‘Donald Trump has a responsibility to disclose campaign chair Paul Manafort’s and all other campaign employees’ and advisers’ ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities.’ So says Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook. This follows allegations in The New York Timesthat Manafort received millions of dollars in cash payments while serving as an advisor to the Ukrainian Party of Regions prior to the 2014 revolution which drove the party and its leader, President Viktor Yanukovich, from power.
Mook’s demand builds on previous allegations linking Trump to leaked documents from Clinton’s email server, which were supposedly hacked by the Russian intelligence services. The Democratic tactic appears to be to convince the American public that Trump is some sort of puppet of the Kremlin, who if elected would sell out American interests to Russia.
Unfortunately for this narrative, the most important fact is that the source of Manafort’s alleged money isn’t actually Russian – it is, or rather was, Ukrainian. Nevertheless the Clinton campaign and some of the media are tying the case to Russia by calling the Party of Regions ‘pro-Russian’. This is a misnomer. Yanukovich and his party were only pro-Russian to the extent that they were not Ukrainian nationalists or avidly pro-Western. They drew most of their support from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, especially although not exclusively in the south and east of the country. They passed legislation which gave minority languages, including Russian, some legal recognition; they renewed Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol; and they opposed NATO membership for Ukraine. But that was about the extent of their pro-Russianness.
Yanukovich, in fact, resisted Russian efforts to persuade Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union, and was far from being opposed to closer relations with Western Europe. One of the major reasons why Yanukovich’s November 2013 decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union caused an uproar was that he himself had been promising such an agreement for a long time. Had the EU offered him acceptable terms, he almost certainly would have signed up. Russia found Yanukovich to be a very unreliable partner, and he was certainly not a mere ‘Kremlin stooge’.
It seems that the Russians actually found it easier to do business with the supposedly pro-Western Yulia Timoshenko in her time as Ukrainian Prime Minister than they did with Yanukovich. It is worth noting why Timoshenko ended up in prison – for signing a gas supply deal with Russia which allegedly betrayed Ukrainian interests in favour of Russia. Yanukovich’s government, in other words, imprisoned Timoshenko for being too pro-Russian!
The division of pre-Maidan Ukrainian politics into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps is overly simplistic. The competing political groups in the country represented different oligarchic and other interests, whose primary concern was promoting those interests, not pursuing alliances with this or that foreign power. As a Russian official once put it to me, ‘Yanukovich isn’t pro-Russian, he’s pro-Yanukovich’.
Similarly, the Party of Regions wasn’t pro-Russian, it was pro-Party of Regions. Paul Manafort denies taking cash payments from the party, saying that ‘the New York Times has chosen to purposefully ignore facts and professional journalism to fit their political agenda.’ But even if he had actually taken the money, it wouldn’t have proved that he had ‘ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities’, because the Party of Regions wasn’t such a thing. It may suit the Clinton campaign to use this story to suggest that Trump and the Kremlin are closely connected, but this story doesn’t show anything of the sort.