'An Aggressive, Multifaceted Effort': Five Highlights From The U.S. Senate Report On Russian Interference
By Mike Eckel August 19, 2020
The fifth and final volume of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election landed with a reverberating thud, adding yet more to the din and rancor that has made this year's election unlike any previous one.
Weighing in at 966 pages, the report released on August 18 adds a final chapter to a 3 1/2-year effort to understand the full scope of what the U.S. intelligence community said was a campaign ordered directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin to interfere in the U.S. election on behalf of Donald Trump.
That issue has shadowed Trump's presidency since before he took office, and the bipartisan Senate effort is considered as close to an authoritative accounting of that campaign as is possible in a fractured, partisan Washington, D.C.
The report offers no new bombshell revelations: many of the details have trickled out over time in media accounts and political reports.
Among other things, it concludes that in 2016, Russian intelligence agencies saw members of the Trump campaign as easy targets for disinformation and that some Trump advisers were, in fact, willing to accept help from Russia.
Members of the Republican-led committee spun the overall conclusions differently: Republicans said it definitively showed that Trump did not collude with Russia to win the election. Democrats said it showed the exact opposite.
That disconnect makes it unlikely the report will bridge the partisan chasm.
But the final Senate volume, based on tens of thousands of classified documents and interviews with more than 200 witnesses, resonates in other ways, complementing other overlapping investigations, such as the 448-page criminal inquiry by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
It offers a detailed look at some of the characters and entities who had recurring appearances throughout the narrative of Russian election interference.
Here are some key highlights.
Who Is Konstantin Kilimnik?
The Senate report spends many pages examining the work of Paul Manafort, a longtime Republican operative, lobbyist, and campaign insider who became Trump's campaign chairman in 2016. Manafort had worked for years prior in Ukraine and was responsible for helping to resurrect the political career of Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected president in 2010 after losing the presidential race in 2004.
Revelations about Manafort's consulting and lobbying work in Ukraine resulted in him being fired by the Trump campaign in August 2016 and the extent of that work was largely exposed when he was prosecuted on fraud and financial crimes by Mueller's investigators.
During the trial that ended with Manafort's conviction, the murky world of Ukrainian oligarchs and political parties was brought into sharp relief.
Senate investigators focused in part on one of Manafort's right-hand men: a Ukrainian-Russian named Konstantin Kilimnik, who ran Manafort's office in Ukraine.
Previous reporting and investigations have examined Kilimnik's background, suggesting he might be a Russian intelligence agent; Mueller's investigators concluded he had links to intelligence agencies. He was trained in languages at a Moscow institute linked to both the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU and earlier, the Soviet KGB.
The Senate report states it outright: "Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer," it says.
"Kilimnik likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services, and that those services likely sought to exploit Manafort's access to gain insight into the [Trump] campaign," the report says. "Taken as a whole, Manafort's high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services, particularly Kilimnik, represented a grave counterintelligence threat."
Senate investigators also said they found information that Kilimnik, whose name appears more than 800 times in the report, may have been connected to the hacking-and-leaking operation overseen by the GRU. That operation involved stealing e-mails from top Democratic officials and then leaking them, likely via the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.
But the evidence used to reach that conclusion was redacted in the report, making it impossible to glean insights about those ties.
Even after the 2016 election that was won by Trump, and amid growing concerns about the scope of Russia's interference, Manafort continued working with Kilimnik, the report found, to undermine U.S. intelligence conclusions and to spread false information that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered.
After being indicted by Mueller's prosecutors in June 2018 on obstruction-of-justice charges, Kilimnik kept a lower profile. However, the report says, he used an alias to create a Twitter account where he offered commentary, in English, on Ukraine, U.S. politics, and other matters.
He is believed to be living in Russia now.
For many years, Manafort worked with, and for, politically connected Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. A billionaire whose fortune comes from investments in aluminum, energy, construction, and agriculture, Deripaska in 2004 introduced Manafort to some of the Ukrainian business leaders who went on to fund Manafort's political work on behalf Yanukovych.
Senate investigators pulled no punches in all but describing Deripaska as an agent for the Russian government. "Since at least the time he hired Paul Manafort in approximately 2004, Oleg Deripaska has acted as a proxy for the Russian state and Russian intelligence services. Deripaska has managed and financed influence operations on the Kremlin's behalf," the report says.
"Deripaska's activities include Kremlin-approved and -directed active measures -- including information operations and election interference efforts -- conducted to install pro-Kremlin regimes and strengthen Kremlin-aligned power brokers across the globe," it says.
Manafort was a key player in these efforts on behalf of Deripaska and the work later broadened beyond Ukraine: "This included a political influence program which Deripaska financed. As part of this program, Manafort worked on influence efforts in Central Asia, Cyprus, Georgia, Guinea, Montenegro, and elsewhere in Europe," the report says.
Deripaska's Kremlin connections netted him a United Nations passport that enabled him to travel to the United States, where he had been blocked from getting a visa for years due to suspicions about ties to organized crime. One of his top aides involved in some of the Russian influence efforts was identified as Viktor Boyarkin, a GRU officer.
"Other Deripaska employees beyond Boyarkin and Kilimnik are also connected to GRU influence operations, suggesting Deripaska's operations are thoroughly integrated into Kremlin influence operations planning," the report says.
In May 2016, a 28-year-old woman from the Siberian city of Barnaul named Maria Butina moved to Washington, D.C., to enroll in graduate school at American University. Back in Russia, she had successfully built a gun-rights organization, and she had befriended influential Russian lawmaker Aleksandr Torshin.
Together, the two sought to use growing relationships with the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), as a springboard to build ties with important Republicans in Washington and elsewhere.
Butina and Torshin, the report says, "engaged in a multiyear influence campaign and intelligence-gathering effort targeting the NRA, the Republican Party, and conservative U.S. political organizations for the benefit of the Russian government.
"Their goal was to develop and use back-channel communications to influence U.S. policy outside of the formal diplomatic process to Russia's advantage and to the detriment of the United States," it says.
On several occasions, Butina and Torshin attempted to negotiate meetings for themselves with Trump and between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin," the report says.
"The committee found that Ms. Butina and her associates had told the campaign that they wanted to establish a communications back channel between the United States and Russia, outside of normal diplomatic channels," it says. "Trump campaign associates did not notify national security officials about those overtures."
In April 2018, under questioning by the committee, Butina said her Russian gun-rights group had been funded by Konstantin Nikolayev, a Russian billionaire. The report says Nikolayev had ties both to the Kremlin and Russian security services.
Three months after her committee meeting, Butina was arrested by the FBI and charged with working as a foreign agent on behalf of Russia. In December 2018, she pleaded guilty and served nine months in U.S. prison before being deported to Russia.
Veselnitskaya And Magnitsky
In June 2016 -- five months before U.S. election day -- a lawyer with known connections to the Russian prosecutor-general attended a meeting at Trump Tower attended by Manafort, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other top campaign officials.
The lawyer was Natalya Veselnitskaya, and the meeting had been organized by an intermediary, with the promise that Veselnitskaya would deliver documents that would incriminate Trump's Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
According to testimony, the meeting ended up being seen as a waste of time in the end by the Trump campaign officials after Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin a Russian-American lobbyist based in Washington, D.C., who accompanied her, instead brought up the 2012 U.S. human rights law known as the Magnitsky Act
The information that Veselnitskaya offered "was part of a broader influence operation targeting the United States that was coordinated, at least in part, with elements of the Russian government," the report says.
As it happens, Veselnitskaya had traveled to the United States as part of her legal work for a Russian businessman whom U.S. authorities had accused of using laundered Russian money to buy Manhattan real estate.
The stolen money had first been uncovered by a Russian whistle-blowing lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, and his death in a Russian jail led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act -- which Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin were trying to unravel.
In January 2019, U.S. authorities indicted Veselnitskaya on obstruction of justice related to her legal work for the Russian businessman, accusing her of secretly cooperating with the Russian prosecutor-general's office.
Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, the report says, "have significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services."
"The connections the Committee uncovered, particularly regarding Veselnitskaya, were far more extensive and concerning than what had been publicly known, and neither Veselnitskaya nor Akhmetshin were forthcoming with the Committee regarding those connections," it says.
Akhmetshin had already gained some notoriety around Washington. Some was due to his work organizing the screening of a documentary film that sought to undermine the facts about the death of Magnitsky and the tax fraud Magnitsky uncovered.
But he was known for years prior for work he had done on behalf of Kazakh opposition figures, as well.
'Putin's Favorite Congressman'
Two months before the Trump Tower meeting, Representative Dana Rohrabacher traveled to Moscow on a trip that included other members of Congress and staff members. A California Republican known as an iconoclast, Rohrabacher had been years earlier dubbed "Putin's favorite congressman" due to his pro-Russian sympathies and he openly expressed admiration for Putin.
In Moscow, Rohrabacher and his aide, Paul Behrends, separated from the main group to attend a meeting with Vladimir Yakunin, the former president of the state-owned company Russian Railways and the president of a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization called the Dialogue of Civilizations.
Yakunin was also a longtime confidant of Putin, and, two years earlier, had been hit with financial sanctions by the United States after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.
According to the Senate report, Yakunin asked Rohrabacher if he would be interested in a report by the Russian prosecutors' office on the Magnitsky case. Rohrabacher agreed, and at a later meeting with Konstantin Kosachyov, a top Russian lawmaker who was later put under sanctions by the United States, he was handed documents that related to the Magnitsky case.
The Senate investigators compared the documents given to Rohrabacher and one that Veselnitskaya had when she attended the Trump Tower meeting two months later and found "the organization and substance of the two documents are similar, and parts of the two documents are nearly, or completely, identical."
Rohrabacher was defeated in his bid for reelection in 2018 after his Democrat opponent hammered him for being overly sympathetic to Russia and "meeting with Russian operatives."
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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