With Manafort, It Really Is About Russia, Not Ukraine

Viktor Yanukovich, left, with Vladimir Putin in 2010. Credit Gleb Garanich/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Viktor Yanukovich, left, with Vladimir Putin in 2010. Credit Gleb Garanich/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, insists that indictments against Paul Manafort and Richard Gates have “nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity.” Administration officials dismiss the alleged criminal activity by Mr. Manafort, formerly President Trump’s campaign chairman, as being merely about money-laundering and Ukraine — but not Russia, the focus of the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.

But Mr. Manafort’s work in Ukraine, which began in 2006, has always in a real sense been about Russia — and may also have been about the campaign.

Mr. Manafort didn’t go to Ukraine to advance the interests of democracy, Western Europe or the United States. He was there to help an increasingly corrupt Russia-friendly politician, who became a Kremlin puppet during the time Mr. Manafort worked for him. In the context of the standoff between democracy and autocracy, his legal and potentially illicit activities demonstrate that he ultimately took a side.

From the moment Ukraine declared itself a state, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country found itself torn between Western Europe and Russia. Ukrainians living in the western half of Ukraine aspired to membership in the European Union and NATO, while those in the eastern half near the city of Donetsk oriented themselves toward Russia, which exerted maximum influence to keep Ukraine closely aligned.

In 2004, the European Union and NATO experienced a burst of membership expansion to countries bordering Ukraine and Russia, including the formerly Soviet Baltic States, much to the consternation of the Kremlin. That year, the presidential candidate for the pro-Russia Party of Regions was the former Donetsk regional governor, Viktor F. Yanukovych. The battle to lead the nation had become part of the broader competition between the democratic West and Russia.

Mr. Yanukovych appeared to have won the election, but the outcome was marred by voter fraud and the poisoning of his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, who favored alignment with the West. Ukrainians took to the streets to protest, in what became known as the Orange Revolution. Mr. Yushchenko won in a new election. Sometime after that, pro-Russian forces recruited Mr. Manafort to advise the Party of Regions and Mr. Yanukovych.

In 2010, with Mr. Manafort’s help, Mr. Yanukovych was elected president. His campaign, primarily targeting voters in the east, was based on opposition to NATO and advocacy for Russian-language rights. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates received tens of millions of dollars for this work. Vladimir Putin — who had already invaded and occupied part of the Republic of Georgia — made it clear that Moscow was determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO and firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence.

In November 2013, after on-and-off flirtations with the West, Mr. Yanukovych rejected a pending agreement to join the European Union. The Ukrainian people took to the streets again, starting in a Kiev square known as the Maidan. Mr. Yanukovych ordered his special forces to shoot and kill over 100 unarmed demonstrators and subsequently fled the country, despite a political transition settlement brokered by the United States and European Union, with Russian assent.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014, annexed Crimea and shortly thereafter instigated a separatist movement in Mr. Yanukovych’s home region, Donetsk. The result was a war between Russia and Ukraine that continues to this day.

Mr. Yanukovych was in exile in Russia, but Mr. Manafort continued to work in Ukraine for the Opposition Bloc, the successor party to the discredited Party of Regions, and indirectly, for Russia’s interests, since this party continued to be pro-Moscow — and anti-EU and anti-NATO. And then in March 2016 Mr. Manafort became Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman. At the July Republican convention, his staff intervened to weaken the party platform concerning Ukraine, striking a clause advocating for lethal defensive military assistance for Ukraine. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump was praising Mr. Putin, advocating for greater cooperation with Russia and speaking skeptically about NATO and its collective defense mission.

Mr. Manafort, according to Mr. Mueller’s indictment, was an agent of the Ukrainian government for about a decade, through 2016, attempting to influence American officials and policy toward Ukraine. He advised the Ukrainian leader most closely aligned to Russia, a man working to keep his country in Russia’s close orbit. We know Mr. Yanukovych was Putin’s man in Kiev — and therefore, indirectly, so was Mr. Manafort.

We do not yet know the extent to which Mr. Manafort was Putin’s man in Washington. Perhaps that, too, will be up to a future jury to decide.

Evelyn N. Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015, is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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