern.

On March 25 he flew out of Vienna to Kyiv. His visit to Vienna had coincided with a crucial meeting between Petro Poroshenko and Vienna-based Firtash in that city. Lovochkin had also attended the meeting at which Firtash agreed to back Poroshenko for the post of president, rather than former boxer Vitaly Klichko, effectively crowning Poroshenko president.

In November 13, 2014, as details of a new government were being hammered out after the parliamentary elections, the flight data records that Manafort flew from Kyiv to Nice, France, on a private jet with Ihor Tarasiuk, the business partner of Poroshenko’s first deputy chief of staff, Yuri Kosiuk. Tarasiuk denied taking the flight to bne IntelliNews, although he confirmed the personal data provided was correct.

Manafort’s Ukraine engagements actually increased following Yanukovych’s ouster in February 2014. In March to June 2014, he spent a total of 27 days in Ukraine, whereas during the four preceding Euromaidan months, November-February 2014, Manafort only visited Ukraine three times for a total of nine days.

According to the Mueller indictment, Manafort was engaged as lobbyist for Lovochkin’s new party Opposition Bloc, widely regarded as funded by Firtash. This explains Manafort’s long stays in Ukraine during the post-Maidan election campaigns, according to the flight data: one week prior to the presidential elections in May 2014, and one month prior to the parliamentary elections in October 2014.

Manafort’s flight data concludes with a four-week stay in Ukraine through to October 27, 2015. This period coincides with the campaign for regional elections, which cemented Lovochkin’s Opposition Bloc as a dominant force across south and east Ukraine. Only months after the close of electioneering in conflict-wracked Ukraine, Manafort was electioneering in the US, on behalf of the controversial candidate for the world’s most powerful office.

Maidan mystery

Manafort’s flight data sheds no light however on his relationship, if any, to the Euromaidan revolution. Euromaidan was triggered by events in Kyiv on the night of November 29, when police violently dispersed a small demonstration of pro-EU students who were protesting after Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement. The violence prompted a huge demonstration occupying the heart of Kyiv on December 1.

All we have are cryptic messages exchanged between Manafort’s daughters, one of whose phones was hacked in 2016. Manafort confirmed the hack and corroborated some of the messages to Politico.

According to messages between the sisters discussing Manafort’s actions in Ukraine, it was Manafort’s idea “to send those people out and get them slaughtered. Do you know whose strategy that was to cause that Revolts [sic] and what not […] As a tactic to outrage the world and get focus on Ukraine.” Manafort’s daughter called her father’s money “blood money.”

The remarks were made by those privy to the deepest secrets of Manafort’s personal life. They evoke the suspicion that Manafort manipulated the Maidan protests and the police violence to influence international opinion.

The appearance of the Manafort messages in 2016 reignited speculation in Ukraine that none other than Lovochkin instigated the attack on the students’ demonstration on November 29, 2013, to trigger outrage against Yanukovych.

Some of the timeline fits this interpretation: On the day before the police attack, reporters noted Yulia Lovochkina openly fraternising with the students on the Maidan. Lovochkin’s TV crews covered the 4am events closely, and Lovochkin immediately tendered his resignation in protest at the police violence.

The next day, Lovochkin’s TV channel played footage of the worst of the police violence on heavy rotation on prime time news. News anchors intoned that Yanukovych had “shed the blood of Ukrainian children.” Whereas the student protests had attracted hundreds, protests on Sunday December 1 against the police violence attracted hundreds of thousands. This was the start of Euromaidan.

Authoritative chronicler of the Euromaidan revolution Sonya Koshkina, as well as Ukrainian prosecutors, have argued it was anti-EU hardliners who were responsible for attacking the students.

But on the third anniversary of events, November 29, 2016, Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov told the BBC that “Lovochkin was the author of the dispersal of the [students’] Maidan, and should be in prison, not in parliament.”

Lovochkin denies any role in the attack on the students. “I submitted my resignation because of President Yanukovych’s decision to decline signing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) […] and the use of force against peaceful protesters in Kyiv following it,” he said.

What was Lovochkin’s motivation to break with Yanukovych so abruptly over Europe, whether or not he was involved in the violence? According to Koshkina, Lovochkin was “a placeman of Firtash and one of the architects of the regime,” hardly a nationalist or freedom-loving liberal. But in June 2013 the US had indicted Firtash for alleged bribery in India. On October 30 2013 — as Yanukovych was wavering over the Association Agreement with the EU — the US issued an arrest warrant for Firtash.

The US withdrew the arrest warrant four days later — after US deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland met Yanukovych in Kyiv, and received assurances that Yanukovych would sign the Association Agreement, Firtash said during extradition hearings in Vienna in 2015 that first revealed the details of the case. But come the Vilnius Summit, Yanukovych failed to sign. The arrest warrant was reissued in March 2014, and Firtash was arrested in Vienna on March 12, 2014.

Legal proceedings in Ukraine have yet to establish ultimate responsibility for the police attack on students on November 29 and indeed for much of the violence against protestors in the winter of 2013-2014. On June 23, plans to abolish the prosecutor’s special office investigating crimes against Euromaidan demonstrators became known.

Thus Manafort’s trial, if it occurs, will be as eagerly awaited in Ukraine as in the US.


With additional reporting by Olha Yevstihnieieva in Kyiv