KYIV -- A little-known Ukrainian lawmaker is in the spotlight after a report said a peace-for-sanctions-relief proposal that he says he co-authored ended up on the desk of U.S. President Donald Trump's short-lived national security adviser.
Radical Party deputy Andriy Artemenko claims to have gotten his detailed plan for peace in eastern Ukraine approved by top aides of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- but the Kremlin on February 20 quickly denied any such tacit approval.
The New York Times, which broke the story, said the plan eventually made its way through a chain of Trump associates "pushing it" into the hands of Michael Flynn, who resigned his senior White House security post last week after allegedly misleading statements about conversations with the Russian ambassador in Washington in December.
Artemenko, who is described by the newspaper as regarding himself as a "Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine," also claimed to have evidence of corruption by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. He said the evidence, including "names of companies, wire transfers," would help oust the confectionery-and-media mogul who assumed the presidency months after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and with Russia-backed separatists making gains in other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine.
The efforts of Artemenko, who spent more than two years in jail in Kyiv in the early 2000s on embezzlement charges that were later dropped -- he claims they were politically motivated -- have enraged Ukrainian officials.
A Poroshenko spokesperson told RFE/RL his administration would not comment on the allegations of corruption until they see proof.
But Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Valeriy Chaly, told The New York Times that Artemenko "is not entitled to present any alternative peace plans on behalf of Ukraine to any foreign government, including the U.S. administration."
Kyiv has sought to mend fences with the Trump camp since the billionaire New York developer's presidential victory in November. Ukrainian officials had been publicly critical of Trump, who made frequent campaign references to repairing U.S. relations with Russia, which occupied Crimea in 2014 and continues its alleged backing for separatists elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.
Many people in Kyiv were reluctant to comment on Artemenko's plan or the vague allegations against Poroshenko, since the lawmaker is a relative unknown and they had not seen the evidence he claims to have.
Artemenko has been quoted by Ukrainian media as saying his plan could pave the way to a lifting of Western sanctions against Russia once other elements are completed. It reportedly envisages Kyiv leasing Crimea long-term to Russia and offering amnesty to many on the separatist-held side of the conflict in the east in exchange for Moscow's help returning control of Ukraine's eastern border to Kyiv.
News of Artemenko's plan coincides with a new cease-fire that went into force early on February 20 and is meant to stem a surge in violence that has left more than 30 people dead since late January. Previous cease-fires and a shaky truce known as the Minsk agreements have so far failed to stop the fighting, which has killed upward of 9,750 people since April 2014, according to United Nations estimates. At the same time, Russia has not budged on the issue of Crimea, which the United Nations recognizes as part of Ukraine despite its annexation by Russia.
Kyiv's ambassador to the United Kingdom suggested to BBC that Artemenko's move amounted to "trading our territories," adding in a reference to a region of Ukraine outside of central government control, "We are not going to say, 'Let us abandon Crimea and in return let us see peace in Donbas.'"
Artemenko's Radical Party colleagues moved swiftly to distance themselves from his initiative, expelling him from the parliamentary club late on February 20. Radical leader Oleh Lyashko urged that Artemenko's parliamentary mandate be stripped, and he asserted that "Russia is the aggressor, Russia is the occupant, and Russia should get out of Ukraine.... What Artemenko proposes is his own position," according to Interfax-Ukraine.
Some in Kyiv suggested that Artemenko, who has made seemingly little impression publicly since being elected in 2014, was merely a front man for someone else's plan. Lawmaker and anticorruption campaigner Serhiy Leshchenko said via Facebook that Artemenko might unwittingly be getting used by onetime allies of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with the Kremlin ultimately behind it.
Speaking with RFE/RL via Facebook Messenger on February 20, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, a self-exiled legislator and onetime member of the pro-Russian Party of Regions faction loyal to Yanukovych, told RFE/RL that he knows Artemenko "well" and that he is an "independent" man.
Still others laughed off the ambitious Artemenko, noting that whether he was colluding with someone or operating solo, his plan was unlikely to move forward.
"If the Trump administration is working with Artemenko, they're complete idiots," Kristina Berdynskykh, a prominent Ukrainian investigative journalist who has interviewed Artemenko, told RFE/RL.
There has been no official acknowledgement from the U.S. side that Artemenko's initiative was received or is being seriously considered within the White House.
But Trump's personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, and a purported former business associate of Trump's, Soviet-born Felix H. Sater, were said by The New York Times to have been instrumental in the proposal's delivery to Flynn.
The paper reported that Cohen, Sater, and Artemenko "converged on the Loews Regency," a luxury Manhattan hotel, in late January in connection with the plan. It also quoted Cohen and Sater as saying they had never spoken to Trump about it.
RFE/RL communicated via Facebook with Artemenko, who confirmed he passed the plan to Trump associates, but pointed this journalist to an interview with Ukrainian news site Strana.ua for details of it. Artemenko told the site he was not alone in devising his plan but that "a few tens" of lawmakers from various political factions helped. He declined to name them without their consent. Asked if he had run the plan by Putin aides, as The New York Times reported, Artemenko said, "That is inaccurate information."
Artemenko said the issue of Russian sanctions and the conflict in eastern Ukraine should be solved through "compromise."
In point one of the plan, on the fate of Crimea, Artemenko suggested holding a national referendum on leasing Crimea to Russia for a period of 30 to 50 years.
"At the expiration of this period, in Crimea, a referendum will then be held and monitored by international bodies, on which finally the question of the peninsula may be solved," Artemenko told Strana.
On the topic of territories in eastern Ukraine currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists, Artemenko said his plan calls for their return to Ukraine and an amnesty to all involved on the separatist side "except those who have committed the most serious crimes."
He said control of the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia must be returned to Kyiv, but not before a 72-hour safe corridor is provided for those who would prefer to live in Russia.
After that, Artemenko said, the plan calls for a nationwide referendum on whether to grant the eastern regions special autonomous status. If approved, the next step would be to begin reviving the regions with funds from Russia paid to lease Crimea.
Once all of that is done, he said, then Russia sanctions may be lifted.
Such a plan falls far short of what Poroshenko and other Ukrainian officials want, or even of the terms of the Minsk agreements, the current and official peace plan to end the crisis. Kyiv has repeatedly said any compromise on Crimea would be unacceptable.
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, countered fears of a softening of Washington's position under the new administration by declaring on February 2 that "Crimea is part of Ukraine," adding, "Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.
As for Artemenko's claim of compromising information on Poroshenko, the lawmaker said it was obtained in collaboration with Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, who headed the Ukrainian Security Service until his dismissal by parliament in June 2015.
"He is fully aware of my actions. And we are actively cooperating with him both in Ukraine and in the U.S.," Artemenko said. Nalyvaychenko could not immediately be reached for comment.
In claiming to be in possession of such evidence, Artemenko joins a growing number of lawmakers attacking the president. They include Onyshchenko, who on December 1 said he had handed FBI agents audio recordings he made of Poroshenko and members of his inner circle discussing schemes to steal money from state and private companies and buy votes in parliament. The president has denied the charges.
Onyshchenko declined to say whether he has communicated with Artemenko regarding his alleged evidence against Poroshenko or his peace plan for Ukraine, saying, "I can't say this for the press."
But Onyshchenko also appeared to hint at some link to Artemenko, saying that "yes, it is true" that the latter has proof of corruption by Poroshenko.
Pressed for details, Onyshchenko, who has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity and is sought by Ukrainian authorities for alleged embezzlement involving a state-owned gas company, said it was "confidant [sic] information."
Onyshchenko added that he supports the peace plan outlined by Artemenko.