The Untold Story of “Russiagate” and the Road to War in Ukraine

If you run a newspaper and want people to pay attention to an important article, don’t make it 10,000 words long (which would amount to 30 typewritten pages) and don’t publish it two days before a national election. Jim Rutenberg, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote just that kind of article. “The Untold Story of ‘Russiagate’ and the Road to War in Ukraine” was published on November 6, 2022, two days before the midterm election, and hardly anybody seems to have noticed.

A few days earlier, the Times had printed a summary of Rutenberg’s article, written by Rutenberg himself, but the summary was just one of many “live” updates that day regarding the war in Ukraine. The Times put it between “Russian military bloggers criticize the Kremlin for rejoining the Ukraine grain deal” and “Poland erects a razor-wire fence along its border with Russia’s Kaliningrad”. I doubt many people noticed.

Here’s the summary:

Russia’s meddling in Trump-era politics was more directly connected to the current war than previously understood.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s assault on Ukraine and his attack on American democracy have been treated largely as two distinct story lines.

Yet those two narratives came together on a summer night in 2016 when Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with Paul Kilimnik, a Russian citizen who ran the Kyiv office of Manafort’s international consulting firm.

Mr. Kilimnik shared a secret plan calling for the creation of an autonomous republic in Ukraine’s east, giving Mr. Putin effective control of the country’s industrial heartland, where Kremlin-backed “separatists” were waging a two-year-old shadow war.

The scheme cut against decades of American policy promoting a free and united Ukraine, but Mr. T____ was already suggesting that he would upend the diplomatic status quo; if elected, Mr. Kilimnik believed, Mr. T____ could help make the plan a reality.

First, though, he would have to win. Which brought the men to the second prong of their agenda — internal campaign polling data tracing a path through battleground states to victory. Manafort’s sharing of that information would have been unremarkable if not for one important piece of Mr. Kilimnik’s biography: He was not simply a colleague; he was, U.S. officials would later assert, a Russian agent.

In the weeks that followed, Russian operatives would intensify their hacking and disinformation campaign to damage Hillary Clinton and help turn the election toward T____. What the plan Mr. Kilimnik offered on paper is essentially what Putin … is now trying to seize through sham referendums and illegal annexation.

This second draft of history emerges from a review of the hundreds of pages of documents produced by investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and for the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; from impeachment-hearing transcripts and the recent crop of Russiagate memoirs; and from interviews with nearly 50 people in the United States and Ukraine, including four hourlong conversations with Mr. Manafort himself.

The Russia investigation and its offshoots never did prove coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow, though they did document numerous connections. But to view the record through the war, now in its ninth month, is to discover a trail of underappreciated signals telegraphing the depth of Mr. Putin’s Ukrainian obsession.

Mr. Rutenberg could have added that viewing the historical record in the context of the war also helps explain Russia’s support for the ex-president and why he and his most rabid supporters are still taking Russia’s side.