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Ukraine’s Back-Channel Diplomat Still Shopping Peace Plan to Trump

Ukraine’s Back-Channel Diplomat Still Shopping Peace Plan to Trump

The last two months have not been easy for Andrey Artemenko.

On Feb. 19, the right-wing Ukrainian member of parliament was sucked into the scandal surrounding President Donald Trump and his alleged ties to Russia when the New York Times reported that Artemenko had served as a back channel between Moscow and Trump associates.

In the aftermath of the report, Artemenko was forced out of his political faction in Ukraine, the far-right Radical Party, and the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine has opened an investigation into whether his diplomatic outreach, which was done without Kiev’s approval, constitutes treason.

Despite the political firestorm, Artemenko is still shopping his proposal in Washington and insists that now is the time to find a resolution to the nearly three-year war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 10,000 lives. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Artemenko denied any connections between him and the Kremlin, praised the early stages of the Trump presidency, and rebuffed elements of the Times report, saying he was unfairly caught up in a fight between the U.S. president and the “liberal media.” The lawmaker also accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of not being interested in ending the war in the Donbass and said he was using Russia as an excuse to scapegoat his critics.

“Anyone who has a personal opinion in Ukraine is automatically named a Russian spy,” Artemenko said. “But I don’t have any connections to Russia. That’s why I’m trying to involve the Trump administration on this issue and not the Kremlin.”

Artemenko’s peace plan episode is just one small part of a rapidly mushrooming investigation in Washington over possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence to tilt the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump’s favor. But it’s also emblematic of another political fight unfolding against the backdrop of U.S. politics: the power struggle for the future of Ukraine.

Since the 2014 Maidan revolution that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Washington has played an outsized role in Ukrainian domestic politics, where recognition and support from influential U.S. figures can make or break a politician’s career back home. The importance of these ties has taken on a new but uncertain dimension since the election of Trump in November 2016; a lack of clarity about the administration’s policies toward Kiev has been both a source of anxiety and opportunity for Ukraine’s political class.

With key policy positions still unfilled at the State Department, many high-profile Ukrainians have sought back channels to the Trump administration to push for a solution to the war in Ukraine.

That’s what Artemenko apparently did to pitch his loosely defined plan, which calls for Russian separatists to return eastern territory to Kiev, and the holding of a national referendum on leasing Crimea to Russia for an undetermined amount of time.

“Maybe it’s dual management of Crimea, or maybe it’s a lease like the Panama Canal and Hong Kong,” said Artemenko, who prefers to call his proposal a “road map for peace” rather than a set plan. “It should be obvious that there is no military solution, only a diplomatic one.”

Tall and brawny, Artemenko is a populist politician with ties to the far-right Ukrainian military-political group “Right Sector” and a member of the pro-Western opposition parliamentary coalition led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party. In Kiev, he’s known for being outspoken and politically ambitious.

The lawmaker also professes an affinity for Trump, saying he wants to “make Ukraine great again” and has been trying to make inroads with the real estate mogul since he was a presidential candidate. In July 2016, Artemenko traveled to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention and later attended Trump’s inauguration in January.

Artemenko used these connections in late January to arrange a meeting with Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer who currently works at the Republican National Committee, to pass his peace plan to Mike Flynn, who served about three weeks as Trump’s national security advisor. Flynn was forced to resign in early February over a separate Russia-related controversy, but the Times reported that Cohen said he had “hand-delivered” the plan in a sealed envelope to the now former national security advisor.

Artemenko confirmed to FP that Trump associate Felix Sater had arranged a meeting with Cohen and that he was told details of the plan were relayed to Flynn, although he says no physical documents were passed at the sit-down in Manhattan.

The Kremlin denied any knowledge of the plan, and Cohen walked back his initial comments, saying he hadn’t delivered the plan to Flynn or discussed it with anyone in the White House. The Times has stood by its reporting.

The Times also reported that Artemenko said he “received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin” and that he “emerged from the opposition” nurtured in Ukraine by Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who previously worked as political operative in Ukraine.

Artemenko told FP that he had no contacts with any Russian officials and has never met or dealt with Manafort. Trump’s former campaign manager made millions of dollars in assisting the rise of Yanukovych and lobbied for several pro-Kremlin causes in Washington.

Artemenko insists that his intentions in pushing a peace plan for Ukraine are in the country’s best interests. But political observers see his freelance diplomacy as part of a rising groundswell in Kiev against Poroshenko by opposition forces ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2019.

“Alliances are shifting in Ukraine right now against Poroshenko,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “All this diplomatic maneuvering in Washington needs to be viewed through this lens.”

Artemenko has emerged as a vocal critic of Poroshenko and says he has evidence showing corruption by the Ukrainian president. Moreover, Artemenko claims to have offered to organize a meeting between Trump and Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, during the campaign. Chaly refused, Artemenko told FP, saying the Ukrainian government was backing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at the time.

“They said they didn’t want to meet Mr. Trump,” Artemenko said.

The Ukrainian Embassy has denied the charges and said it did not support any candidate in the U.S. election.

Frustration at the slow pace of change in Ukraine has seen Poroshenko’s approval ratings plummet, allowing rivals to try to fill the void. Artemenko, who is a staunch ally of Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, a former head of Ukraine’s security service with lofty political ambitions, has aligned himself with other West-leaning populists like Tymoshenko. While it’s not saying much, she’s currently Ukraine’s most popular politician, with polls showing about 18 percent support for her party.

Tymoshenko carried out some freelance diplomacy of her own on Feb. 2 when the former prime minister met Trump in Washington, before ever meeting Poroshenko or speaking with him on the phone. The conversation, which took place at the National Prayer Breakfast, was reportedly short and consisted of her seeking assurances that the Trump administration would “not abandon” Ukraine or lift sanctions on Russia. But the meetings worked to send a message back home that Tymoshenko was ascendant.

Despite the backlash he has faced, Artemenko is still optimistic about his proposal, saying he has discussed it with the office of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has sponsored a resolution reaffirming support for Ukraine and outlining measures to stop the conflict. Artemenko says elements of his plan influenced the Portman measure. A spokesperson from Portman’s office confirmed meeting Artemenko but told FP that his peace plan is not part of the resolution.

Back in Kiev, Artemenko has his sights on the upcoming elections, saying he will continue to push for a resolution to the war in the Donbass and that he plans to start his own political party.

“I am clear and sure that I am going the right way,” Artemenko said.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images