I have served powerful women many times before in my life—senators, secretaries of state, opposition leaders—and knew how to bow before them. Today was a variation on the theme: I was here to plead guilty before Jackson to a federal felony.
I was so transfixed by her that I never stopped to think who was notably absent from the courtroom on that last day of August: my business partner Konstantin V. Kilimnik or, as I knew him, Kostya. In two weeks, his long-time boss Paul Manafort would stand in the very spot I did and do the same thing I was about to do.
Kostya was initially referred to in the American press as “Person A” in the government’s case against Manafort, the former chairman of the 2016 Trump campaign. When prosecutors moved in February of this year to nullify Manafort’s cooperation agreement with them—because he violated the deal by lying about his contacts with Kostya—a lead prosecutor told Judge Jackson that Manafort’s lies went “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.” In particular, the government asserted, Manafort had shared Trump polling data with Kostya, leaving many to wonder and speculate about why he might have done such a thing.
But today, Kostya, who had three months earlier been charged along with Manafort by Special Counsel Robert Mueller with witness tampering, was missing. He had disappeared like a shadow at dusk, perhaps to Russia or Ukraine.
To achieve my goal—offering a guilty plea with a modicum of dignity—I needed to stay cool. It wasn’t easy. Looking to my right, I saw my wife in the front row trying to hold back tears while Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesman, draped himself across the same bench on which she sat, chatting up the pack of millennial reporters in the rows behind them.
The special counsel’s pit bull, Andrew Weissmann, sat in the front row across the aisle with a handful of prosecutors and FBI agents. Moments before, he’d crossed the aisle to shake my hand and tell me “this is the hardest part, this will be over soon.” It couldn’t come soon enough.
My crime was my failure to register as a foreign agent. When the judge accepted my plea, I became the ninth American in post-war history to be convicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In addition, I took responsibility (though was not charged) for prohibited conduct including purchasing $50,000 worth of tickets to the 2017 Presidential Inauguration on behalf of my Ukrainian client and not submitting to the Senate Intelligence Committee emails detailing how I’d purchased those tickets.
One of the tickets was for Kostya, and another was for Serhiy Lyovochkin, a Ukrainian oligarch and opposition leader. My unregistered activity consisted of drafting op-eds and communications to US government officials for Lyovochkin. The crime of omission was not registering, while the crime of commission was writing. Lyovochkin was the thread that connected me, Manafort, and his deputy Kostya. After nearly two decades of advising foreign politicians on how to wage electoral campaigns in their own countries, the chickens had—for me—come home to roost.
“How do you plead?” Judge Jackson asked me.
“Guilty, Your Honor,” I replied.
He was, perhaps, the most unassuming of the eight local staff in the Russia office of the International Republican Institute, the nonprofit, pro-democracy and good governance group whose Moscow office I ran from 2001 to 2004. Other local staff were quick to present themselves to the new American, and announce the successes or importance of their respective programs—party building, parliamentary training, women and youth leadership confabs, and local self-government.
Kostya hung back at first, his desk in the right rear corner of the Moscow office was neatly arranged, and above it hung a satirical drawing of the newly minted president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, looking like an angry, blood-thirsty Bolshevik.
Kostya’s portfolio involved distributing sub-grants to a half-dozen or so Russian nongovernmental organizations that were meant to carry on our work after we were gone. But he also ran the office’s administration functions, including its budget and accounting, purchasing travel tickets for those setting off for the provinces, and ensuring that salaries and expenses were paid.
Having served in the military during Soviet times, Kostya had admirable habits of practicality and efficiency. It set him apart and made him seem to me to be more of a grownup. Military service in those days was compulsory, though the well-connected mostly managed to wriggle out of it. Having come from an industrial backwater in Eastern Ukraine, Kostya was not well-connected. Or he didn’t start out that way.
The media descriptions of him usually mention his diminutive stature, but when I think back to the first time I met him, I see a mop of tousled, brown hair cut in the fashion of the American preppie of the 1980s that tops a face with tight, foxlike features. On first glance, his height suggests a puerile persona. But if you take a moment to size up the man, you see an adult child and, when he opens his mouth, out comes a world-weariness laced with engaging, though cynical and often dark, humor.
In the world of nonprofits, there is often airy talk about principles and values, which are what draw most of us to the work. And I certainly had my share of idealism about spreading democracy and good government. But Kostya saw in me someone who had come not only from political work but also from the private sector. He saw someone who was not brand new to the former Soviet Union—I’d lived for several years in Kazakhstan, was married at the time to a Kazakh, and spoke passable if not fluent Russian. He saw, I believe, someone who got the joke.
But what was the joke?
His wife Katya was a dermatologist and matched him in height. As a family, they were adorable. Sometimes he seemed like an older brother. He’d tell me not to go to the gym when I had a cold because he worried I’d injure my heart from over-exertion. Or when my hangovers would show on my face, he’d urge me to eat kasha (a Russian form of oatmeal made from buckwheat) to repair the damage I’d likely done to my stomach lining.
Because of his commitment to his wife and daughters, Kostya traveled somewhat less than others on the staff and I did. Russia is vast, stretching across 11 time zones. It would not be possible on our relatively meager budget of about a $1 million a year to uniformly impact such a big country, so we had to pick and choose where we thought we might make a difference.
When helping arrange my more quixotic missions, whether to Dagestan, Tatarstan, or Bashkortostan (after 9/11, I felt outreach to the predominantly Muslim areas of Russia was especially important), Kostya would shake his head, but rarely if ever object. I would get the sense he found my idealism touching, if also naïve.
In him, I saw someone who had been overlooked and underappreciated. Raised in Krivy Rih (meaning “crooked horn” in Ukrainian), he had not been born to a life a privilege. He would joke about a tall grantee of ours as the sort of fellow who, because of his height, would get an extra pat of butter in the army.
There was no bitter resentment in such humor, just gentle irony. We began the game of referring to people by animal names, based on their dominant characteristics. My name for Kostya was Eyeore, after the downcast mule in Winnie-the-Pooh. This seemed genuine and apt for Russia. To have a rosy disposition here would be a sign that you were drunk, mentally handicapped, or American.
In a way, we balanced each other out. I came to trust Kostya as a colleague and a friend, never once suspecting he’d someday do me harm.
We’d struck up a friendship, and I traveled the country with him, taking on the role of his informal political counselor. Nemtsov, I believed, was the perfect foil to Putin: good-looking, natural sense of humor, honest intellect, and a leader who believed Russia’s better days were ahead of her.
When it came to politics, Kostya was agnostic. He neither encouraged nor discouraged my enthusiasm for Nemtsov and his center-right, pro-market political party, the Union of Right Forces. It finished a hair under the 5 percent threshold to remain in Russia’s parliament, the Duma. This outcome felt suspiciously pre-ordained. Indeed, late on the afternoon of the election one of Putin’s political advisers told me “your friends aren’t going to make it.”
In the months that followed, my spirits sunk to a new low. Sensing I’d failed in Russia, in the early spring of 2004, I volunteered to join IRI’s Iraq team.
On the morning of the presidential election, in which Vladimir Putin handily won a second term to no one’s surprise, I walked to the office to begin clearing out my things. Along the way, I passed a vagrant’s corpse in a park, where a disinterested policeman was writing up his post-mortem report. As the man must have felt when he passed out beneath a bench the night before, I was chewed up and spat out by this massive expanse of grey earth.
Nearly 12 years later, in February of 2015, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back in the shadow of the Kremlin. Even with the passage of so much time, I was more devastated by the news than I’d been after the 2003 election.
I’d just returned to Washington from Ukraine when I learned of his murder, and Kostya’s and my paths had reconnected, but I didn’t look to him for solace after the assassination just as I didn’t look to him for approval of my politics back then. As I mourned, Kostya kept a respectful distance.
I copied Kostya on my weekly dispatches from Mesopotamia, musings for friends and family, and he would almost always respond with interest. While I was pursuing my idealism in Iraq, Kostya’s career took a new tack altogether during this period.
From Iraq, I followed the news of a popular revolt underway in Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovich, the leader of the Party of Regions which drew its support from Eastern Ukraine, tried to steal the presidential election of late 2004 from Viktor Yushchenko, the darling of the West, who had survived an alleged poisoning in the final months of the campaign. Protesters took to the central square of Kyiv, in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution, sweeping Yushchenko into the presidency.
Chastened, Yanukovich’s backers took a radically different approach. They fired the Russian hacks who had botched the first election and hired an American, Paul J. Manafort, to prepare for the next election. Manafort, in turn, hired Kostya, initially as his translator.
Since my departure from Moscow, activity in my old field office there had shifted somewhat, allowing Kostya to freelance with Manafort while keeping IRI’s lights on in Russia. But as the people in IRI’s DC headquarters learned of this, they fired Kostya, and he began working full-time for Manafort and Ukraine’s Party of Regions. It was the start of a relationship with Manafort that would end in indictments all around.
Meanwhile, I resigned from IRI after Iraq’s first democratic election in more than half a century and began my own series of peripatetic twists and turns. Some of these career moves could be considered altruistic—I went to work for Maine’s senior senator, Olympia Snowe, as her speechwriter; for the undersecretary of state for global affairs as her senior adviser on democracy promotion; and for Freedom House, a democracy and human rights watchdog organization cofounded by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1940s, as its director of Eurasian programs.
Others could be considered mercenary—I joined a Republican political consultancy to expand their international business and later hung my own shingle as an independent consultant, or gun for hire. This work took me back to Iraq as an adviser first for the Kurds and later the Arab Sunnis, to Thailand for an embattled prime minister (removed by a coup d’etat on my watch), and throughout Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and Africa.
On one of these assignments, in the summer of 2007, Kostya’s and my paths crossed in Kyiv. I was working for President Yushchenko’s party in the run-up to the autumn Rada (parliamentary) elections. This put me on opposite sides of Kostya and Manafort, who were advising Yanukovich’s Party of Regions.
Despite being on competing sides, Kostya and I arranged to have coffee one morning in a downtown Kyiv café. He arrived looking altogether a new man, in a tailored suit with a monogrammed, custom-made shirt. His family had stayed in Moscow, he explained, and it had become his routine to fly in style back and forth. I was pleased, and even a little amazed, to see him doing so well for himself.
When I got back to my office, the president’s deputy chief-of-staff demanded to see me. Ukrainian state intelligence services had monitored my meeting with Kostya, and the client was livid. It is perfectly civilized for competitors to have cordial relations, I tried to explain, but in vain.
For a couple weeks after that I was consigned to the doghouse. Even after the cloud passed, I still felt the evil eye from time to time. But the television ads we were making were better than those Kostya’s team were making, so my “indiscretion” eventually faded into the background. There was just to be no more fraternization with my old friend on that assignment. (As it happened, my side prevailed in the parliamentary elections.)
The years went by, and talk of how much money Manafort was making in Ukraine had become a recurrent topic in Washington in those days. My friend Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist of Russian origin, was keen to muscle in on the action. He told me of how one of his associates managed to secure a meeting with Yanukovich’s chief-of-staff, the young Serhiy Lyovochkin, while the Ukrainian president was attending the UN General Assembly in New York. Halfway through the meeting, he recalled, Manafort barged into the room “with an angry midget by his side.” I smiled. Kostya. Akhmetshin’s effort went nowhere.
(Akhmetshin, by the way, was the so-called “GRU agent” who took part in Donald Trump Jr.’s now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. He is not, to my knowledge, a GRU agent nor representative of the Russian government in any way, though he did serve in the Soviet army in Afghanistan in his youth. We first met when he was representing a Kazakh opposition leader in Washington in the 1990s.)
In the fall of 2013—when I was newly remarried but without paying work—an offer came to me from the Manafort camp, not from Kostya but from an intermediary. Tension over whether Ukraine would side with the European Union or Russia’s Eurasian Union led to mounting protests in the streets of Kyiv. Yanukovich had won the presidency in 2010 and was gearing up for re-election. Would I join his ad-making team? I said no.
The way things were going, it seemed like the wrong side of history. I was right. The protests grew over the winter, and in February of 2014 turned violent. At least 100 protestors were killed near Kyiv’s central square, known as the Maidan. Public anger at Yanukovich overflowed, and that month he was deposed. He fled Kyiv first for Kharkiv, a large Eastern city, and eventually reached Moscow. The “Revolution of Peoples’ Dignity” had triumphed.
The first people I heard from after the Post piece upped my profile was the then-little-known London-based political consultancy that became Cambridge Analytica. I was back in Washington, and their CEO, Alexander Nix, was visiting the capital and invited me for drinks. In the basement of the Hay-Adams, we had at least several, and by the end of a two-hour conversation we were finishing each other’s sentences.
His company wanted to break into the Republican consulting business in the US, which I thought badly needed shaking up anyway. A week or two later, Nix asked me if I would take part in an experiment they were doing. Would I come to London and later to British Columbia for a series of trainings to be followed by a deployment to a key US Senate race as a “message architect” putting flesh on the bones of their blend of micro-targeting data with psychographic profiling. It was all still under development, but if it worked, he said, it would revolutionize political campaigns.
Nix was offering me the chance to take part in key races in West Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Colorado, or Oregon. It seemed a way back into domestic politics—something I wanted very much to do so I could be closer to my son and new wife. So I signed up. By the time the training was over, Cambridge was involved with only two—North Carolina (a possible pick-up) and Oregon (a long-shot to put it generously). And North Carolina was taken. So off to Oregon I went.
Nothing went as planned. Our hodge-podge team of Brits, Canadians, and me were met with incredulity by the local campaign staff, who were reeling in the wake of allegations that the candidate, Monica Wehby, an appealing female pediatric neurosurgeon, was also accused of being a stalker. The National Republican Senatorial Committee thought even less of us, and after a month, Cambridge was fired (via email, no less). The cartels that controlled party politics in the US didn’t like new blood. So much for my shot at remaking myself in the Motherland—apparently 2014 was the wrong year for foreign electoral interference.
But then a message arrived from Kostya. Did I have a minute to speak? His timing couldn’t have been better.
Manfort was shadow-managing the Opposition Bloc’s nominal campaign, but Lyovochkin, who left Yanukovich’s side when authorities used violence against the Maidan protestors in early 2014, had stayed behind as Yanukovich fled to Russia.
Lyovochkin, who with a handful of the original supporters of the Party of Regions was now running the Opposition Bloc, worried that Manafort’s grand strategy in itself wouldn’t do the trick. He wanted a parallel operation, what we in the States would call a contrast campaign, to take OB’s opponents down a few pegs. It was to be, in local parlance, a minus campaign. Kostya was working for Manafort, as he had long done, and he would also be supporting me on the ground.
Within a few days of talking with Kostya, I was landing in Kyiv’s Boryspil airport—just shy of seven years after my last departure from Ukraine. On arrival, Kostya shared a series of written briefs on key subjects that brought me up to speed in less than hour. My apartment, just off the Maidan, had a steel door that was entirely charred and flaking black and rusted bits; it had shielded previous occupants from a barrage of Molotov cocktails earlier that year. I put down my personal effects and begin settling in for my second Ukrainian campaign.
To an outsider, it might have appeared that I was simply switching sides—taking up with the so-called pro-Russia forces that I’d deemed to be on the wrong side of history. To my mind, I wasn’t really. The game had entirely changed, and Opposition Bloc, as their name suggests, were now the underdogs. This was consistent with much of the work I’d done up until then, and aligned with my principles about leveling the playing field in politics. Moreover, being “pro-Russian” would have meant favoring the occupier of several Ukrainian regions, which Opposition Bloc did not. They wanted peace, much as the people living in those regions did, and still do.
Were Opposition Bloc a party of mobsters, as my clients seven years earlier had insinuated? If they had been, most of the criminal types had either fled to Russia or migrated to other parties—including then-President Poroshenko’s own. Power, as Lord Acton observed, corrupts. By the same token, there is a cleansing in opposition, and the millions of Eastern Ukrainians who had once been represented by the Party of Regions were now without any champion in Kyiv.
This was not the first time I’d embroiled myself in this kind of complexity. In former Soviet Georgia I worked for then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and helped them win a super-majority in parliament in 2008, only to return to the country three years later to work for his opponents, who succeeded in ousting him. This was because the situation had changed and Saakashvili had, in my view and in that of a number of others, gone off the rails. My present circumstances might on first glance seem equally contradictory, given that they derive in large part from my involvement with figures close to Donald Trump—even though I voted for his opponent in 2016. Did I abandon my idealism? No. Politics isn’t about making statements, it’s about outcomes.
Kostya took me to Parus (meaning “sail”), a steel and glass high-rise that had sprung up in central Kyiv since my earlier sojourn, and we shot up to the 19th floor in an elevator that whistled and whined with the wind. A roll-up steel door (not charred, by contrast rather spiffy and hi-tech) opened, and Lyovochkin’s security detail waved us into a glistening white conference room hovering like a spaceship high over the capital’s downtown.
Once we were settled in white leather revolving chairs and offered tea and chocolates by a secretary, Lyovochkin strode in, wearing a deconstructed blazer that accentuated his athletic frame. I started to introduce myself, but he waved his hand and said, “no need, I know perfectly well who you are and,” glancing approvingly at Kostya, “suspect you know why you’re here.”
In preparation, I had scribbled out the basis of a plan that I’d dubbed Operation Claw Back. It outlined a shift in narrative that called out our opponents for being opportunists with little concern for the people. Kostya handed it to him. Smiling, he glanced through it. “Perfect,” he said, “Let’s get to work.”
I immediately started making ads attacking our opponents. All in all I wrote maybe 20 scripts, about half of which were produced. Lyovochkin had provided a young Ukrainian woman, whom I called Sunshine, as my translator and assistant. Sunshine had graduated from a West Coast high school and university, so she understood where I was coming from as well as she did the Ukrainian context.
She would translate my scripts, and then Kostya would edit and approve her translations before getting Lyovochkin’s sign off. The most effective attack ads were not against candidates whose supporters we’d never win anyway, but rather those who were vying for our voters.
The next big meeting was to be with Manafort. That could be more complicated. Kostya had arranged for me to work for Lyovochkin directly, though through him. In other words, I was not to be reporting to, or paid by, Manafort.
This differed from previous arrangements over the past decade where Manafort had been the one who hired and managed research or media or other contractors, keeping them all compartmentalized. But if this was a bone of contention with the “wise old owl,” as Kostya frequently referred to him, Manafort didn’t let it show. We met for breakfast in the restaurant of the Hyatt Regency, his digs in Kyiv.
The wait staff was well accustomed to treating their longtime guest with deference and offered us a private nook. As I loaded my plate with eggs and sausage and bacon, I was struck by how healthily and parsimoniously the legendary Republican chose fruits and vegetables. Perhaps this wasn’t his only breakfast of the day, or maybe he was minding his waist.
I started the conversation with small talk, flattery, and a brief introduction of myself, which, unlike Lyovochkin, he listened to as he picked at his plate. His eyes were tired, but not soft. His voice was low and crisp. Slowly, like a sensei speaking to a grasshopper, he shared with me in broad strokes the accumulated wisdom he’d acquired about how to work with the top dogs who had migrated from the Party of Regions to the Opposition Bloc—in other words the ones who hadn’t run off to Russia with Yanukovich.
“Never give an inch with these guys,” he said. “Hold your ground and insist on what needs to be done until you get your way.” This was how he had succeeded in Ukraine, and what I should do if I wanted to as well. After all these years, he said, “they’ve come to see me as one of them.” As one who had embedded with clients across Eurasia and the Middle East, I felt I’d earned the same kind of repute from my clients, and in this respect, his words made me see him as a kindred spirit.
Kostya didn’t join us, he’d said something about having to be at another meeting, and since Paul and I were both Americans figured we could manage on our own. “Your friend is a powerful little dude,” Manafort told me.
He didn’t elaborate but did go on to say how taxing he felt it was for Kostya to have to sit through, and often mediate, the endless meetings between warring factions within OB. What did he mean by “powerful”? The oligarchs who were, in essence, the shareholders of the party paid Kostya more deference than the waitresses at the Hyatt were paying us.
The way I read this was that after so many years as a functionary interpreting what Manafort was saying to party sponsors, leaders, and hacks alike, he had himself become part of the legend. I saw how Lyovochkin looked at him, and later I would see others look at him in just the same way. He had become, as some media accounts would later refer to him, “Manafort’s Manafort.”
It was too late to turn back so I continued walking past them, intending to climb at least out of sight. One followed me and leapt a few stairs ahead of me, and stopped me with a hand on the shoulder. A few questions, he said in Russian, which I pretended not to speak.
I said in English that I worked for USAID all the while putting on the most dimwitted expression I could manage. It worked, and he gave up. When I got a few floors above them I summoned the elevator, and when it came, directed it back to the ground floor, my thumb pressed against the “door closed” button.
Descending, one of the thugs noticed me and with another gave chase. I made it out the front door a good 15 steps ahead of them and sprinted up the hill and back into the park. Having been running for an hour beforehand, I had an advantage against men in blue jeans and bulky leather coats who were probably hungover to boot. Once I was certain I had shaken them, I called Kostya.
In the steadiest voice I could muster, I asked “what the fuck?!?!”
Don’t worry, he said, it’s probably all just a misunderstanding, we’ll fix it.
Somehow I doubt it was a misunderstanding. There had been an earlier visit by a man identifying himself to me as a plain-clothes cop looking for a pair of Georgians, whom he alleged were living in my apartment. No Georgians here, I assured him. He took down a statement, which he had me sign.
That, I wrote off at the time, as a misunderstanding, but what had just happened seemed like an aborted kidnapping attempt. Why would someone want to take me? To do what, I couldn’t bring myself to speculate, but I was pretty sure it had to do with my work. Oddly, I did not insist on moving.
Kostya spent the better part of those weeks care-taking Manafort, leaving me to channel my creative energies with Sunshine, who turned out to be a talented video-maker, and a pamphleteer we called Michael. We shared an office with Manafort, a block off the Maidan, but our workflows were pretty different. Sometimes our paths would cross.
Rick Gates was Manafort’s loyal lieutenant—to a point, anyhow. We would sometimes swap copy in the office and look at what the other had written and make a suggestion or two out of courtesy. Once we were looking at a direct mail piece that had a photograph of a babushka, an old village woman, on the cover. Manafort heard us talking and walked by, glancing at the final proof. “Looks like a witch,” he said. To me, she looked like a pensioner. Still, they changed the photo to a less witchy-looking babushka.
But it seemed to work. When the election came, OB won about 10 percent of the vote—more than double where we had started out three weeks prior, and nearly twice the performance of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party. This was a good yardstick of success as Tymoshenko, who portrayed herself as a national martyr and possesses one of Ukraine’s more brilliant political minds, normally gets between 12 and 20 percent of the national vote in any given election.
The night after the election, Manafort, Gates, and I (again, Kostya was absent) had dinner at a restaurant near Kyiv’s opera. The mood was relaxed, but ebullient. At one point, Manafort looked at me with an avuncular smile and said: “You earned your money, kid.” It was the last time I ever saw him.
But I did remain in contact with Kostya, who would occasionally send me OB ads or messaging scenarios developed by Manafort or others for a second look. As OB had such minimal presence in Kyiv and presented no threat to Klitschko, I saw no conflict.
At this point, Kostya and I launched our own company to explore ways we could apply our talents. I named it Begemot Ventures International. Begemot is the Russian word for hippopotamus, and behemoth. But thanks to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, one of Stalin’s favorites, begemot has a double meaning. In his fantastic The Master and Margarita, Begemot was the name of an enormous cat who accompanies Woland, the devil incarnate, who comes to Moscow to do great mischief.
Kostya loved cats, and that played a role in my choice of a name for our company. Our intent was not necessarily mischief, though we did aim to achieve unexpected outcomes. In this respect, I suppose, we were successful.
Kostya came up with a series of possible projects throughout the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Africa—one in Kazakhstan, another in Guinea—each of which I would sketch out in concept form, for consideration by such funders, Kostya told me, as Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. As one of the world’s largest owners of metal companies, Deripaska’s equities are as close-by as Ukraine or as far flung as Africa. It is in his interests to have good relations with the governments of the countries where he does business, just as American companies fund Political Action Committees and give money to parties. (Reached to confirm the connection to Deripaska by WIRED’s fact-checking department, Kostya said that these pitches were not specifically intended for Deripaska.)
None of these projects was ever green-lighted in the sense of being funded, but the nature of the game is to pitch and pitch and pitch until something sticks. There was at least one of Kostya’s ideas in which I flatly refused to participate because it involved supporting anti-NATO political forces in Montenegro.
Even as we were looking for the next big thing, the task of fixing OB always loomed in the background. Manafort’s moon was waning while mine was waxing—some pols in Kyiv had started referring to me as “the new Paul.” So one afternoon in the fall of 2015, Kostya brought me to meet Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch. The son-in-law of former president Leonid Kuchma, Pinchuk made his initial fortune on pipeline production in the ’90s, later diversifying into media, oil and gas, and other sectors.
Of all the Ukrainian oligarchs, he was the most focused on his own image: He donated millions to the Clinton Global Foundation and even paid Donald Trump $150,000 the following year to appear via Skype at his annual mini-Davos confab in Ukraine while the real estate magnate ran for president of the United States.
Pinchuk’s office was in Parus, the same building as Lyovochkin’s, but on a higher floor. The purpose of the meeting was not entirely clear to me, though I assumed it was Lyovochkin’s or Kostya’s way of showing me off, as one might an expensive watch.
The conversation was meandering. Pinchuk began by trying to make me understand he wasn’t only friends with Democrats like the Clintons in the US, but with Republicans also. He showed me a picture of himself with George H.W. Bush to prove his point. (Mind you, this was before he hired Trump to appear at his conference).
Then the conversation got interesting. Putin, he told me, believed that the United States had been behind all the so-called color revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. That’s ridiculous, I replied, and he said he knew, but it didn’t really matter because that’s what Putin thought.
In late 2015, Lyovochkin asked me whether it was true that Trump was going to hire Manafort to run his campaign. Just as I told Pinchuk that Putin’s perception of America’s capabilities was ridiculous, I told Lyovochkin that was an absurd notion, that Trump would have to be nuts to do such a thing.
After all, other than Yanukovich, Manafort had worked for notorious Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, Zairian despot Mobutu Sese Seko, and Angolan guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi, accounting for an awful lot of negative baggage. This track record led some to say he had invented the “Torturer’s Lobby.”
Moreover, his former partner Rick Davis told me candidly, just before taking the reins of the McCain campaign, that neither of them knew much about running a campaign in the US beyond staging a convention. (Manafort helped manage the convention floors for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole.)
But I was wrong. In early April 2016, Kostya sent me the press release announcing Manafort’s hiring. Manafort had also instructed him to pass this astonishing announcement around Kyiv as well to make sure that his once and perhaps future clients were aware that he was still the man.
But in reality, it seldom works that way. For consultants, the time between elections is spent undercutting one another and pitching for new business. And it is usually only in the 11th hour—often when it is already too late—that the client opens their purse and hires you.
The OB followed this pattern in the period between 2014 when I started working for them and the election that just took place on July 21, but with a particularly sticky twist: There were two factions within the party, and they couldn’t stand each other or work together.
Each poll, each briefing, each slew of strategic recommendations to party leadership seemed like Groundhog Day. They listened politely, and occasionally asked questions suggesting they understood what we were saying but then proceeded to do more or less what they had been doing before, to little effect.
It came to the point where I would deliver the same brief to each side because they couldn’t abide being in the same room. During one such episode, Boris Kolesnikov—a member of parliament, oligarch, and leader of the Donetsk-based faction which opposed what he saw as Lyovochkin’s more Machiavellian group—interrupted me in mid-sentence to blurt out: “Paul said if we created this party, we would grow to 20 percent or more and that hasn’t happened, can you explain that? This is not Opposition Bloc, it is Ass Block!”
The answer, dear Boris, is not in the stars… I wanted to say, but didn’t. Ever since the news of a “black ledger” allegedly showing that Manafort had taken more than $12 million in cash from the Party of Regions broke in The New York Times in mid August 2016—leading to his firing from the Trump campaign—I found myself cleaning up the messes of the wise old owl, for mere pennies.
I received a letter from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asking me to submit all communications with, about, or regarding Kostya, Manafort, and Gates, and to submit to a voluntary interview with the committee’s investigators of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. When I told Kostya of this, his response was unhelpfully cavalier. It’s no big deal, he said, they’re just on a fishing expedition, this will all be over soon.
The next day, he sounded more concerned: “I didn’t sleep all night,” he I remember him telling me. .
I would see Kostya twice while abroad before my Senate interrogation, which wasn’t scheduled until two months after I delivered the requested documents, or early in 2018. That was the beginning of grueling year that culminated in my guilty plea on the FARA charge on August 31, 2018. For me, it was a year in which everything fell apart—my reputation, my livelihood, and to a large extent, my belief in myself.
In addition to my FARA violations, my purchasing tickets to the US presidential inauguration for Lyovochkin, Kostya, and another Ukrainian oligarch supporting OB named Vadim Novinsky was a violation of a rule prohibiting foreign money from going into inaugural accounts—Novinsky reimbursed me for the tickets. At the time it didn’t strike me as terribly conspiratorial given the fact that Novinsky has business interests in the US.
But in the febrile environment of the Russia investigation, many things that had once been routinely overlooked suddenly became a big deal. Novinsky did not attend because the US embassy in Kyiv would not grant him a visa, Kostya begged out of the ball, telling me that he feared he’d bump into Manafort. So it ended up just being Lyovochkin and me going to an expensive and not terribly memorable dance.
I also accepted responsibility for withholding a handful of emails from the Senate Intelligence Committee, specifically pertaining to who I got to purchase the tickets for me as I was in Africa at the time Kostya asked me for them on Lyovochkin’s and Novinsky’s behalf. To my mind, there was no reason to tar that individual in the same muck in which I am now covered. After all, the investigation was supposed to be about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election—not in Ukrainians attending the 2017 presidential inauguration.
In all, I did voluntarily turn over 1,300 pages of email to the Senate Intelligence Committee and did voluntarily submit to a five-hour interview about them. But sometimes the breach matters more than the observance, especially when it comes to congressional investigations.
In April this year, eight months after I stood before Judge Jackson and pleaded guilty, I was back in her courtroom, where she pronounced my sentence: three years of probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $5,000 fine. No jail time. She took into consideration the fact that I had agreed to work with federal prosecutors on several cases that grew out of the Mueller investigation and noted that I had done everything in my power to make amends. With my wife by my side, I left the courthouse feeling that finally, maybe, I could breathe again.
It will take me some time to recover from all this, but I will. Time and again, I have had to tackle tough assignments and big challenges, so I do believe I’ll put the downsides of my highly scrutinized relationship with Kostya behind me.
But just as important as my belief in and about myself, what did I believe about Kostya? Was he a Russian agent—as the Mueller report suggests? Why did Manafort meet with him in 2016?
Based on what Kostya told me, Manafort met him to discuss getting old bills paid and probably had designs on future work with the Ukrainians when the Trump campaign was over. Whatever polling insights he shared were likely intended to convey that Trump had a chance of winning and, for that reason, Manafort should be taken seriously—and paid. This made sense to me but was at odds with the prevailing media narrative. Still, I had to wonder: Was I played?
Watching my downfall from Moscow, Kostya sent me a note that said “who could have thought things would turn out this way? One day, the truth will come out, it always does.” As Kostya appealed to eternal truth, I remembered John Hay’s crediting the Russian officials as being those with whom “mendacity is a science,” and Theodore Roosevelt, at the same time, expressing frustration with the Russians’ “stupendous mendacity,” in a letter to British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice while attesting, in the same sentence, to how much he liked them.
Yes, I have come to learn, Kostya did lie to me—or at least he was parsimonious with the truth. I credit Andrew Weissmann, deputy special counsel, and inter alia, his boss Robert Mueller with this discovery. In supporting their claim that Manafort lied to them about his dealings with Kostya, they reference a poll the two discussed doing for a Ukrainian political party in 2018—long after the point at which Kostya assured me Manafort was old news. And, by the same special counsel filing, it became clear that Kostya met with Manafort during the 2017 inauguration, even though he’d told me he didn’t want to run into Manafort during that visit.
So I sympathize with TR’s frustrations with the Russians. Kostya is ethnically Ukrainian but also holds Russian citizenship, so the same principles apply. Still, one has to modulate one’s expectations based on whom one is dealing with, and to always ask the right questions. I never asked, “Kostya, did you go meet Manafort while I was at the inaugural ball with Lyovochkin?” or “Kostya, are you and Paul still trying to angle for more Ukrainian business?” This was, perhaps, because I assumed—incorrectly—that he wasn’t.
A better example of how to extract the truth would be this: After my five-hour grilling by the Senate panel on January 5, 2018, one of the investigators asked me to contact Kostya and call his attention to the invitation they’d sent him. “Tell him how nice we were to you,” the investigator said. So when I got home, I called him.
Have you also received a request to appear? I asked him. There was some obfuscation, but then he said, “let me check my spam filter … oh, here it is.” OK, no outright lie, because I believe he was disinclined to lie to me. Then, after I gave him a brief rundown of how my grilling had gone, he added something that stuck in my head for many months. “Funny,” he said, “I received a message today from BuzzFeed asking about many of these same things.” It was funny indeed, because my production of documents to the Senate panel was supposed to have been confidential. So why would BuzzFeed be privy to them?
Months later, despite the new constraints on our communications, I asked Kostya if he could produce the communication he’d referenced on January 5 for me. “What communication? I don’t remember.” I pressed him, and said I very damn well did remember. Shortly after that, he pinged me back and apologized: “completely slipped my mind, here it is.”
To be fair, he’d probably had a lot on his mind in those intervening months, and one of many outreaches from an American reporter was likely less significant to him than it was to me. The point being, when I would press, he would tell me the truth, I believe. But to expect him to volunteer it would be silly. Looking back, there is no shortage of examples of my being a fool.
Each time Kostya brought up Yanukovich, I would change the subject. No matter how great the nostalgia among certain OB supporters was for their former hetman, I considered him to be yesterday’s news. Maybe Kostya considered Yanukovich’s election in 2010 to be his greatest professional achievement, I don’t know because I had always hoped there would be greater and more redeeming accomplishments just over the horizon.
If Kostya were the linchpin between Manafort and the Kremlin that he has been alleged to be, why did so few of our pitches get funded? I can only conclude that it is either because the Kremlin’s reach is vastly overstated, or that Kostya was precisely what I considered him to be—a man trying to make the most of his circumstances.
Born in an industrial armpit of Ukraine, he made his way first to Moscow and then, through IRI and later Manafort, to European capitals and Washington, DC—a city that, now that he has been indicted, he is unlikely ever to see again.
His preoccupation with a peace deal to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is another factor I can only attribute to a man caught between two countries trying to do what he could to ensure that one didn’t destroy the other. According to disclosures coming again from the special counsel’s office to the judge tasked with determining whether or not Manafort had lied to our government, Kostya pestered the then-Trump campaign chairman with whatever the latest iteration of a peace deal might have been in August 2016 which, reportedly, Manafort dismissed as being “nuts.” Manafort couldn’t care less, but Kostya did.
I may never know for sure whether Kostya was or is a Russian agent. “Having ties to Russian intelligence,” as US media generally describes him today, is a cop-out as far as I’m concerned. Russia’s secret police services have run that country for over 400 years, and President Putin rose through the ranks of the KGB. Just about every Russian who isn’t digging potatoes in Tver or drinking himself into oblivion in Magadan probably has some tie to intelligence services.
We had talked in the period between August 2016 and the time charges were brought against me a year later about the allegations made against him, and Kostya said more than once it was simply a reflection of how little the people making them actually knew about Russian intelligence services. Yes, he’d gone to a Soviet military language school, but it took a good deal more than that to be a KGB/FSB officer, he would explain. Was he? Was he operating as a Russian agent the whole time I knew him?
In late February of this year, The New York Times ran a lead article in their Sunday edition questioning whether Kostya was just a hustling political operative or a Russian intelligence agent. The piece references Kostya’s early exposure to “brash young Americans” such as my IRI predecessor and former Manafort aide Phil Griffin, Roger Stone henchman Michael Caputo, and myself.
It does not draw any conclusions, but rather lays out what the authors came across in the course of their reporting. Its new news was that Kostya was a source for the State Department, an interesting twist to Mueller’s FBI-based conclusion that he was tied to Russian intelligence.
That article’s final quote has Caputo asking whether the various American officials Kostya regularly met have themselves been subjected to the same kind of scrutiny we have been, suggesting not so subtly that the authors themselves agreed that there was a double standard.
I would be well within my rights to say that Kostya had become a very expensive friend, and my wife would probably tear him to pieces if she had the chance. Still, I resist the obvious pressure to pile on, perhaps foolishly. I still see him as more hustler than spook.
My wife has put up with a lot from me throughout this episode so when she asked me not to communicate with Kostya anymore, I agreed. I wrote to him in Moscow in April, where I presume he still resides given the fact that the US indictment would make his travel anywhere else difficult, and told him he wouldn’t be hearing from me anymore.
“We both became prisoners of war in this shit show, and we know it,” he said in response, adding that he understood my decision to sever contact but that he hoped it would not be forever.
Now, I just feel as though, in addition to everything else, that I lost a friend.