KIEV—Investigations here into payments allegedly made to Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort by deposed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych have ground to a halt, potentially affecting the U.S. case against Manafort.
Information from the Ukraine investigations is a cornerstone of the indictments brought against Manafort by special counsel Robert Mueller, who has charged him with money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, and other crimes.
But it appears that many top officials here, from the current president on down, would like to forget about the Manafort case. Their reason: They don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Trump administration.
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign in August 2016 after reports in the American press based on the documents compiled by Ukrainian investigators. And until last year progress was still being made here unraveling the complicated “scheme,” as Mueller calls it, in which the Yanukovych regime, closely allied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, allegedly made secret payments of millions of dollars to Manafort.
The former Trump campaign chief has insisted on his innocence, and unlike his close associate Rick Gates, has refused to cut a deal with Mueller since his initial indictment in October (PDF).
It appears that little or no new evidence will be coming from here.
Kiev’s prosecutor Serhiy Gorbatyuk, responsible for special investigations, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview on Sunday: “It is disappointing to see the Manafort case being frozen for four months.”
Gorbatyuk said the investigation had been passed from hand to hand, from authority to authority several times, since last fall while the prosecutors’ orders about different ways to proceed had not been fulfilled. “That is the worst point,” said Gorbatyuk.
In a series of interviews over the last few weeks, current Ukrainian politicians as well as former Manafort colleagues repeatedly told The Daily Beast that in today’s political situation in Ukraine, a year before presidential elections, leading political competitors did not want to upset President Donald Trump.
Many wish the world could simply forget about the dubious projects involving Manafort, Gates, and lawyers of the giant firm of Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom, who enjoyed multimillion-dollar payments before Yanukovych fled Ukraine in 2014.
Here in Kiev, the Manafort scandal that originally exploded in Ukraine’s media has dropped out of the headlines, and Serhiy Leshchenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told The Daily Beast one reason is obvious: “President Petro Poroshenko is trying to sell to Trump a deal: We bury the Manafort case and you become our best friend.”
More than a year ago lawmaker Leshchenko published copies of documents from Yanukovych’s secret ledger, showing that Manafort had received up to $12.7 million in cash. Many criticized the MP for the accusations, insisting that nobody would ever find enough evidence to prove the fact that the American political adviser Manafort had violated the law.
Last year Leshchenko passed documents to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Ukrainian prosecutors, including an invoice for $750,000, dated October 2009, which, the MP insisted, was firm evidence of the crime: “Paul Manafort received huge payments from the pro-Russian Party of Regions.”
“With the help of our investigation, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted Manafort for committing conspiracy, money laundering, and tax evasion during his work in Ukraine,” Leshchenko told The Daily Beast.
But it was not easy to reach out to Ukrainian prosecutors—too many officials did not want to see the continuation of investigations against Paul Manafort. “Our leadership does everything to slow down the investigative process,” said Leshchenko. “It took me so much time and effort last year, before I managed to pass the documents signed by Manafort to the right prosecutor, Serhiy Gorbatyuk.”
After Manafort quit his job on the Trump campaign in 2016, for about a year Ukrainian lawmakers and civil groups struggled to find answers to crucial questions:
Had Trump’s friend Manafort advised Yanukovych to kill dozens of protesters at Maidan square in early 2014?
Did Trump hire public relations firms or personnel who previously had received Ukrainian taxpayer money for advising Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions?
Did Skadden’s lawyers help Yanukovych lock his political opponents in jail?
To try to get to the truth, Ukraine opened two criminal cases: one into the payments to Skadden for a 2012 report defending Yanukovych from criticism by European and U.S. human rights groups for prosecuting his political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko; and the other on Manafort’s shadowy contracts with the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
“One of Manafort’s daughters worked at the firm and suggested to her father to get Skadden involved in Tymoshenko’s case,” MP Leshchenko told The Daily Beast. Another member of the firm, Alex van der Zwaan, son-in-law of a prominent oligarch allegedly close to Putin, was indicted by Mueller last month specifically on charges that he lied to the FBI about his role preparing the Tymoshenko report (PDF).
In 2010, Yanukovych, advised by Manafort, Gates, and dozens of other Russian, Ukrainian, and American political analysts, came very close to losing the presidency to Tymoshenko. The famous lady with a blond braid won 45.4 percent. One year later Yanukovych put Tymoshenko on trial. She got a seven-year jail sentence for abuse of power in office, when she was prime minister because of natural gas deals she cut with Putin. The Kiev court fined Tymoshenko $180 million and ordered all her property confiscated.
When Alex van der Zwaan pled guilty last month in the U.S., Kiev prosecutors saw immediately how important the London-based 33-year-old Dutch lawyer could be connecting the dots in the broader conspiracy. Zwaan’s father-in-law is a Moscow-based Ukrainian billionaire, German Khan, a director of Russia’s powerful Alfa group of banks and other interests.
Khan and two of his partners, Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman were mentioned somewhat inconclusively in the Christopher Steele “golden shower” dossier as advisers to Putin about the United States. Gorbatyuk, the Kiev prosecutor, says he was anxious to pursue these connections, but to no avail. “In vain we asked Washington to let us question Manafort and Alex van der Zwaan, that did not happen,” the prosecutor told The Daily Beast.
Gorbatyuk says Ukraine’s investigation of the Skadden case has been buckled up and passed to the court too soon. “I believe that Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice had no right to pay Skadden money for the report—that at least three officials broke the law,” Gorbatyuk said.
Tymoshenko’s trial was seen at the time as a political vendetta by Yanukovych as she suffered agonizing back pain, and was fragile and starved by weeks of hunger strikes. The case became a blight on Yanukovych’s political future and also damaged Ukraine’s association agreement with European Union members.
But today political experts in Kiev once again are saying that the gas deal Tymoshenko signed with Putin in Moscow in 2009 was destructive for Ukraine’s economy—perhaps because right now Tymoshenko’s popularity is running high, well above President Poroshenko’s.
Yet Tymoshenko and her staff refused to comment on the role played by Zwaan and Skadden report.
“You see, Tymoshenko does not want to make enemies today, neither with Trump, nor with Putin—her popularity rating grows in silence,” says veteran analyst, Alexander Martynenko, director of Interfax Ukraine.
Martynenko told The Daily Beast that Tymoshenko’s political enemies like to pull out her old pictures with President Putin to discredit her, or even a more recent picture of her and Russian Ambassador to Germany Sergei Nechayev smiling at each other.
For several months, President Petro Poroshenko has not said a word publicly about the Manafort investigation. After four years of a military conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern regions of the country, Ukraine is now set to receive hundreds of American Javelin anti-tank missiles and dozens of related “command launch units” from the Trump administration. The $47 million deal was approved on March 1.
That was the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered an official address full of news about Moscow’s new generation of supposedly unstoppable nuclear weapons.
Ironically, Manafort reportedly was responsible for the removal of a passage in the Republican Party platform during the 2016 convention that supported the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine.
Today, Ukraine counts on Washington’s support in the conflict with Moscow, and is ready to make all kinds of deals. “Businessman Trump sold Poroshenko tons of coal from a Pennsylvania-based company, which sounds ridiculous, but today Poroshenko is happy to please Trump in exchange for the weapons and support,” says Martynenko, of Interfax Ukraine.
In 2006-2007 Yanukovych’s team member Taras Chernovil had a personal conflict with Manafort. In a recent interview in Kiev, Chernovil explained to The Daily Beast why he would like to see the investigation against Manafort completed—and it was not Manafort’s cash that bothered Chernovil:
“At one of the meetings Manafort instructed about 40 of us, Yanukovych’s political advisers, to go around the country and agitate the electorate against Ukraine’s joining NATO and for Russian to become the second state language,” Chernovil said, moving frantically in his chair as he recalled how he stood up, threw away Manafort’s instructions, and walked out of the room. “I have never had any doubts that Paul Manafort was working as the Kremlin’s agent in Kiev—it is very important for all Ukrainians to learn the truth about his agenda.”