In the summer of 2016, somebody, perhaps Vladimir Putin himself, sketched a peace plan for Ukraine. The provenance of the proposal remains deliberately vague. Had the suggestion been accepted, it would have avoided Russia’s war on its neighbor five years later. The so-called “Mariupol plan,” named for eastern Ukraine’s largest industrial city, would have split off four prosperous Donbass counties to form an autonomous republic, to be led by Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine who had fled Kyiv for Russia two years before. In effect: East and West Ukraine
The trouble is, the proposal was conveyed, via intermediaries, amid elaborate secrecy, to just one man, US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Rival candidate Hillary Rodham certainly would reject the plan were she to be elected. So the loosely-worded proffer was said to be enhanced by a sweetener: Russia would take a hand in the American election, denigrating Clinton through a massive hacking campaign.
That’s the burden of a Sunday magazine article in The New York Times today: “The Untold Story of ‘Russiagate’ and the Road to War in Ukraine,” by reporter Jim Rutenberg. It is a long and complicated tale, and sticks closely the NYT’s editorial position: that Russia’s war was unprovoked by NATO expansion.
In fact, the story of the “Grand Havana Room meeting,” atop 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, between Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, manager of Manafort’s international consulting office in Kyiv, has been told before, though never as concisely as has Rutenberg: by the Mueller Report, the thousand-page Senate Intelligence Committee report, and by The Atlantic’s George Packer in his review of Andrew Weissmann’s book about his service as a top aide to Robert Mueller, Where the Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation.
Ruteberg drew on these accounts, and on his own reporting, in a mostly successful attempt to connect two narratives. “Thrumming below the whole (US) election saga was another story – about Ukraine’s efforts to establish a modern democracy….” From the platform battles of the Republican convention to the turmoil of the transition to the first impeachment, the main business of the Trump presidency all had to do with Ukraine. “Even now” he writes, “some influential voices in American politics, mostly but not entirely on the right, are suggesting that Ukraine make concessions of sovereignty similar to those contained in Kilimnik’s plan, which the nation’s leaders categorically reject.”
I was especially struck when I came across this passage:
As [Paul] Manafort rose to become Trump’s campaign chairman – and as Russian operatives were hacking Democratic Party servers – the candidate took stances on the region that were advantageous to Putin’s ambitions for Ukraine. Ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, Trump shocked the American foreign-policy establishment by voicing only tepid support for NATO. He also told aides that he didn’t believe it was worth risking “World War III” to defend Ukraine against Russia, according to the Senate intelligence report released in the summer of 2020.
That was, I thought, Trump in a nutshell. Candid, shrewd, perhaps even wise… and profoundly dishonest. After all, Manafort was a veteran political operative, who had served in the Reagan administration until leaving to form a foreign relations consulting firm with his friend Roger Stone. He had been deeply involved in Ukrainian politics, mostly with pro-Russian factions, for more than a decade. What in the world was he doing suddenly showing up as Trump’s campaign manager barely two months before the election?
Three weeks after the convention, Manafort was forced to resign, after his name turned up on a suspicious Ukrainian payroll ledger. Starting in 2017, he was charged with multiple felonies, and convicted of many of them, Trump pardoned him in December 2020.
Rutenberg’s story reinforced my conviction that the endless harping of the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal on “the Steele dossier” and Special Counsel John Durham’s lengthy investigation of FBI methods in dealing with it were red herrings of the first order. The investigations that began even before Trump took office had almost nothing to do with the discredited campaign documents. The various probes were motivated by suspicions of extensive conflicts of interest, and the fact that his campaign and presidency were chock-full of persons who had done business with Russia.
It matters because, not for the only time, Trump’s political instincts were canny, reflecting the unarticulated preferences of many American voters, perhaps a majority, to live in a peaceful, if imperfect world. Had Trump been able to do a deal with Putin along the lines of the Mariupol plan, many Ukrainian and Russian lives would have been saved. Trump almost certainly would have been re-elected, American democracy would have been further damaged, perhaps irreparably. Things turned out as they should have, at least until Russia invaded Ukraine. .
That is emphatically not to say that peace negotiations shouldn’t be pursued in this dreadful war. Republican opposition to continuing high levels of aid to Ukraine is growing, according to recent polls. Fifty-seven Republican congressmen and eleven senators voted against Biden’s $40 billion aid package earlier this year. New positions in both parties will take shape after the mid-term elections.
Meanwhile, Axios reports that Trump is eager to announce a third run for the presidency. Bring it on! American democracy learned a great deal about its weaknesses and strengths during the five years it was enrolled in Trump University. The experience produced a close call, but dangerous times make for lasting lessons. Two or three years of post-graduate education will produce still more insight into the inner workings of a strong democracy.