KIEV — Paul Manafort’s criminal trial in the United States has also incriminated his political allies in Ukraine, where Manafort made millions as an operative. But good-government advocates here think Ukrainian authorities will decline to prosecute any officials, fearful of angering Donald Trump — a man whose help they need to keep Russia in check.
“The Ukrainian government will try to ignore this,” Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kiev-base New Europe Center, a think tank that promotes European and Western standards in Ukraine, told POLITICO. “Manafort is a person who was close to President Trump, and for whom Trump still may hold some sympathy.”
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“They fear losing Trump’s support, or to provoke an unnecessary conflict with the US administration,” she added.
Still, some politicians and anti-corruption advocates believe new information disclosed in Manafort’s trial on bank and tax fraud charges should trigger new criminal action in Ukraine against officials and oligarchs who lavished Manafort with cash.
Ukrainians were taken aback during the trial to learn that the country’s former Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his political party, funneled more than $60 million in undeclared income to Manafort through a complex scheme of offshore shell companies. It was also revealed that one of Manafort’s companies briefly worked for President Petro Poroshenko’s first presidential campaign, potentially linking the country’s current leader to Manafort’s dealings as he heads into a tough bid for reelection next March.
But these advocates don’t expect these revelations to translate into legal action, given the power of the country’s oligarchs, the fact that no oligarch or top official has been convicted yet in the matter and the simple fact that further digging into Manafort could invite political blowback from Trump, who would not welcome new headlines involving his 2016 campaign chairman. POLITICO also found uncertainty among Ukrainian agencies over who would take up such an investigation.
Ukraine can ill-afford a rupture with the U.S. The country’s pro-U.S. government depends on Washington as a source of diplomatic, financial and military support against Russian territorial aggression in the country’s Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists have waged a years-long insurgency that has left more than 10,300 people dead. The Kremlin also annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 over the opposition of the international community.
And the Poroshenko administration is recovering from a rough start with Trump, who believes Ukrainian officials and political figures favored his campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton. Reports after the election that Ukrainian officials tried to help Clinton and damage Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office didn’t help smooth things over — although there’s no evidence Poroshenko himself was involved in these efforts.
Additionally, Serhiy Leshchenko, the parliament deputy and former muckraking journalist whose own original investigations aided Robert Mueller’s investigation, made public key details regarding the financial transactions to Manafort that helped fuel special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference during the 2016 election.
President Poroshenko seems to have soothed relations for the moment: Washington recently sold Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kiev, which the Ukrainians had long lobbied for in order to fight the Russian-backed insurgency in the country’s East.
In a show of support, John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, will also travel to Ukraine next week for the country’s independence day celebrations on Friday. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently issued a strong call for Russia to end its occupation of Crimea.
Still, fears exist that the relationship could again turn south, especially given Trump’s rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin. With the Ukrainians fighting the Kremlin for their territorial integrity, they feel they have little room to maneuver.
“The situation isn’t stable between the White House and Ukraine — [Kiev] will try to avoid any factor that could weaken their position,” said Getmanchuk.
And the entire Manafort case, dating back to revelations last year, is a “very toxic” factor, Getmanchuk said, adding: “Some lessons have been learned.”
Still, she said, “I hope they will use this case as a pretext to communicate anti-corruption steps in the U.S. — to show that Ukraine is at least a little bit different now.”
At the moment, however, bureaucratic confusion reigns over how Ukraine will handle any new evidence that has come out of the Manafort trial. It’s not entirely clear which government body would pick up an investigation.
Officials at Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office said that they will decide soon what they will do with the new information: open an entirely new investigation, use the evidence to supplement existing ones or do nothing at all.
Other authorities say Ukraine’s newly created Federal Bureau of Investigation — which isn’t yet up and running — should handle any probe. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the country’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which is tasked with investigating corruption after the country’s 2014 revolution that pushed out Viktor Yanukovych, told POLITICO the organization is “aware” of the revelations in the U.S. and is “examining this information.”
Separately, Manafort is a person of interest — but not charged with any crime — in three cases currently being pursued by the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office, including an investigation into off-the-books payments by Yanukovych’s political party (referred to in Ukraine as the case of the “black ledgers”).
These cases have encountered a number of roadblocks in Kiev, though. In April, Ukrainian officials stripped investigators of their right to issue subpoenas in the investigations, effectively freezing the probes. Some critics speculated that the cases were halted because of their political sensitivity at a time of tense U.S.-Ukraine relations. Officials say the freeze has since been lifted.
Washington officials have also hindered the probes. The Justice Department has failed to answer most letters from Ukrainian authorities requesting assistance in questioning Manafort and other witnesses, despite a legal assistance agreement between the two countries.
In Ukraine, there is pressure to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen with evidence exposed during the Manafort trial.
Leshchenko said the web of offshore accounts that Ukrainian politicians used to pay Manafort is patently illegal.
“It is against Ukrainian law to control companies and have direct control over offshore accounts while serving in the government,” Leshchenko told POLITICO, adding that some of the alleged participants were serving as ministers or deputies at the time of the transactions, such as Yanukovych’s head of administration, Serhiy Lyovochkin.
“If they made the transfers, it means that they were involved” and should be investigated, he said.
But there’s doubt that Leshchenko will get the robust investigation he wants.
“These guys have very good lawyers,” said Volodymyr Ariev, another member of Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, noting that the power players and oligarchs involved in such transfers know how to preserve plausible deniability.
“It will be difficult to find them giving a command,” he said, adding that he will nonetheless call for an official inquiry into the new evidence when parliament reconvened.
Some in Ukraine argued that the payments that may have violated U.S. law don’t run afoul of Ukrainian statutes, making the issue even more difficult to adjudicate.
But the Trump administration — and Trump himself — looms large over the whole situation.
In addition to the missiles, the Defense Department recently announced it would send an additional $200 million to Ukraine to help with the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region. And Ukraine has leaned on the U.S. in the past to help encourage the European Union to retain sanctions against Moscow over the Crimea annexation, which were renewed in June for another six months.
Despite these positive signs for Ukraine, Trump continues to raise doubts about his intentions with Putin. While the State Department pledged to stand firm on fighting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Trump has separately indicated he’d consider formally recognizing Russia’s land grab.
And despite Trump’s decision to postpone a follow-up summit with Putin, he still intends to welcome the leader to Washington, D.C., next year — a concerning prospect for Ukrainians.
The Manafort issue could come into sharper focus in Ukraine as the country’s presidential election heats up in the coming months, with reformers pressuring Poroshenko to investigate and critics dredging up his years-old Manafort connection.
Poroshenko currently sits fifth in opinion polls, trailing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and some believe the president would be loath to take on the oligarchs — supremely powerful men with unlimited financial resources and extensive media holdings — at a time when he needs their support most.
The president’s office has also already tried to explain away Poroshenko’s Manafort link, saying his team only held one meeting with Manafort’s people, and that there was no relationship after that. Still, Poroshenko’s office had initially denied any contact at all.
To some Ukrainians, though, the Manafort revelations simply reveal business as usual. The new facts are “interesting for investigation,” said Alexandra Ustinova of Ukraine’s Anti-corruption Action Center, a nongovernmental organization. “But they’re not sensational.”
“They just confirm what we already know about Ukrainian oligarchs and politics in general — oligarchs are being oligarchs, and they are using their money to buy political influence,” she said.