How Trump Gamed Ukraine: The Payoff For Putin
From delayed aid to rigged 'peace' deals, the Trump legacy helped set Kyiv up for the kill
Frank Snepp, a former top CIA analyst, now a Peabody-Award winning journalist, specializes in national security issues. His CIA memoir, Decent Interval, triggered a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Yesterday, in Part One of this essay, I explored how Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, while top advisers to Donald Trump, conceived two backdoor takeover schemes for Ukraine, ready-made for Vladimir Putin, that have come back to haunt. These plans envision a Russia-controlled enclave in eastern Ukraine which bears an eerie similarity to what Putin is now trying to establish militarily. The hidden inspiration behind Manafort’s scenario was a shadowy business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, identified by U.S. intelligence authorities as a well-placed Russian spy.
Now in Part Two, I examine what happened to these backdoor gambits, their current relevance, and how Trump, having failed to make them work initially, tried to compensate Putin by weakening Ukraine’s military defenses.
Was Trump trying all along to repay Putin for his election help in 2016? That is one of the ugly mysteries lurking at the edges of this tale of Ukraine’s martyrdom.
Peace Plans, Extortion, Escape and Collusion
One of the more interesting aspects of Konstantin Kilimnik’s final draft is its timestamp. Why did he and Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced former campaign manager, choose early February 2018 to unveil it?
Simple answer: It was their last best chance. The clock was running out on any peace bargain. The Ukrainian presidency would be up for grabs in a year, and it was highly unlikely that, as the election approached, any viable candidate would be willing to embrace a controversial peace deal favorable to Putin, especially given surging pro-western sentiment in the country. Thus, if the Manafort-Kilimnik proposal didn’t gain traction now, it might never do so.
But scoring a win was never going to be easy—Manafort and Kilimnik knew that—and a series of complicated events was already unfolding that would upstage all further lobbying for the peace deal and give Trump and then-President Petro Poroshenko something of far greater immediacy to worry about.
Just a few weeks before, on October 30, 2017, Manafort had been indicted in a U.S. federal court on charges of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent, among other things. Much of the evidence against him had been dredged up and funneled to Mueller by muckrakers in Ukraine, official and private, and was now being re-investigated by President Poroshenko’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko. Trump (and Manafort) had every reason to want that investigation shut down and an end to cooperation with Mueller. And, as reported by The New York Times, Poroshenko had every reason to want to do Trump some favors.
The incentive was an urgently needed U.S. arms package of 211 Javelin missiles and their launchers, slated to be delivered to Ukraine. By late fall, at about the time of the Manafort indictment, Trump had begun dragging his feet on the transfer.
The public story, amplified in subsequent press reporting, was that he was irked by corruption in Ukraine and wanted the handover to be a sale, not a gift, in keeping with his mantra about strategic partners paying their own way.
But the real reason, according to speculation in Kyiv and Washington, was that Trump was trying to force a shutdown of Ukraine’s case against Manafort, using the Javelin holdback as leverage.1
The veracity of this story would never be determined; neither Mueller nor the Senate investigators delved deeply into it. But the unspooling sequence of events argued strongly that extortion was in the air.
Only after much dithering did Trump’s Pentagon finally approve the sale of the Javelins. The dotted line was signed around Christmas, 2017. But it would take nearly three months, until the following March, for the sale to be finalized, and deliveries wouldn’t be completed until May.
Meanwhile, prosecutor Lutsenko had shuffled his Manafort investigation off onto a slow-moving conveyor belt. In early April he announced to Mueller that he would cease sharing investigative files with him.2
“Poroshenko is happy to please Trump in exchange for the weapons and support,” remarked the disgruntled director of Interfax-Ukraine.
The New York Times published a well-sourced story two weeks later examining whether there had been a tradeoff—a deep-sixing of Ukraine’s case against Manafort in order to cinch the javelin sale.
Three U.S. senators, keying off the Times story, sent a letter to prosecutor Lutsenko, asking him to come clean. They got no reply.
Why does any of this matter to the key theme of our story, the fate of the Manafort-Kilimnik peace proposal? Because it helps set up the dizzying denouement.
A month later, on June 8, 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Manafort and Kilimnik for obstructing justice and manipulating witnesses in connection with the Mueller probe. Though Manafort was already under house detention, Kilimnik had flown the coop. Poroshenko and his prosecutor general had allowed him to escape to Moscow, where he would remain forever inaccessible to Mueller’s team.
It was a gut punch to anyone determined to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia scandal.
In August, a jury in federal court found Manafort guilty of eight felony counts of money laundering, tax avoidance and bank fraud. With more charges in the works, he quickly struck a plea deal with Mueller and pledged to confess all in exchange for leniency. But the drying-up of the evidence flow from Ukraine, and Kilimnik’s disappearance into the mists, apparently prompted a change of mind. In November, Mueller’s team caught Manafort out in “multiple discernible lies” as they put it to the court. He thus forfeited his get-out-of-jail-free card.
Even on his best days, Manafort’s interchanges with Mueller had been grudging and dodgy—and never more so than when he was asked about the peace proposal.
Mueller’s lead prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, had become convinced the defendant’s evasiveness about it was a tell, a token of its significance. He suspected that the plan, or more precisely Trump’s implementation of it, represented the long elusive quid pro quo behind the collusion question, the price Trump was expected to pay for Putin’s help in winning the election (through the hack-leak operation Russian intelligence agencies had run against Clinton).
In a statement to the judge handling the Manafort plea deal, Weissmann provided a teasing glimpse of his theory. Recalling the Manafort-Kilimnik cigar-bar meeting of August 2, 2016—where we now know the peace deal was discussed—he said that what took place “goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”
“The facts we’d established even amid Manafort’s attempts to muddy them were staggering,” he writes. “On August 2, if not earlier, Russia had clearly revealed to Manafort—and by extension, to the Trump campaign—what it wanted out of the United States: a ‘wink,’ a nod of approval from President Trump, as it took over Ukraine’s richest region.
“It was a tremendous thing for Russia to ask for,” he continued. “It would seem to require significant audacity—or else, leverage—for another nation to even put such a request to a presidential candidate.
“This made what we didn’t know, and still don’t to this day, feel monumentally disconcerting: namely why would Trump ever agree to this? Why would Trump ever agree to a Russian proposal, if the candidate were not getting something from Russia in return? Both Manafort and Trump were too transactional to give away something for nothing.”
What did Trump Know?
It is hardly surprising that Weissmann recognized the Manafort-Kilimnik peace plan as a recipe for Trump-Russia collusion.
Kilimnik provided the tip-off himself when, in his email to Manafort in early December 2016, he referred to the need for that “wink” from Trump, his personal authorization, to get the peace process rolling. In the updated version of the plan provided to Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio, who had worked with Manafort in Ukraine, Kilimnik assigned what can fairly be described as superhero roles to Putin and Trump, like Batman and Robin out to remake Gotham.
Still, the question remains: Was Trump ever made aware of the part he was expected to play in betraying Ukraine to Putin under cover of negotiations?
The Mueller and Senate reports provide no insight into Trump’s knowledge or ignorance of the Artemenko-Cohen peace proposal, since it gets short shrift from them. But media coverage of it in the spring of 2017 was so extensive and in-your-face that it would have been difficult for anyone with a pulse to ignore.
Mueller and his Senate counterparts are only slightly more helpful in clarifying Trump’s grasp of the Manafort-Kilimnik initiative. Though Trump declined to be interviewed in person by the Mueller team, he did agree to provide written responses to written questions.
In his carefully lawyered offering about the peace plan, he claimed that he did “not remember Manafort communicating with him any particular positions that Ukraine or Russia would want the United States to support.”4
Nor did Mueller, speaking for himself, “uncover any evidence of Manafort passing along information about Ukrainian peace plans to the candidate or anyone else in the campaign or the Administration.”5
Shortly after the inauguration, Kilimnik gave an interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a flag-waving information service funded by the U.S. government. He spoke of the “Mariupol plan,” his name for the Manafort proposal, and his own efforts to promote it.6
A related article, circulated by RFE/RL under the headline, “Who is Paul Manafort’s Man in Kyiv?” received respectable internet exposure.
Given this history—and the role played by RFE/RL, a government mouthpiece after all—it is difficult to believe the story went unnoticed at the CIA, the State Department, or the White House.
Moreover, at key moments in the Trump-Russia investigations, news of the proposal slipped into the mainstream press.
A New York Times report, published in early January 2019 recalled Kilimnik’s RFE/RL interview, noting that he had “suggested the [proposed] plan would have involved reviving the political fortunes of Mr. [Viktor] Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian leader.”7
Three weeks later, as part of the legal maneuvering over Manafort’s broken plea agreement, his own lawyers inadvertently released sealed testimony pertaining to the peace plan.8
And then of course there was Weissmann’s related presentation in court. Though the hearing was closed, The New York Times published a major readout of it, including direct quotes from Weissmann, which, in combination with the mistakenly released testimony, provided a pretty clear picture of what Manafort and Kilimnik had been up to, and what Manafort was trying to keep hidden about it.
It wasn’t something that could have escaped any keenly interested party in the Trump White House.
But we don’t have to keep chasing moonbeams about what Trump knew and when he knew it. There is a provocative new clue that tends to anchor speculation.
In recent remarks about Putin’s ongoing savagery in Ukraine, Trump has hinted he had a far better understanding of the Ukraine peace issue than he ever let on to Mueller.
“I was with Putin a lot,” he told a friendly CPAC audience on February 26 of this year. “Someday, I’ll tell you exactly what we talked about. And he did have an affinity—there’s no question about it—for Ukraine. I said, ‘Never let it happen, better not let it happen’.”
The president’s phrase, “better not let it happen,” seems freighted. It suggests that at some point Trump felt pressure to satisfy Putin on Ukraine but resisted out of concern for something else. It is not hard to imagine one major stumbling block. Given the expanding scope of the Mueller and Senate investigations, he may have finally decided that delivering Ukraine to Putin under the cloak of a peace deal would be politically unsafe at any speed.
Though there is no context for Trump’s remarks cited above, we know that over a period of four years he and Putin conducted more than 16 private discussions, mostly by phone, and met secretly at the G20 conference in Hamburg, July 2017, at the infamous Helsinki summit a year later and over dinner in Osaka in June 2019.9
The Helsinki get-together came shortly after Manafort and Kilimnik had finalized their peace proposal. It provided a perfect opportunity for Putin and Trump to discuss the draft privately face to face. If they did so, and if Trump’s attitude was “better not let it happen,” his behavior at the subsequent press conference, where he fawned all over Putin and trashed U.S. intelligence reporting on Russian election tampering, begins to make sense. In retrospect it looks like an act of penance, an effort to compensate Putin for his disappointment.
Sycophancy had always been Trump’s default position with the Kremlin leader, and his performance at Helsinki was a bell ringer. But if he was trying to mollify Putin with consolation prizes, the best was yet to come. Although a backdoor takeover of Ukraine now seemed a non-starter for Russia—goodbye to the Manafort-Kilimnik peace plan—Trump remained fully prepared, as he had already demonstrated, to undercut Kyiv’s defense capabilities by playing fast and loose with U.S. aid. It was an impulse born of his own political interests, so it could be considered dependable.
The finale to our story is just plain sickening.
As Ukraine’s presidential sweepstakes entered their final months in 2019, Poroshenko did his darndest to stay in Trump’s good graces in hopes of profiting politically. According to a later New York Times report, he waged an “elaborate campaign to win over Mr. Trump at a time when advisers had convinced Mr. Trump that Ukraine was a nest of Hillary Clinton supporters.”
Poroshenko’s need for Trump love was so intense, by the Times account, that his aides “scrambled to find ways to flatter the new American president—advising their boss to gush during his first telephone call with Mr. Trump about Tom Brady, the star New England Patriots quarterback whom Mr. Trump has long admired.”
Ticking off other outreach initiatives by Poroshenko, The Times listed his support of trade deals “politically expedient for Mr. Trump,” his retention of Paul Manafort as a backchannel emissary to the White House, and “meetings” with Trump’s itinerant lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was nosing around Kyiv, looking for dirt on Joe Biden’s son and smear material to discredit the then-U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, who apparently was too straight-arrow for the President’s tastes.
On the home front, Poroshenko tried to catch the latest wave of pro-western sentiment by hopping aboard a newly enacted constitutional amendment expressing support for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO and the EU. Rhapsodizing about the measure, which was approved February 7, 2019, he declared it a constitutional “landmark” for “movement of Ukraine to the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance.”10
Putin could hardly have been pleased. All remaining hope for the one-sided Manafort-Kilimnik peace proposal seemed to be slipping away.
Was this the moment when Putin first glimpsed the need for a “special operation?”
The most immediately recognizable contender for Poroshenko’s job boasted the Trump-like advantage of being a media celebrity. As we all now know, Volodymyr Zelensky had gained fame by playing a fictional Ukrainian president in a wildly popular TV comedy.
Poroshenko warned voters during the campaign that anyone so green as Zelensky could be outfoxed by the Russians. But after the first overcrowded round of balloting, Zelensky won the two-man runoff, notching nearly 74 percent of the vote to Poroshenko’s 25 percent.
Trump, by all accounts, was crestfallen. So was Giuliani. Both had worked strenuously to rally Poroshenko and his prosecutor general behind Trump’s two gambits for getting himself re-elected: casting shade on Hunter Biden and finding anyone but Putin to blame for Putin’s election hacking.
Now, with Poroshenko gone and the prosecutor general on his last legs, they had to start all over again.
You know what happened next.
Trump reverted to the Javelin model and froze a new Ukraine-bound arms delivery to reduce Zelensky to beggar’s status. Then, in a “perfect” call on July 25, 2019, Trump made clear to him that the shipment would be released only in exchange for a “favor”—or three.
Zelensky hadn’t been an actor for nothing and deftly finessed the squeeze play. Only after a now famous anonymous whistleblower from the CIA exposed Trump’s flimflam were the arms released.
But the damage had been done, just as surely as if Trump had attempted to rope Zelensky into a bogus peace treaty on Putin’s terms. Indeed, the collateral effects were the same: America’s credibility as an ally took a major hit. Kyiv’s ability to gird itself rationally against threatened aggression slipped several notches. And Putin had one more reason to believe he could count on the Trump administration and its GOP slumdogs to abet his ruthless designs on that country.
Six months after the January 6, 2021 assault on Congress, as Trump and his rabble continued to howl down the legitimacy of the election and threatened to overturn American democracy, Putin began building up an invasion force on the Russia-Ukraine border.11
Colonel Alexander Vindman, who handled the Ukraine portfolio for Trump’s National Security Council and later testified against him in the first impeachment proceedings, traces the current Ukraine crisis to Trump’s epic sleaze and bad faith. On February 26 he told Vice News that the cynical manipulation of U.S. aid commitments had “arrested what should have been a very, very robust relationship with Ukraine” and had imposed a cost in terms of lost opportunities that had crimped Kyiv’s capabilities and slowed “ramp-up” efforts by the Biden administration.
“We lost time,” Vindman said. “All that time Ukraine could have been hardening. It could have been preparing. It could have been making itself unpalatable [as a target]. It is because of Trump’s corruption that we have a less capable, less prepared Ukraine.”
And what can we say about the larger geopolitical stakes? Veteran diplomat Bill Taylor summed them up at the first impeachment hearings while he was still acting-U.S. ambassador to Kyiv:
“If we believe in the principle of the sovereignty of nations on which our security and the security of our friends and allies depends, if we believe that nations get to decide on their own economic, political, and security alliances, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor. Russian aggression cannot stand.”12
Meanwhile the two prime architects of the tricked-out sellout-that-might-have-been—and still-might-be—are chortling into their crystal goblets. Kilimnik dwells lavishly like an elder of the temple in a gated Moscow compound reserved for Putin’s top spies—this, according to his Wiki page. In December 2020 Manafort shed a seven-year prison sentence for tax and bank fraud and walked free to preen in his ostrich-skin dinner jacket and wallow in offshore riches, thanks to a Trump pardon.
As for Trump himself, the jury is still out—and may never convene at all.
May the brave citizens of Ukraine be spared the “peace” these three con men might wish on them.
“Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Missiles, Halted Cooperation With Mueller Investigation”, by Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times, May 2, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/world/europe/ukraine-mueller-manafort-missiles.html
“The Democratic Letter to Ukraine”, By Lori Robertson. FactCheck.org, Posted on October 15, 2019, Corrected on October 24, 2019. https://www.factcheck.org/2019/10/the-democratic-letter-to-ukraine/
“Dems raise fresh quid-pro-quo questions about Ukraine missile sale”, by Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman, Politico, October, 8, 2019. https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/08/trump-ukraine-missile-sale-040915
“Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Missiles, Halted Cooperation With Mueller Investigation”, by Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times, May 2, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/world/europe/ukraine-mueller-manafort-missiles.html
Where The Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation, by Andrew Weissman, Random House, New York, 2020, p. 303
Mueller Report, Appendix C, p. C-22
Mueller Report, Vol. 1, p. 130
Senate Committee, p. 126
“Trump has concealed details of his face-to-face encounters with Putin from senior officials in administration”, by Greg Miller. The Washington Post, January 13, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-has-concealed-details-of-his-face-to-face-encounters-with-putin-from-senior-officials-in-administration/2019/01/12/65f6686c-1434-11e9-b6ad-9cfd62dbb0a8_story.html
“Trump met Putin in Helsinki. More than 200 days later, will we ever find out what they said?”, By Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, March 5, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/05/trump-met-putin-helsinki-more-than-days-later-will-we-ever-find-out-what-they-said/
“Still a summit secret: What happened in Helsinki between Putin and Trump?” by Benjamin Siegel. ABC News, June 16, 2021. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/summit-secret-happened-helsinki-putin-trump/story?id=78273344
“Trump has spoken privately with Putin at least 16 times. Here’s what we know about the conversations”, By Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, October 4, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/10/04/trump-has-spoken-privately-with-putin-least-times-heres-what-we-know-about-conversations/
NATO Relations Ukraine, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukraine%E2%80%93NATO_relations
“This Was Trump Pulling a Putin”, by Robert Draper, The New York Times Magazine, April 11, 2022.
Colonel Vindman quote: “Ukraine became radioactive for the duration of the Trump administration. There wasn’t serious engagement. Putin had been wanting to reclaim Ukraine for eight years, but he was trying to gauge when was the right time to do it. Starting just months after Jan. 6, Putin began building up forces on the border. He saw the discord here.”
“Read Ambassador William Taylor’s full opening statement”, by Candice Norwood, PBS Newshour, October 22, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/read-ambassador-william-taylors-full-opening-statement
These two “peace” plans differ from each other in various particulars. But both would secure Russian control of eastern Ukraine under the guise of a negotiated settlement and establish a Trojan Horse regime there to wreak havoc on the rest of the country.