Years from now, historians may study the documents indicting Paul Manafort to understand just how the Russification of American public life was accomplished. Manafort is alleged to have laundered money, to have cheated on taxes and to have lied about his clientele. All of this he did in order to “enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States,” according to the indictment. Among other things it is alleged that he spent $1,319,281 of his money, illegally hidden from the U.S. Treasury, to pay a home lighting and entertainment company in Florida; to purchase $934,350 worth of rugs at a shop in Virginia; and to drop $655,500 on a landscaper in the Hamptons.
Some will find it ironic that Manafort did all of this while coaching candidate Donald Trump to run an “anti-elite” election campaign, one directed at “draining the swamp” and cleaning up Washington. But in fact, this is exactly the kind of tactic that Manafort perfected on behalf of Russia, in Ukraine, where he worked for more than a decade.
Manafort was first invited to work in Ukraine in 2004, by the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. But Manafort left a real mark in 2006, when he brought dozens of American political consultants to Ukraine to assist in an ethnically charged election that pit Russian and Ukrainian speakers against one another, in an attempt to help Russia retain influence over the country. In 2008, he helped run an anti-NATO campaign, opposing Ukraine’s membership in the transatlantic alliance. In 2010, he was one of several advisers – the others were mostly Russians – who helped remake the image of Viktor Yanukovych, the ex-con whom the Russian government then supported for president of Ukraine. Yanukovych charged the sitting government with corruption, declared that the election would be “rigged” and finally won.
All of this experience came in handy in 2016. The exploitation of ethnic tension; the dislike of NATO; the constant talk of opponents’ corruption, whether warranted or not; the shouting about falsified elections – these were Trump tactics, too. Several other things about Yanukovych – who was eventually chased out of his own country – stand as a warning. He was an “anti-elite” candidate who proved far more corrupt than the existing elite. He used his public office for private gain. And he sought to undermine Ukraine’s constitution, first subtly and then openly.
The indictment published Monday doesn’t establish Manafort as a link between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, although it does allege he broke other laws. Such a link emerges clearly in Monday’s other news story, the revelation that George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy adviser, knew Russian hackers had attacked the Clinton campaign long before that fact was known to anyone else; as early as May 2016, Papadopoulos knew that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton.
But even if the Manafort indictment isn’t a smoking gun, it tells us something important. For a long time now, a part of the U.S. political and business class has been merging, ideologically and aesthetically, with its post-Soviet counterparts. The use of shell companies and Cypriot bank accounts; the over-the-top spending on clothes and houses; the profoundly cynical manipulation of ethnic or racial divides to win elections – these behaviors are now common to a particular set of sleazy operators on two continents. If this indictment is correct, Manafort is the living embodiment of this Russian-American convergence. And Trump, of course, is its apotheosis.
The Washington Post