How Syria Fits Into the Trump-Russia Scandal
Vladimir Putin's war on the West is wide-ranging
In late February 2018 The Washington Post reported that one of Vladimir Putin’s main oligarch allies, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, was an intermediary between the Syrian government, the Russian government and Russian mercenaries under Prigozhin’s control.
This is the same Yevgeniy Prigozhin who was indicted in February along with 12 other Russians and three Russian entities by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his growing investigation into the nexus of all things related to Donald Trump and Russia. The Post report also stated that a senior Russian government minister approved the Russian mercenary attack on U.S. troops and their allies in Syria in February, and that Prigozhin communicated this to the Russian mercenaries before the in the attack.
While it is unclear which minister approved the attack, it is known that Sergei Prikhodko—a senior Russian deputy prime minister who is close to Putin and is a master of Russian foreign policy—of the recently uncovered Oleg Deripaska yacht scandal has a senior portfolio in Russian foreign policy and that he would be as good a guess as any.
Like Prigozhin, Deripaska is an oligarch close to Putin who has long been an unofficial point-man for the Russian president for various schemes.
And because of the almost comical indiscretions of a Russian prostitute, Deripaska and Prikhodko—indiscretions masterfully proved by intrepid Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny in a YouTube video—a far more incriminating picture can be painted when seen in the context of other recent news.
Footage and photos posted by the prostitute “Nastya Rybka,” whose real name is Anastasia Vashukevich, seem to prove that “Rybka,” Deripaska, and Prikhodko were all on board a luxury yacht of Deripaska’s for a little vacation beginning on Aug. 6, 2016, less than a month after then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered to brief Deripaska on the Trump campaign on July 7 and only a few days after an August meeting between Manafort and his old, longtime Ukrainian business partner, Konstantin Kilimnik, who was acting as the principal intermediary between Manafort and Deripaska’s camp.
Deripaska and Prikhodko are captured on video by “Rybka” discussing Russia’s relations with America, presumably just the tip of the iceberg of such political discussions.
Russia is so threatened by all this that it threatened to ban YouTube and Instagram if they did not remove the content. Instagram has caved in. As for the escort, “Rybka” has just been arrested in Thailand for running a “sex training” class. The arrest came the same day Russian security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, a senior Kremlin security official, was in the country.
The young woman expressed fears for her safety and of extradition to Russia, asking for U.S. protection in exchange for information. “I am the only witness and the missing link in the connection between Russia and the U.S. elections — the long chain of Oleg Deripaska, Prikhodko, Manafort and Trump,” she said.
This is direct evidence that Deripaska was in contact with senior Russia government officials, discussing policy, at roughly same time that Manafort was reaching out to him, and makes an even more compelling argument that Deripaska is still acting as an intermediary for the Kremlin. It also makes an even stronger case that the longtime dealings of Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates with Deripaska are ones that could have compromised national security and American interests.
Even if Prikhodko is not the official who authorized Prigozhin’s mercenary attack on U.S. forces, it is clear from Manafort and Gates’ previous Russian-related work and other campaigns that the Kremlin’s global war on Western democracy is approaching a Cold War-scale and level of coordination.
Mueller has dropped many charges against Gates in exchange for his cooperation. Like Manafort still does, Gates had faced a stunning number of financial crimes charges related to Ukraine work and money laundering. Mueller is clearly trying to pressure Manafort into cooperating, and the special counsel would hardly expend so much energy on Manafort if he didn’t have good reasons to suspect Manafort had a tale to tell that’s crucial to the investigation.
One of the shell companies mentioned in both of Mueller’s indictments as being used by Manafort to launder money—John Hannah LLC—was used, as noted in separate reporting, to purchase a $3.68-million apartment in Manhattan’s Trump Tower in 2006 at the same time Mueller was alleging Manafort’s Ukraine-related money laundering was taking place.
The latest indictments come after a series of related charges were filed in February 2018, including an indictment against 13 Russian nationals — including Putin’s Syrian coordinator, Prigozhin — and three Russian entities for a series of crimes related to a conspiracy to weaken American democracy and help then-candidate Trump win the White House.
Just days later, a separate guilty plea deal was reached with a lawyer named Alex van der Zwaan who worked with Manafort and Gates on Ukraine-related work. This lawyer just happens to be the son-in-law of a prominent Russian oligarch and Putin ally, German Khan.
This is only the latest sign in what has become increasingly obvious. A massive Kremlin-devised campaign to dominate Ukraine is deeply related to Russia’s campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections, two campaigns out of many in a wider war, a war dreamed of by Putin for decades and being successfully carried even today, fought on battlefields in Syria and Ukraine to cyberspace in Catalonia and Washington.
At top — Sarah Stuteville photo. Above — Kremlin photo
This war of Russia’s is one that seeks to play a classic zero-sum game. To empower Russia by weakening Western democracy and the advance and influence of it.
Russia’s more aggressive recent phase with Ukraine began late in 2004, when Russian allies in Ukraine tried to fix Ukraine’s election for the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. This backfired when election fraud became so obvious that the people refused to stand for it and the pro-Western Orange Revolution resulted in an election redo. The result was that the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko came out on top. In his efforts, he was aided considerably by one Yulia Tymoshenko.
Putin, the Russian mafia, giant Russian energy companies, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, key regional oligarchs, and several future key Trump associates—Manafort and Gates—all worked together in a very complex natural gas scheme to flood Ukrainian politics with Russian gas money that was used to both bribe Ukrainian politicians to come to the Kremlin’s side of things and fueled the candidacies of Yanukovych and his Party of Regions crowd.
With Gates’s help, Manafort ran the political side of things for Yanukovych and his allies, but also allegedly laundered money related to this gas-and-bribery scam and help to hide Yanukovych’s and his innermost circle’s dirty money, the latter effort in tandem with Russian oligarch and close Putin ally Oleg Deripaska, with whom Manafort and Gates engaged in other projects on behalf of Putin and Russia over the years. Manafort owes Deripaska at least some $60 million from a variety of arrangements for a variety of reasons.
By 2010, the Russian-orchestrated Ukraine effort was successful enough to see Yanukovych and his party win Ukraine’s presidency and parliament, defeating Yushchenko’s old Orange Revolution ally Tymoshenko, who was soon jailed by the victor. In allegations that strongly echo Mueller’s, she later sued—from jail—Manafort, Gates, Yanukovych and others.
Manafort and Gates at the time were even engaged in lobbying the U.S. government to weaken the pro-American Tymoshenko’s standing while bolstering the standing of Yanukovych and his government.
Furthermore, the special counsel’s acceptance of van der Zwaan’s guilty plea arose from his lying to the FBI about work he did on this lobbying effort of Manafort and Gates.
Carter Page, later a Trump foreign policy advisor, was also working at the time with two major Russian companies—Gazprom and RAO UES—involved heavily in the massive gas scam.
After his work in Russia, Page was the target of recruitment for a Russian spy ring and ended up being the subject of at least two FISA court warrants, the most recent of which was renewed three times. Manafort was also the subject of FISA surveillance at least twice.
For both men, FISA surveillance began at least in 2014, when the FBI also looked into Manafort and money laundering.
Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians, including Prigozhin, and Russia’s Internet Research Agency—a factory of mass propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, and bot activity active long before the 2016 election cycle and financed in large part by Prigozhin—noted that Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election also began in 2014.
Essentially, Manafort, Gates, and Page were American foot soldiers in Russia’s campaign against Ukrainian democracy and Western and U.S. influence in Ukraine, a campaign that was part of a larger war on Western Democracy and the American-led international order.
This war is wide and far-reaching. Russia has been successfully fostering the rise of destabilizing far-right parties all over Europe and a number of secessionist movements there and in America.
Manafort, Gates and Page — whether willing or unwitting — worked on both the Ukrainian and American fronts, and Manafort with Deripaska on a project trying to soften Montenegro for Russia. Prigozhin worked to help undermine U.S. democracy and is now a very active part of Russia’s effort to ensure Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad stays in power and that nothing like a democracy allied with the West will emerge anytime soon in Syria, no matter how many civilians die under his rule and Russia’s indiscriminate bombings.
These cross-cutting roles resembles the multiple roles in multiple campaigns of many others in Putin’s war on the West, linking his American, Ukrainian and Syrian efforts to this wider war.
The details of this massive, overlapping network—involving major Russian government and mafia figures as well as major Russian oligarchs and a disturbing number of Trump associates—is itself a major story for another day. Yet what is obvious even today is that, from the homes of Ghouta to the Twitter wars of cyberspace, Putin’s crusade against the West is advancing and putting the West and its allies on the defensive.
Brian Frydenborg is a freelance journalist and consultant in Amman, Jordan. You can follow him on Twitter at @bfry1981.