'Person A' In His Own Words: On The Record With Shadowy Operative In Russia Probe
Christopher Miller April 06, 2018
KYIV -- Person A loves good wine and craft beer, frequents Kyiv's finest restaurants, speaks impeccable Russian, English, and Swedish, and may be a linchpin in the sprawling U.S. criminal investigation into Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Even before he was mentioned in U.S. court filings from the team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Person A was extremely careful about revealing his true identity, particularly to media. He left scant evidence of his existence -- an image search, for example, will bring up nothing on the Internet.
While his real name has not been revealed, Person A has been identified by media as Konstantin Kilimnik -- a former Russian army linguist and longtime fixer in Kyiv for former Donald Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
This would also mean Kilimnik is the man U.S. authorities are referring to in a March 27 document when they assert that Person A has ties to Russia's military-intelligence agency, the GRU; that the FBI has established that Person A had such ties in 2016, when Trump was elected U.S. president; and that Gates knew about those ties while working on Trump's campaign.
The document said that Gates told London-based lawyer Alex van der Zwaan -- the first to be jailed as a result of the FBI's inquiry into collusion between Trump's campaign team and Russia -- about Kilimnik's past work as a GRU officer.
Van der Zwaan is known to have worked with Person A and Manafort on a report to whitewash the jailing of a political opponent of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a longtime former client.
The revelations are significant because they mark the strongest connection to date between Trump's campaign and a Russian intelligence agency that is alleged by American intelligence agencies to have meddled in the 2016 election.
Not Always So Silent
Kilimnik, who has not been charged with a crime, has kept his head down since media started making the connection to Person A. But before he emerged in the Trump-Russia investigation, Kilimnik did go on record -- denying, for example, having ties to Russian spy agencies.
In February 2017, this RFE/RL reporter conducted the first -- and as it turns out only -- in-person interview with Kilimnik. The interview led to an additional face-to-face meeting, several phone calls, and dozens of text messages over the course of nine months in 2017.
Kilimnik cut communication in late September, as Mueller's investigation ramped up and shortly after RFE/RL's publication of his comments in a story about Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin who was involved in business ventures with Manafort, and whom Manafort offered private briefings on the 2016 presidential race, via Kilimnik.
Records of our previous conversations contain a trove of comments from Kilimnik on a variety of topics, including Manafort and the work they did together in Ukraine.
What follows are never before published remarks he made during that February in-person interview, in subsequent conversations on the phone, and over text message and WhatsApp. Pieced together, they provide a fuller picture of the work of Manafort and Kilimnik, and the latter's character.
Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, said via e-mail that Manafort would not be able to comment for this story due to a court order.
Where available, audio clips from the February interview can be played to hear extended remarks from Kilimnik himself. RFE/RL has decided to publish them because Kilimnik contacted a Ukrainian news outlet after the original interview to claim that it never took place. But it did, and Kilimnik allowed me to take written notes and record much of the conversation, with the exception of a few instances where he asked to speak off-record to explain sensitive or personal matters.
Meeting Manafort's Man In Kyiv
When I caught my first glimpse of Kilimnik it was at Good Wine, an upmarket cafe and grocery in one of Kyiv's posh neighborhoods, and he was sitting at a table with a mutual acquaintance who had invited us there.
Nothing about the physical appearance of Kilimnik, who stands about 162 centimeters (5-foot-3 inches) with shoes on, was particularly remarkable. On that February day he had dressed his small frame in dark jeans with a green-gray half-zip fleece top layered over a red T-shirt. His youthful, clean-shaven face, light eyes, and kempt light brown hair -- peppered with gray -- suggested a man slightly younger than his 46 years (he's now 47). He's the sort of person who could easily vanish into a crowd.
The meeting was meant only to be a brief sit-down over lunch -- perhaps to lay the groundwork for an interview later. But around an hour into our conversation, Kilimnik himself decided to go on the record, to tell "the truth" after reading "fakes news" about Manafort in the mainstream media, which he said had the story all wrong.
However, he did not allow me to photograph him. When the acquaintance discreetly snapped a picture during the interview, he quipped: "Don't show that picture. If you show that picture I will kill you, the KGB will kill you...the GRU will kill you as well."
Kilimnik loves a good spy joke.
'I Had Nothing To Do With Military Intelligence'
There has been debate over Kilimnik's citizenship. But he told RFE/RL that he was a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen, born in 1970, and raised in the south-central Ukrainian city of Kryvyy Rih during Soviet times. Kilimnik said he later moved to Moscow and studied at the Soviet military's main university for languages in the 1990s, later working as a translator in the Russian military.
This is the basis of suggestions he worked -- or continues to work -- for Russia's GRU, accusations he denied.
"A couple of my friends went to KGB school, for training.... Everyone else from my course went into business," Kilimnik said in the interview. Those who joined the KGB went on to work in Russian embassies around the world, something he said was required of many intelligence officers.
Kilimnik told me he went to Sweden to work as an interpreter for the Russian military, but insisted he was not working with the GRU. "I had nothing to do with military intelligence," he said.
Asked whether he had ties to the GRU during his time working with Manafort in Ukraine, he answered without hesitation: "No. Zero."
"I was working with Manafort to help this country be, you know, a normal country, due to one simple reason, I was born here, this is where my family is....This is where my center of power is, so to say," Kilimnik elaborated.
Kilimnik said he was "very disappointed about the lack of facts" surrounding accusations that he was essentially a Russian spy.
"Let's say somebody's connected to intelligence services, you know, if I were really, really connected to intelligence services," as alleged by the FBI and in past articles by Politico and the Financial Times, he said, "what do I do if I were a real Russian spy?"
Following a pause, he answered his own question: "I would not be here [in Ukraine.] I would be in Russia."
'The Best Strategy You Can Ever Have'
It became immediately apparent that Kilimnik, who worked directly with Manafort and managed his Kyiv office between 2005 and 2015, remained loyal to and thought highly of his former boss.
"Manafort is a guy who can merge, you know, strategy and messages into something that will work for victory," Kilimnik, began, speaking in lightly accented English learned at the Soviet military's main university for languages in the early 1990s.
"I've seen him work in different countries, and...he really does take seriously his polling and can spend, you know, two weeks going through the data, and he'll come [up] with the best strategy you can ever have," he continued. Kilimnik declined to say in which countries specifically he had observed Manafort working, but said they were in "Europe and Africa."
Kilimnik said Manafort cared about two things: "his personal ambitions, and secondly -- mostly importantly -- he cared about Ukraine."
'Yanukovych Didn't Listen To Manafort, Which Is Why He Got F*****'
Much of what Kilimnik enjoyed discussing was Manafort's effort to strengthen Ukraine's ties with the West, including through a political association deal and trade pact with the EU, as well as his motivations for doing so.
"[Manafort] wanted Yanukovych to be elected for a second term. Would any other campaign manager want anything different? He realized that the deal would ensure Yanukovych would be elected to a second term," Kilimnik said.
But Yanukovych would reject the agreement in November 2013, and turn instead to Russia for a deal, a move that sparked pro-democracy protests that would soon spiral into a bloody uprising by February 2014 and eventually lead to his downfall.
Questions have been raised about Manafort's possible involvement in Yanukovych's decision to use lethal force against the protests after thousands of text messages sent by Manafort's daughter were leaked online in January 2017.
"You know he (Manafort) has killed people in Ukraine? Knowingly," Manafort's daughter, Andrea, wrote to her sister, Jessica, according to the texts. "Remember when there were all those deaths taking place…. Do you know whose strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered."
In RFE/RL's interview and subsequent text messages with Kilimnik, he claimed that wasn't the case. Kilimnik said Manafort left Kyiv in November 2013, a week before Ukraine would refuse to sign the deal with the EU at the Vilnius Summit, prompting the so-called Euromaidan protests and bloodshed.
"[Manafort] communicated with Yanuk[ovych] endlessly before the summit, convincing him to sign the deal," Kilimnik wrote in a text.
In our interview, Kilimnik said that 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."
"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*****."
"Once [Yanukovych] failed to sign it, [Manafort] basically stopped communication," he added.
There was one exception, Kilimnik would later explain in a text: when police brutally attacked a group of mostly student demonstrators in central Kyiv on November 30, 2013.
When Manafort caught wind of that, Kilimnik, claimed, he sent a "memo" to Yanukovych recommending that he fire the then-interior minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko.
Yanukovych didn't take the advice, and Zakharchenko stayed on, giving orders in February 2014 to arm his officers with "combat weapons," according to a statement from his ministry at the time. Like Yanukovych, Zakharchenko would also flee to Russia that month.
Manafort's Return To Kyiv
Asked about Manafort's work in Ukraine after Yanukovych's ouster, Kilimnik said Manafort returned to Kyiv in March 2014, "when the presidential elections were called, to look for business," mere weeks after Yanukovych had fled to Russia. Around that time Manafort was hired to reform Yanukovych's fractured Party of Regions, which had rebranded itself Opposition Bloc at Manafort's suggestion, according to Kilimnik.
But problems arose between Manafort and the party in summer 2014, when its leadership refused to accept many of Manafort's strategy recommendations, Kilimnik said.
Manafort left Ukraine shortly thereafter, but returned in autumn 2015, according to Kilimnik, who at the time was helping him to recoup money owed to him by the Opposition Bloc.
Did Manafort do any more work for them at that time? Kilimnik hinted that he might have continued working for those "friends."
"He has been working, like every consultant in the world, on his laptop. He could be in Sofia, or you know, Taiwan, or wherever, doing strategy for Ukraine," Kilimnik said. "Once you get the data, once you get people to put together a strategy, having an office is not essential for an in-country operation."
If Kilimnik knew -- and he said it was unlikely anyone in Ukraine other than him would be communicating with Manafort -- then he didn't want to admit it.
"The only guy who Manafort can conceivably talk to in Ukraine is basically me," said Kilimnik.
He walked back that remark in a somewhat contradictory text message weeks later, writing: "My power of attorney expired in early 2015, [and I] have had nothing to do [with Manafort's company] since then."
'Briefing Manafort' And The GOP Platform Change
Kilimnik may have left Manafort's company, but he remained in contact with Manafort after he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, as convention manager for the Republican Party's mid-July gathering in Cleveland.
Kilimnik told me they spoke "every couple months" while Manafort was working for Trump. "I was briefing him on Ukraine," he explained.
In follow-up conversations by phone and text message after those quotes were published in my February 2016 story, he elaborated on the communication, saying he was merely updating Manafort on news related to his former Opposition Bloc clients, and sending him links to stories in the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper.
However, sources have claimed that Kilimnik was doing more than that, perhaps even playing a part in altering the Republican Party's official endorsement of providing Ukraine with lethal weapons. Ukraine had for years been asking Washington to provide such weapons to bolster its fight against Russia-backed separatists. The Trump administration has since approved the sale of lethal weapons to Kyiv.
A source in Kyiv told Politico that "after a late summer trip to the U.S., Kilimnik suggested that he had played a role in gutting" the proposed amendment.
In a series of text messages to me, Kilimnik flat-out rejected claims that he played a part in that decision.
"Give me one reason why I would want to change [the] GOP platform or even think about it, and how it is relevant to stopping the war in Ukraine? Does anyone seriously believe that in [the unlikely case] Ukraine gets lethal weapons it will defeat Russia and return Donbass (sic)?" Kilimnik wrote, using the regional term for eastern Ukraine. "This is crazy lunacy. I have never even thought about discussing it with anyone and had no interest in [the] convention whatsoever. Idiotic to even think that I have. Where is the logic???"
'You Just Made Me Very Toxic'
Never in our discussions did Kilimnik say or suggest he was nervous about landing in the crosshairs of Mueller's prosecutors or the FBI, insisting that nobody from either group had tried to contact him before September 21.
But that confidence was betrayed hours before publication of my initial February interview with him. After I had emailed Manafort for comment and confirmation of things discussed in the interview, Kilimnik called me to express his concern with the angle of the piece, saying Manafort had received my e-mail and then called him to ask what this was all about.
After the story appeared, he text messaged me: "A lot of people are very angry." In an attempt to control the fallout, he even called a Ukrainian news agency and told them he and I had never met.
The fallout was so serious, suggested Kilimnik, who revealed having homes in Ukraine and Russia, where his wife is from and he traveled frequently, that he was considering fleeing Kyiv for good.
"I hope I am able to get out of the country. Before 'patriots' start hunting me down," he wrote. "You just made me very toxic to everybody."
If he left, he wasn't away long. When the pressure apparently had subsided in June 2017, he invited me to his "favorite" Kyiv pub for some of "the best craft beer in Ukraine."
"[It comes from Kvasy village in Zakarpattia and is awesome," Kilimnik texted, referring to the bucolic western-most region of Ukraine. "Better than Manafort."
Kilimnik communicated with me until September 2017. It's unclear where he is currently, but a December court filing by Mueller's team suggested he has since fled Kyiv to Russia.
Kilimnik didn't answer when I called him this week, nor did he reply to an e-mail and a WhatsApp message offering an opportunity to provide fresh comments. But the two blue check marks beside the WhatsApp message and the ironic status at the top of our chat suggested he was out there somewhere and had read them. "Last seen today at 9:32 p.m." read the status.
Copyright (c) 2018. 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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