Trump Campaign Is Still Playing Russian Roulette With Foreign Policy
Post-Manafort, questions about the presidential candidate's Kremlin ties remain
Paul Manafort recently stepped down as campaign chairman for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. His departure came amid a swirl of media attention on his lobbying activities in support of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — a Kremlin-backed strongman who was run out of office and fled to Russia in 2014 following civil protests.
The Trump campaign, now headed by Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News fame, is likely betting that Manafort’s departure will lessen the media focus on the Republican presidential candidate’s own connections to the Kremlin, and Russian money — which, according to Trump’s son, Donald Jr., “made up a pretty disproportionate section of a lot of our [the Trump Organization’s] assets,” at least as of 2008. Candidate Trump’s media spokesperson, Hope Hicks, however, has claimed in prior media statements that “Mr. Trump does not have any business dealings in/with Russia.”
Still, the Trump campaign continues to advocate a very pro-Russian foreign policy, which so far has not been modified in the wake of Manafort’s departure. Among the pro-Russian policy proposals advanced by the Republican presidential candidate included advocating measures that would weaken the NATO alliance; pursuing a strategy of US acquiescence to Russian aggressions in Ukraine and its Crimean Peninsula; and even seeking Russia’s help in meddling in the US presidential election — at one point calling on Russian intelligence agencies to find and release more Clinton emails.
In addition, it remains a fact that over the past 30 years, Trump has pursued various ill-fated plans to develop office towers or hotels in Russia. He did succeed, however, in staging his multimillion-dollar Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. That fete was organized with the help of billionaire Aras Agalarov, who is among the Russian aristocrats favored by President Vladimir Putin.
So all on his own, without the help of Manafort, Trump over the years and to this day has worked to advance his personal business interests by cozying up to Russian tycoons and President Putin – who has raised eyebrows by endorsing Trump’s presidential bid.
And Trump continues to refuse to make public his tax returns – as presidential candidates have done for decades – which only fuels the speculation that he has something to hide on the Russian front.
The resignation of Manafort, whom Trump has known since the 1980s, then, does nothing to address the nagging questions about Trump’s own connections and business interests in Russia, and whether those entangling alliances might compromise his ability to represent U.S. interests if elected president.
Bill Browder understands well the world of Putin and the Russian business class. From the mid-1990s until 2005, he operated Hermitage Capital Management, which oversaw the largest foreign-investment fund in Russia at the time. He had a falling out with the Kremlin, however, and was expelled from Russia in 2005, after being declared a national security threat — and his company’s assets were seized as part of what Browder alleges was an elaborate tax-fraud scheme perpetrated by Russian authorities.
Sergel Magnitsky, Browder’s Russian attorney, was later arrested by the same authorities his investigation had implicated in the alleged tax fraud against Hermitage. Magnitsky died in jail in late 2009 after months of alleged torture.
Magnitsky’s fate sparked international outrage, leading to President Barack Obama in 2012 signing into law the Magnitsky Act, which places visa sanctions and asset freezes on all those believed to be involved in the mistreatment and ultimate death of Magnitsky.
Browder, who now lives in London, asserts that Trump’s efforts to push a Kremlin-friendly foreign-policy agenda as a presidential candidate is revealing of a possible quid pro quo arrangement of some sort between Trump and the Kremlin.
“Trump is a dealmaker, and I can’t imagine that he would be doing this [promoting policies favorable to Russia] unless there was something in it for him,” Browder said in an interview with Narco News. “He doesn’t think of it as high treason. He thinks of it as a deal. What that deal is we don’t know.”
That’s only Broward’s opinion, of course, but as a businessman, like Trump, he is quite familiar with the art of the deal as well as with Russian investments, and the baggage that can come with them.
As part of his efforts some 10 years ago to develop the Trump Soho condominium complex in Manhattan and various related projects, Trump partnered with a company with Russian roots called the Bayrock Group, which is now the target of a civil-racketeering lawsuit filed by the company’s former finance director and another employee. The plaintiffs allege in the pleadings that Bayrock is “covertly mob-owned and operated” and accuse the company’s principals of engaging in “money laundering, conspiracy, bribery, extortion and embezzlement.”
Bayrock was founded by a native Russian named Tevfik Arif, who served as a commerce official during the Soviet era, according to the litigation, which is still pending and being contested by Bayrock’s attorneys in federal court in New York.
“[Arif] started Bayrock as a party apparatchik in Moscow in 1989 at the fall of communism, backed by oligarchs and money they stole from the Russian people,” the plaintiff’s pleadings allege. “He came to the United States in 2000 to establish a presence for Bayrock, forming Bayrock Group LLC in 2002.”
In 2005, Trump cut a business deal with Bayrock to build a hotel in Moscow, but the project didn’t pan out. He did later team with Bayrock, however, on the Trump Soho project, which in 2007 received a shot in the arm, along with several other Bayrock projects, in the form of a $50 million dollar investment from an Icelandic investment firm. That company, the FL Group, was backed by Russians “who were in favor with Putin,” pleadings in the racketeering lawsuit allege.
Playing With Fire
In the mid-2000s, while Trump was cutting deals with Russians in New York, Manafort also was working deals in Ukraine that involved Russian interests. Manafort initially began working in Ukraine in 2005 as advisor to Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who at the time was a major supporter of Kremilin-backed Ukrainian politician Yanukovych. Manafort’s relationship with Akhemtov eventually led to his multi-year advisor relationship with Yanukovych – whom Manafort helped to get elected as president of Ukraine in 2010.
A story in the June issue of the English-language international edition of Ukrainian Week, a news magazine published out of Kyiv since 2007, alleges that Akhmetov has a close relationship with the Russian secret services and employs “managers whose biographies are, above all, associated with the KGB/FSB.” The FSB, also known as the Federal Security Service, is the successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB, which served as the main national security and spy agency for the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Yanukovych also is allegedly linked to Russia’s FSB through a billionaire named Igor Kesaev, who controls the Russian conglomerate the Mercury Group, which operates a subsidiary called Megapolis that dominates the cigarette-distribution market in Russia and Ukraine. Kesaev also has business holdings in weapons manufacturing, retail merchandizing, real estate and more.
Sergiy Vysotskiy, a member of the Ukrainian parliament (or Verkhovna Rada), alleged in an interview with Narco News that Kesaev has close ties to the Russian FSB. A past investigation by the Center for Public Integrity explored those links in-depth — including Kesaev’s role as the head of a fund that provides financial assistance to former security-service officers and his partnership in the weapons business with former high-ranking Russian military officials.
In addition, Vysotskiy, a member of Ukraine’s People’s Front political party, contends that Yanukovych and various of his cronies are in business with Kesaev through the Russian magnate’s cigarette-distribution operations in Ukraine.
Narco News sent an email to Megapolis in Russia seeking a comment from Kesaev for this story. The spokesperson for Megapolis, Elena Ianova, sent the following reply:
“I forwarded your request to the Mercury Group, because I can’t help you. If they decide to answer, they will connect with you.”
Mercury Group officials had not contacted Narco News as of press time.
“As I see it, it's impossible that Manafort didn't know about Russia's program of bringing Yanukovych to power and then to occupy Ukraine,” Vysotskiy said.
“The heads of Ukraine intelligence and security services during the time of Yanukovych were all FSB-connected persons,” Vysotskiy said. “So, is he [Manafort] an idiot and didn't see what's was happening around him? Or he just didn't care that he is building a PR and foreign-relations strategy for criminal, corrupted government that was ready to sell out my country to Kremlin like it was a garage sale?”
Since Yanukovych’s ouster, Ukrainian anticorruption officials have uncovered logbooks showing Yanukovych paid some $2 billion in bribes while in office. Some $12.7 million worth of the bribes entered in the ledgers, according to recent media reports, were earmarked for Manafort between 2007-12. Manafort contends, however, that he never received any such payments.
Manafort, as a top advisor to Ukrainian President Yanukovych during his term in office (2010-2014) had a seat at the table among the elite in Ukraine, even having a voice in decisions about US investments in the country, according to the New York Times. He has deep connections to pro-Russian political and business leaders in the country.
Manafort has continued to do consulting work for a political group in Ukraine called the “Opposition Block,” Vysotskiy said, adding that the group is seeking to re-establish Russia’s proxy control over Ukraine.
“So, in fact, Manafort is now continuing to work for Kremlin,” Vysotskiy claimed.
Manafort has told the US media that his work in Ukraine “ceased following the country’s parliamentary elections in October 2014,’ after Yanukovych had fled the country.
Narco News did seek comment from Manafort and the Trump campaign for this story, but Trump spokesperson Hicks did not respond to those queries.
Whether Trump is seeking to appease the Kremlin because he has cut some deal with the Russians that would advance his interests, as Browder suggests, remains an open and legitimate question, particularly given Trump’s financial opaqueness to date. It should be explored further — despite Manafort’s departure from the Trump campaign.
Even if there is no quid pro quo deal involved, however, and Trump is simply following his “leadership” instincts when it comes to his policy of appeasement with Putin, he is still playing with fire, according to some observers.
Among them is Dmytro Potekhin, a pro-democracy organizer in Ukraine who was held captive by what he describes as Moscow-backed "terrorists" for nearly two months in 2014. Potekhin offered Narco News his take on the stakes of Trump’s bet with the Russians:
“This is a campaigning model Trump may try to use, 1) … creating the feeling that there is a real threat of a big war … between the US and Russia; and 2) solution: election of the candidate who is a friend with Russia able to overcome the threat.
“For Ukraine — as well as for the US — it will be a huge problem. Because to retain power, both sides — Putin in Russia and Trump in the US (if he wins, of course) — will be inclined to replay this threat again and again, pushing the whole system of international relations closer to a real violent escalation.”