On the night of July 28, 2016, as Hillary Clinton was accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in Philadelphia, Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, received an urgent email from Moscow. The sender was a friend and business associate named Konstantin Kilimnik. A Russian citizen born in Soviet Ukraine, Kilimnik ran the Kyiv office of Manafort’s international consulting firm, known for bringing cutting-edge American campaign techniques to clients seeking to have their way with fragile democracies around the world.
Kilimnik didn’t say much, only that he needed to talk, in person, as soon as possible. Exactly what he wanted to talk about was apparently too sensitive even for the tradecraft the men so fastidiously deployed — encrypted apps, the drafts folder of a shared email account and, when necessary, dedicated “bat phones.” But he had made coded reference — “caviar” — to an important former client, the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had fled to Russia in 2014 after presiding over the massacre of scores of pro-democracy protesters. Manafort responded within minutes, and the plan was set for five days later.
Kilimnik cleared customs at Kennedy Airport at 7:43 p.m., only 77 minutes before the scheduled rendezvous at the Grand Havana Room, a Trump-world hangout atop 666 Fifth Avenue, the Manhattan office tower owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Shortly after the appointed hour, Kilimnik walked onto a perfectly put-up stage set for a caricature drama of furtive figures hatching covert schemes with questionable intent — a dark-lit cigar bar with mahogany-paneled walls and floor-to-ceiling windows columned in thick velvet drapes, its leather club chairs typically filled by large men with open collars sipping Scotch and drawing on parejos and figurados. Men, that is, like Paul Manafort, with his dyed-black pompadour and penchant for pinstripes. There, with the skyline shimmering though the cigar-smoke haze, Kilimnik shared a secret plan whose significance would only become clear six years later, as Vladimir V. Putin’s invading Russian Army pushed into Ukraine.
Known loosely as the Mariupol plan, after the strategically vital port city, it called for the creation of an autonomous republic in Ukraine’s east, giving Putin effective control of the country’s industrial heartland, where Kremlin-armed, -funded and -directed “separatists” were waging a two-year-old shadow war that had left nearly 10,000 dead. The new republic’s leader would be none other than Yanukovych. The trade-off: “peace” for a broken and subservient Ukraine.
The scheme cut against decades of American policy promoting a free and united Ukraine, and a President Clinton would no doubt maintain, or perhaps even harden, that stance. But Trump was already suggesting that he would upend the diplomatic status quo; if elected, Kilimnik believed, Trump could help make the Mariupol plan a reality. First, though, he would have to win, an unlikely proposition at best. Which brought the men to the second prong of their agenda that evening — internal campaign polling data tracing a path through battleground states to victory. Manafort’s sharing of that information — the “eyes only” code guiding Trump’s strategy — would have been unremarkable if not for one important piece of Kilimnik’s biography: He was not simply a colleague; he was, U.S. officials would later assert, a Russian agent.
Their business concluded, the men left by separate routes to avoid detection, though they continued to text deep into the night, according to federal investigators. In the weeks that followed, operatives in Moscow and St. Petersburg would intensify their hacking and disinformation campaign to damage Clinton and help turn the election toward Trump, which would form the core of the scandal known as Russiagate. The Mariupol plan would become a footnote, all but forgotten. But what the plan offered on paper is essentially what Putin — on the dangerous defensive after a raft of strategic miscalculations and mounting battlefield losses — is now trying to seize through sham referendums and illegal annexation. And Mariupol is shorthand for the horrors of his war, an occupied city in ruins after months of siege, its hulking steelworks spectral and silenced, countless citizens buried in mass graves.
Putin’s assault on Ukraine and his attack on American democracy have until now been treated largely as two distinct story lines. Across the intervening years, Russia’s election meddling has been viewed essentially as a closed chapter in America’s political history — a perilous moment in which a foreign leader sought to set the United States against itself by exploiting and exacerbating its political divides.
Yet those two narratives came together that summer night at the Grand Havana Room. And the lesson of that meeting is that Putin’s American adventure might be best understood as advance payment for a geopolitical grail closer to home: a vassal Ukrainian state. Thrumming beneath the whole election saga was another story — about Ukraine’s efforts to establish a modern democracy and, as a result, its position as a hot zone of the new Cold War between Russia and the West, autocracy and democracy. To a remarkable degree, the long struggle for Ukraine was a bass note to the upheavals and scandals of the Trump years, from the earliest days of the 2016 campaign and then the presidential transition, through Trump’s first impeachment and into the final days of the 2020 election. Even now, some influential voices in American politics, mostly but not entirely on the right, are suggesting that Ukraine make concessions of sovereignty similar to those contained in Kilimnik’s plan, which the nation’s leaders categorically reject. [Continue reading…]