But it seemed to work. When the election came, OB won about 10 percent of the vote—more than double where we had started 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.
MANAFORT DID RETURN to Ukraine the following year to work on local elections for OB, and I was hired by Kyiv’s mayor, the former heavyweight champion of the world Vitali Klitschko, as the strategist for his reelection campaign. Klitschko headed his own party, which was in a coalition with President Poroshenko’s, so there was no real overlap—Manafort’s path and mine didn’t cross. (From what I understood, he rarely left his room in the Hyatt the month he was there.)
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. (When asked to confirm the connection to Deripaska by WIRED’s fact-checking department, Kostya said 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 in the ’90s on pipeline production, 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 guerrilla 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, to make sure that his once and perhaps future clients were aware that he was still the man.
WHEN YOU ARE a political consultant, your bread and butter are elections. Ideally, the time between elections should be spent positioning your client so they are so strong as to scare off all comers, or at least honing their bona fides the way a boxer trains for a prizefight.
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, an oligarch, and the leader of the Donetsk-based faction who 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.
IN SEPTEMBER 2017, I was in Prague on a separate assignment for Cambridge Analytica. By then it had been more than a year since Kostya’s fateful meeting with Manafort in New York. Trump had been president for nine months, and the investigations of Russian collusion had begun in Congress. The Justice Department had appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to conduct its own investigation.
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,” 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, 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: “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 Roosevelt’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.
FOR KOSTYA, ANY assessment of who Ukrainians are is complicated. He told me more than once that Viktor Yanukovich, the former president who fled to Russia after the second Maidan uprising, was very much misunderstood and was not a traitor but a true Ukrainian patriot. “He put this country’s interests first; after all, why was his first foreign visit after being inaugurated to Brussels and not to Moscow?”
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—a city that, now that he has been indicted, he is unlikely ever to see again. …