Donald Trump’s suddenly demoted campaign chief Paul Manafort, it has been revealed, was investigated a year ago in Ukraine for “conspiring with a criminal organization” and “inciting ethnic hatred and separatism” to promote a pro-Russian government in Kiev at the expense of a pro-American one. A year-old legal memo leaked to The Times of London cites a senior Ukrainian prosecutor who found that Manafort was identified as organizing a series of anti-NATO and anti-Kiev demonstrations in Crimea in 2006—demonstrations that forced the cancellation of scheduled "Sea Breeze" NATO exercises on that strategic Ukrainian peninsula, which now is occupied and annexed by Russia.
This was apparently done at the service of Viktor Yanukovych, who had been denied the presidency and whose political comeback six years later was largely masterminded by Manafort.
Yanukovych, a thuggish kleptocrat, regained power by campaigning, at Manafort’s suggestion, on a platform that supported an association agreement with the European Union, which Moscow vehemently opposed. Then Yanukovych reneged on the agreement, which led to another Ukrainian revolution, which led to Yanukovych’s violent suppression of it, culminating in his ignominious night flight from Kiev to Russia with stolen public funds. (The defector-president’s Party of Regions has since been outlawed in Ukraine and is now characterized by the prosecutor as a “criminal organization.”)
“It was [Manafort’s] political effort,” the document reads, “to raise the prestige of Yanukovych and his party—the confrontation and division of society on ethnic and linguistic grounds is his trick from the time of the elections in Angola and the Philippines,” where Manafort had advised, respectively, guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi and Ferdinand Marcos.
The Ukrainian prosecutor goes on to say in the document that he “constantly saw evidence” suggesting that Paul Manafort considered Crimean autonomy from Ukraine as a tool to enhance the reputation of Yanukovych with Crimean voters.
Manafort was not charged with any crime related to the above allegations, although, as initially reported by The New York Times, he is currently under investigation by Ukrainian anti-graft authorities owing to his name’s appearance in a black-book ledger kept by Yanukovych’s cronies.
The ledger contains a list of recipients for seemingly illicit cash disbursements; in Manafort’s case, for $12.7 million between 2007 to 2012. Manafort denies taking any such money. He did not reply to the British broadsheet, however, about whether or not he helped sow ethnolinguistic turmoil and secessionist sentiments in Crimea.
The Associated Press has also found that Manafort helped route “at least $2.2 million in payments” from the Party of Regions “to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012” and did so in possible violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
According to a leaked document that was “brought” to Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration, the takeover of Crimea may have mooted in mid-February 2014, as independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported. Likely prepared in part by “Russian Orthodox businessman” and future separatist-financier Konstantin Malofeyev, the text envisioned a “launching of the process of the ‘pro-Russian drift’ of the Crimea and eastern Ukrainian territories” along with a “PR strategy” in advance of “referendums raising the question of self-determination and further possibilities of annexation to the Russian Federation.” Which is more or less what happened. But that an American political Svengali may have been an early proponent cleaving Crimea away from Ukraine, even if for mercenary or opportunistic reasons, puts him squarely side of a rather unsavory history.
As Arkady Ostrovsky shows in his superb history, The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, some of the loudest and earliest proponents of Crimean revanchism were Russian nationalists and Communists who aligned red-brown common cause against the government of Boris Yeltsin.
One was the anti-Semitic mathematician Igor Shafarevich who, in 1993, wrote in the reactionary newspaper Den’ (Day) that the port city of Sebastopol is “a key to the resurgence of the country (meaning Russia).… First of all, it is one of the historic shrines of Russia. Khersones is where Saint Vladimir was baptized, where admirals Kornilov and Nakhmiov were buried… Second, Sebastopol is key to the Black Sea Fleet. Third, Sebastopol is a key to Crimea, which has been torn from the body of Russia by the unconstitutional and voluntaristic decision of Nikita Khrushchev [who assigned it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic when all the republics were part of Moscow’s dominion]. People in Crimea have an acute sense of belonging to Russia and have the will to fight for this belonging.”
As Ostrovsky notes, this was almost the word-perfect recapitulation of the chauvinism and jingoism used 21 years later by Putin when he announced the annexation of Crimea, three weeks after the near-bloodless military coup led by his regular and irregular forces in February 2014.
It was what Donald Trump, in his semi-literate fashion, echoed when he told ABC News’s George Stephanopolous that the “people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” (They wouldn’t, as it turns out.)
Supposing that Manafort has now been marginalized in Trumpland because of these revelations about his dirty work for overseas dictators, we are faced with the rather tragic irony that a long-peddled Kremlin accusation—that Americans interfere in the sovereignty and politics of post-Soviet states in Russia’s “near abroad”—turns out to be true, but with unintended consequences.
Manafort’s skullduggery in Ukraine helped lead to a popular uprising against his former client; now the authorities of a democratically elected government of Ukraine may have helped determine the election for America’s next president by scandalizing one of its gray cardinals into submission.
It is historical irony that the Putins and Yanukovyches of the world might appreciate, if not quite celebrate.