Last week we were inundated with developments related to the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections and any role surrogates of President Donald Trump may have played. Several of these developments appear to be potentially significant and may reflect one of Russia’s objectives during its influence operations. Russia’s desire to maintain influence in its near-abroad and its reliance on the oil and gas industries have fused with its annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
While Trump and his surrogates always seem to mix arrogance and incompetence alongside ambition, there is an emerging picture of one of Russia’s objectives with its influence efforts. The extent to which the surrogates mentioned below are knowingly acting on behalf of Russia’s interests — and if that can even be proven — will go a long way in determining the outcome of the special counsel’s investigation.
During the Oval Office visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump remarked that he had faced great pressure due to newly fired FBI Director James Comey’s investigation into the 2016 elections, according to the New York Times. According to this report, Trump also downplayed his concerns about Russian forces and separatists fighting government forces in parts of Eastern Ukraine.
The staggering comments caught the attention of Andrew Weiss, an expert on Russia for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Weiss linked back to tweets earlier in the week in which he discussed Reuters’ report that an unnamed Trump associate communicated with Viktor Medvedchuk, who has served as a go-between for Kiev and Russian backed separatists in Ukraine. Weiss also noted in subsequent tweets that Trump at times echoed Kremlin talking points related to Crimea.
Medvedchuk has been involved in negotiations in Eastern Ukraine for several years. Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter, requested that Medvedchuk serve as a negotiator, according to the New York Times. Several years before the conflict, Medvedchuk founded a group called Ukrainian Choice to campaign against any drift to the West, NATO, or the European Union. Medvedchuk, according to the Financial Times, entered into the negotiation process at a very early stage of the conflict. While his role was initially to negotiate the release of hostages, he has discussed more general peace plans that would be favorable to the Kremlin. Medvedchuk was sanctioned under the Obama administration in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Responding to the revelations of Trump’s comments on Comey and Ukraine, Sean Spicer and an unnamed official tried to portray the remarks as a negotiating ploy with Russia, according to the New York Times. The unnamed source went so far as to tell the Times that this ploy implied a critique of meddling in the elections. However, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster would not confirm on Sunday (ABC News) if Russia’s hacking was even brought up during the White House visit, leading many to assume that Trump did not mention Russia’s meddling to Lavrov and Kislyak.
Kislyak has emerged as a key figure in the investigation into Russia’s meddling during the elections. His conversations with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in December, 2016, eventually led to Flynn’s resignation. Kislyak met Flynn in 2013 during an official visit to Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) headquarters when Flynn was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn requested a follow-up visit while still at DIA but it was not authorized because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Prior to assuming the role of National Security Advisor under Trump, British and American intelligence officers raised concerns about Flynn’s contacts with Russia, according to the Guardian. While still leading DIA, Flynn met a Russian-British graduate student who claimed to have unprecedented access to GRU archives, according to this report. Flynn maintained contact with the aspiring historian of espionage but did not report this ongoing foreign contact as required by security clearance paperwork, according to the Wall Street Journal. In late 2015, Flynn attended a gala for RT in which he accompanied Putin at dinner. He also did not disclose his income from speeches related to appearances in Russia as required.
CNN reported late last week that intercepts of Russian officials included boasts that Flynn would be useful for influencing President Trump. Flynn was in contact with Kislyak, according to this report, since his 2015 appearance in Russia. The Reuters’ story last week noted six communications between the two. In December, 2016, after the Obama administration expelled a number of Russians in retaliation for meddling in the elections, Flynn spoke to Kislyak to suggest not retaliating. Flynn also told Kislyak that the Trump administration would revisit the 2014 sanctions, according to CNN. After Putin declined to retaliate, Trump tweeted:
As reported by the New York Times, Flynn and Jared Kushner met with Kislyak in December as well. In late March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kushner had an aide follow-up with Kislyak. At that meeting, Kislyak encouraged Kushner’s aide to arrange for the president’s son-in-law to meet Sergei Gorkov, a former FSB officer who is now chairman of Russia’s development bank, Vnesheconombank, or VEB. VEB has also been sanctioned since 2014. In March of 2016, the former deputy of VEB’s New York office admitted to acting as a foreign agent in a plea deal to avoid espionage charges. VEB is widely viewed as a tool of the Kremlin, rewarding oligarchs loyal to Putin and facilitating Russian interests around the world. In early April, the New York Times reported that Kushner failed to include a number of recent foreign contacts on his security clearance paperwork including his meeting with Flynn and Kislyak.
Trump’s comments on Ukraine and the revelation of an unnamed associate contacting Medvedchuk require a reexamination of previous behavior of Trump surrogates. Before the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 elections was disclosed in March, the New York Times reported that Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko approached Felix Sater, a Trump development associate with a checkered past. Artemenko had a peace plan for Russia and Ukraine that he wanted to pass on to the White House. He claimed to have compromising material on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the support of Putin aides, according to the New York Times. Sater arranged for a meeting with Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
As Natasha Bertrand of Business Insider recounts, Cohen went on to change his story concerning this meeting and the peace plan on several occasions. According to the New York Times, Artemenko entered into politics with the anti-Poroshenko opposition established by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in 2014. In this account, the peace plan — which has never been confirmed in detail — would involve Russian withdrawal of forces from the east and the leasing of Crimea for 50 or 100 years. Cohen told the Times that he delivered the plan to Flynn’s office at the White House.
Cohen denied any knowledge of the plan to Business Insider and downplayed the significance of the meeting with Sater and Artemenko. He was less definitive with NBC News. According to a subsequent report by CNN, Cohen denied any discussion of a peace plan during this meeting. The White House denied any plan was delivered to Flynn’s office as well. Sater and Artemenko, however, said that Cohen accepted the plan and expressed that Flynn’s support would be essential to the plan’s success. Cohen was mentioned throughout the as yet unverified Steele Dossier — a document akin to raw Human Intelligence. Now, based on the reports mentioned above, Signals Intelligence is beginning to fill in the picture of what may be happening with Trump surrogates and Russia. These would seem to be fruitful avenues for investigators to pursue.
In early March, 2017, a Trump campaign advisor also changed his story regarding the GOP platform on Ukraine during the convention (Business Insider). The platform change was innocuous, restating the status quo, but was the only topic in which Trump’s surrogates expressed a strong opinion. Trump’s campaign denied any role in the platform change when it was reported initially.
Whoever holds Crimea has the rights to offshore resources of oil and gas worth trillions of dollars. Prior to annexing Crimea, Russia had tried to split the resources in the maritime zone with Ukraine (New York Times). Sanctions against Russia also prevent Western technology from enabling Russian energy exploitation, potentially endangering trillions of dollars in resource extraction in coming years (Bloomberg). Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a tremendously destabilizing geopolitical move. Sanctions have negatively impacted the Kremlin, but will take time to be persuasively punitive. With the information we have now, Russia’s intent with infiltrating the White House is becoming more clear.