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Propaganda and Collusion in the Trump-Russia Affair, Part 3
The spy and the men who loved him
Photo: Official vehicle of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Image used under license from Shutterstock
In the last edition of The Detox, we began our examination of Matt Taibbi and Aaron Maté and their respective interviews with reputed Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik.
In August 2020, the Senate Intelligence Committee, then under GOP leadership, released Volume 5 of its report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Its most explosive finding was that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Kilimnik in May and August 2016. It also reported that Manafort passed Kilimnik sensitive internal polling data which may have aided Russia’s efforts to interfere in the campaign.
The allegations were potentially devastating to Taibbi and Maté, both of whom had spent the preceding years mocking anyone who believed the Trump-Russia collusion theory.
They needed this story to go away—badly. So in 2021, when the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on Kilimnik, Taibbi and Maté took action. Intent on undermining the allegations, they reached out to Kilimnik and interviewed him.
The result was a couple of mangled hack-jobs masquerading as journalism. In their desperation to show Kilimnik was not a spy and did not receive anything of value from Manafort, both display astounding credulity.
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Contrary to their self-styled images as master-skeptics, Taibbi and Maté went into their interviews ready to believe anything Kilimnik told them—this despite the fact that Kilimnik, a consultant to oligarchs and dictators, lies for a living.
You see, according to Taibbi’s uncritical report, Kilimnik is no spy, just a humble feeder of squirrels:
“The US actually sanctioned me for interference in [the] 2020 elections,” Kilimnik says. “I would not be able to say why. I’d love to know. I’ve been sitting in fucking Moscow, in my backyard, and feeding squirrels. Must have been some sort of interference.”
Today, we continue our inquiry into Taibbi and Maté’s respective interviews with Kilimnik. In particular, we will see the remarkable gullibility with which they treat Kilimnik’s most important claim: That he does not work for Russian intelligence.
Before doing so, we must concede there is no way to definitively state that Kilimnik is a Russian spy. The Senate report alleges that he is but provides no proof. Still, there are plenty of clues that strongly suggest he serves in such a role—clues neither Taibbi nor Maté so much as acknowledge.
This is what makes their reporting on the subject so dishonest. Taibbi and Maté will seize upon any piece of information, however tenuous, which casts doubt on Kilimnik’s ties to Russian intelligence. But any evidence suggesting Kilimnik does have such ties? You won’t hear about it from them!
So let’s take a look at this question of Kilimnik’s relationship with Russia’s security apparatus and walk through the “evidence” Taibbi and Maté bring to bear on it.
What is Maté’s evidence that Kilimnik never worked as a Russian spy? Well, first, he denies it. Second, the Special Counsel’s claim that Kilimnik once entered the U.S. on a diplomatic passport appears to be false. Third, Kilimnik spent ten years working for a U.S.-government-funded agency, the International Republican Institute (IRI). Fourth, at one time he was a valued source for the State Department. Fifth and finally, Kilimnik was never indicted on charges of conspiring with Russia.
For the record, none of this rules out the possibility that Kilimnik is a Russian spy.
What about Taibbi’s evidence that Kilimnik never worked for Russian intelligence? Well, again, Kilimnik denies it, he was a valued source for the State Department, and a few people from the IRI whom Taibbi reached out to do not believe the allegations.
In an earlier piece, Taibbi portrayed Kilimnik’s role as a sensitive source for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine as a potentially fatal blow to the collusion narrative. Is it? Of course not. Has Taibbi never watched a spy movie? Double-agents exist.
Not that Kilimnik’s status as an embassy-source would have made him an actual “agent” of the U.S., but whatever.
Here is how Taibbi presented this supposedly blockbuster revelation in 2019:
The Manafort-Kilimnik tale is a fundamentally different news story if Kilimnik is more of an American asset than a Russian one.
If Kilimnik was giving regular reports to the State Department through 2016, if his peace plan was not a diabolical Trump-Manafort backdoor effort to carve up Ukraine, if Kilimnik was someone who could be “flabbergasted at the Russian invasion of Crimea,” as Solomon says the FBI concluded, then this entire part of the Russiagate story has been farce.
Even if the State Department knew of Kilimnik’s ties to Russian intelligence, as is likely in my humble opinion, it would hardly be reason for its officials to ignore his reports. They would have simply treated him as one source among many. Critical-thinking skills, after all, are presumably a prerequisite for working in the U.S. diplomatic community.
Still, if Kilimnik really were “more of an American asset than a Russian one,” it would indeed be relevant. But he is obviously not. I know this because Kilimnik, to this day, continues to reside in Russia, where he remains living and breathing in a posh Moscow suburb. If Kilimnik were “more of an American asset than a Russian one,” and this fact were so public that people were actually writing about it in their newsletters, he would be imprisoned or dead.
Can we maybe use our heads please?
Maté, in an earlier piece, likewise concludes that Kilimnik’s role as a valued State Department source undermines the allegation that he is a Russian agent.
In the same essay, Maté also brings up Kilimnik’s efforts to convince Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych to sign a contested trade deal with the E.U. in 2013. For years, Kilimnik and Manafort had served as key consultants to Yanukovych and his political party. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the 2013 trade agreement sparked mass-protests against his rule in November of that year, protests that would eventually lead to his ouster.
Maté’s point is that if Kilimnik were actually a Russian agent, why would he have encouraged Yanukovych to sign an E.U. trade deal that Russia opposed? The reason, as Kilimnik made clear, is that it was in Yanukovych’s interests to do so. “Everyone was telling [Yanukovych], 'you should sign the deal. Just sign the f****** deal,'” Kilimnik said, according to an interview he gave to RFE/RL. “Yanukovych did not listen to [Manafort], which is why he got f*****.”
Kilimnik, one can guess, enjoyed the money he was making from Yanukovych. The continued flow of that money depended on Yanukovych not committing political suicide. He therefore advised Yanukovych to sign the E.U. deal despite Russia’s objections.
It is hardly surprising that Kilimnik’s financial interests as Yanukovych’s adviser occasionally conflicted with Russia’s national interests. That he would sometimes privilege the former over the latter does not absolve him of the allegation that he was a Russian agent.
So that is the extent of the evidence Taibbi and Maté disclose regarding Kilimnik’s alleged ties to Russian intelligence. As you can see, it is all mitigating. The problem is, there is a mountain of additional evidence that is not mitigating and which Taibbi and Maté do not reveal.
What Taibbi and Maté left out (spoiler: it’s a lot)
On the one hand, we have Taibbi and Maté’s evidence, such as it is. There is also the testimony of David A. Merkel, Kilimnik’s former boss at IRI, who is equally unconvinced he is a Russian agent. “The idea that he is some master spy seems hard to fathom,” Merkel tells the New York Times. It is unclear whether Merkel actually believes this or is merely trying to absolve himself of responsibility for having hired an alleged spy in the first place.
Yet others who knew or worked with Kilimnik do believe he is a spy. In fact, they report that his reputed links to Russia’s intelligence apparatus have long been common knowledge in Kyiv and Moscow.
Kilimnik did not hide his military past from his new employer [IRI]. In fact, when he was asked how he learned to speak such fluent English, he responded “Russian military intelligence,” according to one IRI official…
It soon became an article of faith in IRI circles that Kilimnik had been in the intelligence service, according to five people who worked in and around the group in Moscow, who said Kilimnik never sought to correct that impression.
“It was like ‘Kostya, the guy from the GRU’ [Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency]—that’s how we talked about him,” said a political operative who worked in Moscow at the time. “The institute was informed that he was GRU, but it didn’t matter at the time because they weren’t doing anything sensitive.”
“Throughout the Yanukovych campaigns, the operative [for Manafort] said, “there was no secret that [Kilimnik] had been in the intelligence services back in the Soviet Union. He would talk about it. Others on the campaign—Paul [Manafort], Phil Griffin, Rick Gates—they were pretty open about his background.”
Taras Chornovil, a former parliamentary deputy for Yanukovych’s party, also recounts how Kilimnik was “known as the representative of Russia” in party circles.
As you might have guessed, Taibbi and Maté neglect to mention any of that.
There is also the alleged testimony of Rick Gates, a former partner of Kilimnik and Manafort’s. According to a sentencing memorandum by Mueller’s team as well as Politico’s sources, Gates said he knew Kilimnik to be a Russian spy. Neither Taibbi nor Maté bother to bring this up.
According to Gates, even Manafort himself suspected Kilimnik was a spy, although he later denied having ever harbored such suspicions. Again, Taibbi and Maté omit any reference of this.
From the Senate report:
(Hat-tip to Marcy Wheeler for pointing out this footnote.)
Thus, despite claims to the contrary by Kilimnik’s former boss and Taibbi’s sources, plenty of those who once knew Kilimnik did regard him as a Russian agent and maintained that others thought similarly.
An academy for spies
Far less ambiguous than the conflicting testimony of his former associates is another aspect of Kilimnik’s background: The five years he spent at the USSR’s elite Military Institute of Foreign Languages (MIFL).
In his interview with Maté, Kilimnik tries to minimize the importance of his time at MIFL. He presents the school as the Soviet equivalent of the U.S. Defense Language Institute (it was not). He also maintains it did not typically train people to work in the intelligence apparatus (it did).
Maté accepts this claim with no attempt to verify it. He writes:
In Mueller's own telling, Kilimnik's only direct link to the Russian government was his enrollment in a Soviet military academy from 1987 to 1992, where he trained as a linguist. “It's a language school, similar to what you guys have in Fort Monterey,” Kilimnik said, referring to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, in Monterey, California. “It's a university that trains military translators, mostly for the army, not for the intelligence services. Basically it was a military training, for five years, focusing on English and Swedish. In normal circumstances, I would actually go and serve in the army, but because [the] Soviet Union was falling apart, I was able to get a job as [an] instructor of Swedish at the university. I never served in the real army. If teaching Swedish counts as spying—that will be very surprising."
The reality, according to Svetlana Probirskaja, an expert on MIFL, is that the institute “was subordinate to the Military Intelligence headquarters.” Since World War II, she adds, its graduates “have been intertwined with military intelligence institutionally as well as in practice.”
Yuri Shvets, a former KGB major who defected to the U.S., goes so far as to call MIFL the “smithery [kuznitsa] of intelligence personnel,” as in the place where they are forged. The fact that Kilimnik studied there leaves Shvets with little doubt that he is a spy.
As for the institute where Kilimnik studied, I know this institute. It supplied personnel to the special services. Many of its graduates went to the Military Diplomatic Academy and then to the GRU [Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency]. Some of them came to us, at the foreign intelligence arm [First Chief Directorate] of the KGB…
So, the whole time, Kilimnik really was in the clip of the special services. I am 99 percent sure—I'll leave one percent for miracles—that all information about his activities with Manafort was delivered to the Russian special services.
In sum, Kilimnik’s time at MIFL is perhaps the most compelling piece of publicly-available evidence that he is a Russian intelligence operative.
Kilimnik’s work on behalf of Russia’s foreign policy objectives
Yet further support for Kilimnik’s status a Russian intelligence agent is his extensive activities advancing official Russian state interests around the world. To begin with, he frequently collaborated and communicated with Viktor Boyarkin, a U.S.-sanctioned GRU officer who undertakes global influence operations for the Kremlin. Here is how the Senate report describes Boyarkin:
In other words, Boyarkin allegedly occupies a role similar to that of Kilimnik. While neither of them hold an official position in Russia’s intelligence apparatus, both allegedly work under the Kremlin’s direction to promote its interests.
As with Kilimnik, moreover, numerous aspects of Boyarkin’s past suggests a connection to Russian intelligence. As journalist Seth Hettena notes, these include a stint at state arms exporter Rosvooruzheniye along with a previous listing as a naval attaché in Washington, a typical cover for intelligence officers.
The Senate report summarizes Kilimnik and Boyarkin’s joint-involvement in various Russian influence operations around the world:
What’s more, Kilimnik forwarded to Boyarkin much of the information he received from Manafort during the 2016 campaign and kept Manafort abreast of such communications:
If, upon reading that, you thought, “Wait, Senate Republicans confirmed that Manafort, as Trump’s campaign manager, was knowingly sending campaign updates to not one but two known-Russian intelligence agents?” I am here to tell you the answer is yes.
That means we can eagerly await Taibbi and Maté’s interviews with Boyarkin and the ensuing revelation that he is, in truth, but a simple potato farmer.
Aside from his various collaborations with Boyarkin, Taibbi and Maté fail to mention another example of Kilimnik advancing the Kremlin’s agenda. According to Mueller’s report, Kilimnik once approached a British national with an offer to do public-relations work for the Russian government. The stated objective? To legitimize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
As a reminder, the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea is part of Ukraine’s internationally-recognized territory, a fact Russia formally acknowledged in numerous international agreements before occupying the region in February 2014.
Taibbi referenced this incident in passing in his 2019 piece. Tellingly, he did not do so in his 2021 interview with Kilimnik. After all, it might have spoiled his effort to dispel suspicions of Kilimnik’s ties to Russian intelligence.
Made in the Kremlin: Kilimnik and the Ukraine “peace plan”
The activities described above are not the only instances in which Kilimnik endeavored to further the Kremlin’s interests abroad. At his August 2016 meeting with Manafort, he introduced a “peace plan” to resolve the war in Ukraine that had begun in 2014. The war, which Russia and its international apologists prefer to cast as a genuine rebellion of Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s Donbas region, was actually a Russian invasion.
The “peace plan” foresaw bringing ousted-Ukrainian president Yanukovych, then in exile in Russia, back to Ukraine to head an autonomous region in the Donbas:
Manafort, per his own testimony, “understood that the plan was a ‘backdoor’ means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine.” That makes sense, being that Russia already had thousands of troops in the Donbas and no doubt intended to keep them there in the event the “peace plan” went into effect.
In other words, when Kilimnik met with Manafort in 2016, he did so for the purpose of aiding Russia’s foreign policy interests. Not only that, Manafort perfectly understood this at the time.
The two continued working on the “peace plan” as late as 2018, according to the Senate report.
Still, is it possible that the initiative for the “peace plan” came not from the Kremlin but from Yanukovych alone? Perhaps Kilimnik, in lobbying Manafort on the plan, was merely acting as an agent of Yanukovych and not the Russian state. Indeed, by Manafort’s account, Kilimnik simply “ran it by” someone in the Russian government, as if he and Yanukovych came up with the plan themselves.
The idea that the Russian government played such a limited role is frankly hard to believe. The Donbas war was Russia’s war, fought with Russia’s troops and Russia’s money. The Kremlin regarded anything involving Ukraine as a vital interest.
So if you’re Yanukovych, you don’t go causally floating Ukraine “peace plans” to a U.S. presidential campaign on your own behalf. There can be little doubt, then, that the plan originated with the Russian security apparatus if not the Kremlin itself.
The “peace plan,” in fact, has the fingerprints of Russia’s intelligence community all over it. A key figure involved in promoting the plan was Mykola Azarov, a veteran Ukrainian kleptocrat and Yanukovych’s former prime minister. Like Yanukovych, Azarov had been living in Russian exile since 2014.
But here is where it gets interesting: Azarov’s spokesman at the time was an officer in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR):
Azarov, the Senate committee notes, “almost certainly had the backing of the Russian government.” Judging by the company he kept, “the Russian government” specifically meant the SVR.
So, yeah, the Ukraine “peace plan” Kilimnik pitched to Manafort? It was the brainchild not of Yanukovych himself but rather Russia’s intelligence apparatus. This means that Kilimnik, when he brought it up to Manafort in 2016, was very likely doing so on behalf of Russia’s intelligence apparatus.
Now, aside from Manafort, Kilimnik, during his earlier May 2016 visit to the U.S., reportedly discussed the same “peace plan” with a State Department official in the Obama administration. Taibbi, in his 2019 piece, pretends this somehow undermines the whole Trump-Russia collusion narrative.
“Listen, libtards, will you now try to say the Obama administration was also colluding with Russia?” Taibbi, in so many words, asks us to ponder, as if Kilimnik’s meeting at the State Department trivializes his efforts to lobby Manafort.
This is stupid, and I’ll explain why.
Imagine, by some miracle, Kilimnik’s “peace plan” made it from Kilimnik’s State Department contact to Obama’s desk. Imagine, further, that Obama, quite implausibly, was too dumb to see it for what it was. What then? Well, the many seasoned diplomats and intelligence officials around Obama would have advised him of the risks the “peace plan” involved.
Not so for candidate Trump who, aside from being a counterintelligence nightmare himself, had few if any advisers around him experienced in these matters. Obviously, Kilimnik’s “peace plan” posed more of a risk in Trump’s hands than those of Obama’s State Department.
Furthermore, the reason I bring up Kilimnik’s “peace plan” at all is not just to showcase the Trump campaign’s vulnerability to foreign influence but also for what it signifies about Kilimnik’s agenda—namely, that he was likely working on Russia’s behalf.
Given (1) Kilimnik’s longstanding reputation as a Russian agent, (2) his time at MIFL, and (3) his extensive efforts to advance Russia’s foreign policy interests, the idea that he doesn’t work for Russian intelligence strains credulity.
It turns out, then, that there is quite a lot of evidence that Kilimnik is a Russian spy. Yet Taibbi and Maté choose not to disclose it, opting instead to try and convince us that the only evidence which does shed light on the matter happens to exonerate him.
My purpose here is not to prove that Kilimnik is a spy. Even though I have a hard time believing he is not, we cannot know for sure and it is not that important anyway. The point, rather, is to highlight the blatant dishonesty of Taibbi and Maté’s reporting on the subject.
It would be one thing if they had treated Kilimnik’s claims with any skepticism at all: “Okay, here is Kilimnik’s side of the story, although given what else we know about the man, we should take it with a grain of salt.”
But they don’t do that, do they?
In fact, neither Taibbi nor Maté even acknowledge the abundant evidence challenging Kilimnik’s narrative. Instead, they simply present what Kilimnik says, undertake a pathetically cursory effort to “verify” it, and conclude, on the basis of it all, that Russiagate is a non-story.
That’s not journalism; it’s gaslighting.
Taibbi and Maté are right to criticize much of the mainstream coverage of Russiagate. But for all their fulminating about it, their own credulousness toward known-liar Kilimnik and their omission of public facts that contradict their preferred narrative render their own reporting at least as shoddy.
In the next installment, we will see how this entire question of Kilimnik’s ties to Russian intelligence is mostly irrelevant. Far more important is who Manafort and Kilimnik acknowledged working for during the campaign. This issue, moreover, is one that nearly everyone, collusion-believers and deniers alike, missed.
Other entries from this series:
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