The Kremlin Inches Closer to the Biden Plot

Lev Parnas pointed his finger at Dmytro Firtash.

Lev Parnas
Lev Parnas, pictured here, recently implicated Dmytro Firtash in the Ukraine scandal that led to Donald Trump's impeachment. (Associated Press)

Somewhere near the heart of the Ukraine scandal is the oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Evidence has long suggested this fact. But over the past week, in a televised interview and in documents he supplied to Congress, Rudy Giuliani’s former business partner Lev Parnas pointed his finger at the Ukrainian oligarch. According to Parnas, Giuliani’s team had a deal with Firtash. Giuliani would get the Justice Department to drop its attempt to extradite the oligarch on bribery charges. In return, according to Parnas, the oligarch promised to pass along evidence that would supposedly discredit both Joe Biden and Robert Mueller.

Parnas’s account, of course, is hardly definitive. Throughout his career, he has attempted to inflate his importance to make money. (Firtash apparently paid him $1 million for his services, though it’s still not totally clear what those services were.) And his description of Firtash’s involvement raises as many questions as it settles. Still, the apparent centrality of Firtash should inform any assessment of Giuliani’s escapades and the entire Ukraine story.

When commentators invoke the name Dmytro Firtash, it is usually followed by mention of his alleged connections to Russian organized crime and the fact that he is close to the Kremlin. These descriptions, however, understate his ties to Vladimir Putin. In his book Russia’s Crony Capitalism, the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund describes Firtash as a “Kremlin Influence agent.” A Ukrainian parliamentarian who investigated Firtash has called him “a political person representing Russian interests in Ukraine.” That representative of Russian interests is who Giuliani and Parnas apparently enlisted as their partner.

The rapid ascent of Firtash, a fireman from western Ukraine, remains mysterious—although he once disgorged details from his past in a long chat with the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Bill Taylor, a description of which eventually emerged in a WikiLeaks document dump. But it’s been widely reported that Firtash attached himself to the gangster Semion Mogilevich, one of the region’s most important Mafia bosses, a man the FBI placed on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. (His lawyers vociferously deny any connections to gangsters.)

When Putin ascended to power in 2000, he gained control of his country’s natural-gas business. He placed his allies at the helm of the country’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, and he has routinely wielded that company as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. In 2002, Firtash became Gazprom’s most important middleman: He was responsible for selling Russian gas to Ukraine. Thanks to an extraordinary Reuters investigation, which burrowed into Customs documents, contracts, and Cyprus bank accounts, the details of this arrangement are now well known. Gazprom sold Firtash gas at four times below the market price. When Firtash resold the gas to the Ukrainian state, he pocketed a profit of $3 billion. Even as he amassed this fortune, bankers close to Putin extended Firtash an $11 billion line of credit.

According to close watchers of Gazprom, a chunk of this cash cycled back to Moscow in the form of kickbacks. Another chunk of this money was spent bankrolling Russian political influence in Ukraine. Firtash was one of the two primary patrons of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his political party. (He also bought a television network for the sake of promoting the cause.) This meant that Firtash was also writing the checks that covered the cost of Paul Manafort’s services to Yanukovych. It’s worth pausing to marvel at the narrative symmetry of this scandal: Both Manafort and Parnas shared the same Russian-aligned paymaster.

In 2014, just after a revolution chased Yanukovych from power, the FBI issued an arrest warrant for Firtash. Austrian authorities detained Firtash near his Vienna mansion. The indictment alleged that he had bribed Indian officials on behalf of Boeing, which desperately wanted to acquire rare materials for the construction of its 787 Dreamliner. (McKinsey & Company, the now-vilified consulting firm, apparently vetted Boeing’s decision to work with Firtash and didn’t recommend against it, according to a New York Times investigation.)

When Firtash needed someone to pay his bail—which the Austrians set at $155 million, the highest in the nation’s history—the oligarch Vasily Anisimov, a member of Putin’s inner circle, supplied the cash. Over the past five years, Firtash has successfully battled the Justice Department’s attempts to extradite him. He’s hired an army of American lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants, including the notorious Jack Abramoff and the longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton friend Lanny Davis, as well as the Donald Trump–supporting lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. His spokesman is Mark Corallo, who worked for Trump’s legal team during the Mueller investigation.

The congressional investigation into the Ukraine scandal has largely skipped over Giuliani’s efforts—which means that investigators have yet to delve into Dmytro Firtash’s possible involvement. But now that Parnas has added a fresh layer of detail to the narrative, some basic questions should attract attention:

IS IT POSSIBLE THAT THE PLOT AGAINST BIDEN BEGAN WITH FIRTASH? According to the Daily Beast, Firtash has long seethed at Joe Biden. As vice president, Biden vigorously promoted an anti-corruption agenda that included liberating Ukraine’s energy sector from Firtash’s dominance. In fact, when Biden visited Kyiv in 2015 and spoke before Parliament, he seemed to praise the Ukrainian government for “closing the space for corrupt middlemen who rip off the Ukrainian people.” Firtash raged against this speech. He described Biden as an “overlord.” He said, “I was ashamed to look at this. I was repulsed.” If Firtash promised Parnas material that could be used against Biden, he was fulfilling a long-held grudge.

Most narratives of the plot against Biden allege that corrupt Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin concocted the whole scenario out of a desire for vengeance. Biden, after all, had demanded that the Ukrainian president fire Shokin, whose office was a bastion of corruption. (Oligarchs notoriously pay handsomely for the allegiance of prosecutors, who bring cases against their enemies.) Over time, it has become clear that Shokin and Firtash are allies. In September 2018, at the request of Firtash’s lawyers, Shokin filed an affidavit in Austrian court testifying to the oligarch’s innocence. How long have Shokin and Firtash been allies? Were they working together when the plot against Biden first germinated?

WHAT HAPPENED AT NAFTOGAZ? Parnas and Igor Fruman hoped to obtain a contract to export American natural gas to Ukraine. As part of this scheme, they seem to have launched a campaign to remove the leadership of the Ukrainian national company, Naftogaz, and to install managers more favorably inclined to their bid. Given the complexities of putting together a bid, it’s puzzling that they would have focused so heavily on Naftogaz, especially since other details of the plan were so distant from realization.

Is it possible they were fixated on remaking Naftogaz because of Firtash’s long-running battle with the company’s reformist leadership? Firtash believes that the company owes him money and that it is unfairly preventing him from accessing stored gas that he believes he owns. Was Parnas’s team attempting a coup at Naftogaz on behalf of Firtash?

WHAT DID GIULIANI DO ON FIRTASH’S BEHALF? Giuliani has consistently sought to minimize his ties to Firtash. But over time, he’s conceded that he spoke with the oligarch’s lawyers in Chicago and that he met with his proxies in Europe. Did Giuliani press Firtash’s case at the Justice Department? That is, did he fulfill the quid pro quo that Parnas alleged this week? Did he attempt to help Firtash avoid American justice in exchange for material on Biden? In October, The New York Times reported that Giuliani had met with officials in the Justice Department to discuss the case of a foreigner accused of bribery. Giuliani wouldn’t name his client, whom he described as “very, very sensitive.” Parnas told Rachel Maddow that he overheard Giuliani discussing his Ukrainian operation with Attorney General William Barr. If they in fact took place, did those discussions ever include the subject of Dmytro Firtash?

WHAT DID THE RUSSIANS KNOW? Given Firtash’s past involvement with the Kremlin—given that the Russian state supplied him with his fortune, given that he did its political bidding in the past, given that a Putin insider loaned him the money for his bail—it seems fair to ask: Did he keep the Russians in the loop about his involvement with Parnas and Giuliani? Did he ever seek to enlist their help? These are admittedly speculative questions, but the oligarch’s background demands their consideration.

Dmytro Firtash’s work in Ukraine undermined that nation’s democracy. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars entrenching the forces of kleptocracy. His machinations kept the country locked in Russia’s orbit. That he may have been involved in spreading disinformation about Biden for the sake of avoiding extradition is the most important allegation from Lev Parnas’s trail of cable-news interviews. It suggests that he may have attempted to reprise his past work on American soil, and maybe even succeeded.