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Who Is Paul Manafort's Man In Kyiv? An Interview With Konstantin Kilimnik

Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump (file photo)
Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump (file photo)

KYIV -- An elusive Ukrainian associate of Paul Manafort says he briefed the former campaign chairman for U.S. President Donald Trump on Ukraine during last year's presidential race.

The comments by Konstantin Kilimnik, in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, add to the swirl of intrigue surrounding Manafort, a shadowy political operative who helped bring Viktor Yanukovych to the Ukrainian presidency and who is now under FBI investigation for allegedly communicating with Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 U.S. campaign.

Kilimnik, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen, himself studied at the Russian military's main university for languages, which has led to speculation that he has ties to Russian military intelligence.

In the February 22 interview, Kilimnik denied any ties to Russian intelligence. But he said that he and Manafort spoke during the 2016 election "every couple months."

"I was briefing him on Ukraine," he said.

Manafort was fired by the Trump campaign in August after news reports documented payments to him from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party.

Last month, The New York Times and other media reported that U.S. authorities were investigating Manafort and other Trump aides for allegedly communicating with Russian intelligence during the campaign.

Manafort did not respond to e-mails and a voicemail seeking comment from RFE/RL after the interview concluded. But shortly after those inquiries, Kilimnik called RFE/RL back and said he had been contacted directly by Manafort.

Kilimnik said that while he was speaking to Manafort "every couple months" about Ukraine, he wanted to clarify that he had not been formally advising him during the U.S. election campaign.

Since leaving the Trump campaign, Manafort has remained largely out of sight. Kilimnik said the last time he spoke to Manafort was “in recent weeks.”

Meeting Manafort

A short, camera-shy 46-year-old from Kriviy Rih with an affinity for metaphors, Kilimnik studied at Russia’s Military University for Foreign Languages, known today as the Military University of the Ministry of Defense.

In the interview at an Italian restaurant in Kyiv, Kilimnik explained how he came to work for Manafort and gave a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the political operative’s role in the most pivotal events in history of contemporary Ukraine.

In the early 2000s, Kilimnik worked in Moscow for the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based nongovernmental group that promotes democracy with funding from the U.S. State Department, as well as from European foundations and the United Nations.

In 2005, he began working for Manafort, following the 2004 Orange Revolution -- an earlier series of mass protests that resulted in Yanukovych losing the Ukrainian presidency.

"Manafort is a guy who can merge strategy and messages into something that will work for victory," Kilimnik said. "He is very skillful."

Yanukovych recovered from his loss and went on to win the presidency in 2010, a victory many observers credited to Manafort’s counsel.

After Yanukovych's election, Kilimnik said he spent 90 percent of his time inside the presidential administration, where he assisted Manafort.

In November 2013, the Yanukovych government became the focus of a tug-of-war between the European Union and Russia over a trade deal that would have pulled Ukraine away from Moscow’s orbit.

Kilimnik said Manafort told Yanukovych in his presence: "You have to trust the Europeans. Then down the road you will fix relations with Russia and you’ll be fine."

Yanukovych spurned the EU deal, triggering months of street protests in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities that turned violent and ultimately prompted him to flee the country.

"Everyone was telling [Yanukovych], 'you should sign the deal. Just sign the f****** deal,'" Kilimnik said. "Yanukovych did not listen to [Manafort], which is why he got f*****."

Russia later carried out a covert military operation to take control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which it subsequently annexed, and backed the armed separatists fighting Kyiv's forces in the east.

In July of last year, while Manafort was still working with Trump, the Trump campaign altered the Republican Party's official endorsement of providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, The Washington Post reported. Ukraine had been asking Washington to provide such weapons to bolster its fight against well-armed separatists.

The following month, amid the uproar that emerged after The New York Times detailed the alleged off-the-books payments from Yanukovych's former party to Manafort, the Trump campaign cut ties with Manafort.

Despite briefing Manafort during the U.S. election campaign, Kilimnik said he has not been on Manafort's payroll since 2014. He now says he advises members of the political party that used to be led by Yanukovych until his ouster.

The last time Manafort visited Ukraine was in autumn 2015, according to Kilimnik.

Manafort's former office near Kyiv's Independence Square is closed. Nobody answered there when RFE/RL knocked on the door of the office on February 22.

'He Will Be Back'

Kilimnik insists that the media has misread Manafort, and he claimed Manafort did not receive any of the funds he was alleged to have received from Yanukovych’s former party.

Kilimnik also argued that Manafort has no ties to Russia and claimed Manafort has not spoken with a Russian aside from Kilimnik "since Deripaska."

Тhat's a reference to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who is considered a Kremlin insider and who has been barred from receiving a U.S. visa for years due to persistent allegations of organized crime links.

Deripaska has been locked in a legal battle with Manafort over investments in a private equity fund.

Kilimnik could not say when the last contact between Manafort and Deripaska occurred.

Manafort told The Wall Street Journal last month, "I have never had any relationship with the Russian [government] or any Russian officials."

Kilimnik also said that he had drafted a plan to bring peace to Ukraine in the nearly three-year-old conflict with Russia.

He referred to it as a "Mariupol plan," a reference to the southeastern port city that abuts the current line of conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatist fighters.

It would bring Yanukovych back to Ukraine as a regional leader in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where fighting has raged on and off for nearly three years, or possibly involve others such as the current separatist leaders there.

That plan, which Kilimnik said Manafort was not involved with, would face almost certain opposition in Kyiv since it calls for Yanukovych returning to Ukraine from Russia, where he fled in February 2014.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported February 19 that a peace plan drafted by a little-known Ukrainian lawmaker to end the conflict had made it into the hands of top White House officials.

That news sparked an angry uproar in Kyiv.

Kilimnik suggested Ukraine may not have seen the last of Manafort.

"If there's a serious project that is pro-Ukrainian and can bring peace to this country, then he will be back," he said.

*Correction: This piece has been corrected to remove, in the paragraph beginning “It would bring Yanukovych back,” the name of Serhiy Lyovochkin, which was mistakenly included in the initial version.

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