Ukrainian Foreign Influence Operation Bankrolled by Secret Donors

Foreign agents peddling influence for a controversial Ukraine politician were part of a coordinated effort bankrolled through a secretive network of shell companies and offshore entities, according to new foreign lobbying records.

The foreign influence operation centered around Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who ran against now-President Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election. She now leads the Batkivshchyna “Fatherland” party in parliament.

Operating in the shadows for nearly a decade, the opaque network is noteworthy because it funneled more than $3.9 million into foreign lobbying and influence operations targeting the U.S. while hiding connections to Tymoshenko and keeping its funding sources secret.

A Ukrainian citizen named Michael Sokolov is orchestrating the coordinated effort through a shell company known as Innovative Technology & Business Consulting LLC or IBTC LLC, disclosures filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act show. Sokolov was a regional leader of Tymoshenko’s party and deputy chairman of a national agricultural council.

He was also involved in other shell entities tied to Tymoshenko. FARA records show Sokolov was the founder and chairman of the Trident Foundation, a London-based entity tied to Tymoshenko until 2018 then directed “daily U.S. operations” for another mysterious shell company called Aveiro LP. He also attended meetings with Tymoshenko and her foreign agents during the leadup to Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election.

Sokolov connected U.S. firms with potential business partners in Ukraine as part of a scheme to deliver U.S. liquefied natural gas to Ukraine, the new FARA filings show. A statement from the president of one of the firms, Linden Strategies, told OpenSecrets that “interactions were limited to commercial discussions with Naftogaz and other Ukrainian energy officials,” declining to name any business partners other than a port developer.

While ITBC’s FARA records say the plan to deliver liquefied natural gas to Ukraine was unrelated to its lobbying efforts for Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian politician is known for her lucrative work in the gas industry and a controversial gas deal with Russian President Vladmir Putin while Ukraine’s Naftogaz was under Tymoshenko’s rule. That deal led to years of imprisonment for her after a Ukrainian court found Tymoshenko guilty of abuse of power.

Layers of Shell Company Donors Hide Ukrainian Ties

ITBC was created as a conduit for mysterious shell companies to fund foreign influence operations benefiting Tymoshenko, new records show. The FARA records reveal “donors” to the firm, which are mostly obscure offshore entities and LLCs. This multilayered structure hides the identify of the financiers actually bankrolling the operation, which has spent more than $3.9 million on lobbying and influence campaigns targeting the U.S.

Entities reportedly donating to ITBC list addresses in multiple countries across the world, but each has substantial ties to Ukraine. Many of the firms were registered by Ukrainian individuals within months of each other shortly before funneling money into the foreign influence operation. The new FARA filing is the first definitive confirmation that the entities are part of a coordinated effort tied to Ukrainian actors.

Megapolis Invest Group, which holds itself out as an investment banking firm, was registered by Nosov Maksym of Ukraine, whose name matches a Ukrainian government official, according to Ukranian income declarations. FARA records list a Canadian address for Wellsoft Experts but the firm also has an office in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Blue Planet Trading uses an address in Malaysia but its website is registered through a Kyiv-based domain registration service called Hosting Ukraine LLC. Unlike some of the other entities with little or no online footprint, Blue Planet Trading’s website provides some accounting of its business dealings and shipping manifest data show it importing agricultural products from Ukraine.

Bosfor Investments was registered by Matsiichuk Valentyna Viktorivna of Ukraine, whose name matches a former Ukrainian government official, according to 2017 income declarations under the country’s anti-corruption law.

Viktorivna was also a limited partner and contributor to another company called Smart Light Advising, which made payments to ITBC and also acted as a conduit for payments to Wiley Rein in the scope of its work for Aveiro LP — both efforts were later revealed to benefit Tymoshenko. Smart Light Advising’s address until it dissolved in March 2019 was a “suite” at a mailbox rental service company in Scotland that is home to at least 147 companies, some of which were named as offshore shell companies in the Paradise Papers leaks.

Vizientas Pte Ltd, another apparent shell company that gave to ITBC, also made payments to Wiley Rein for Aveiro LP.

A Seattle-based software development company listed as AlphaTech with a main development office called TechWire in Ukraine not only made payments to ITBC and Wiley Rein but it is listed as a paid contractor of Wiley Rein and MKW Group for consulting services in the scope of their work as foreign agents of Aveiro LP.

Volodymyr Zelensky, now president of Ukraine, used similar opaque strategies to funnel money into operation targeting the U.S. in the weeks before his election.

A Quietly Coordinated Effort

Tymoshenko gained international attention after special counsel Robert Mueller uncovered Paul Manafort’s role in an influence operation targeting her with disinformation. She was again thrust into the spotlight after a former National Security Council official’s Oct. 30 testimony before House impeachment investigators noted that a foreign agent representing Tymoshenko was pushing for the ouster of then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

That foreign agent, former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), was hired by ITBC just weeks after the Maryland-based company’s 2018 incorporation. The secretive limited-liability company’s ties to Tymoshenko were not revealed until July 2018, when the Livingston Group distributed a letter proposing that Tymoshenko meet with Trump.

Livingston told ABC News “there was no connection between our clients nor of our efforts and those of [Rudy] Giuliani.” But records show that one of the Livingston Group’s foreign agents, former Rep. Bob McEwen, introduced Trump’s personal lawyer to Tymoshenko, as first reported by OpenSecrets in May.

“She wanted to meet with me because she wanted me to support her for president,” Giuliani later told CNN. “She probably wanted me to tell the President that she was the best one to win.” Giuliani told OpenSecrets by text that he did not support any candidate in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, adding “but I do like her and respect her.”

Former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who allegedly orchestrated the plot to oust Yovanovitch, said Giuliani invited Tymoshenko to discuss former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter and his work for the Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings — suggesting there may have been more to the agenda yet to be disclosed.

Livingston and at least one other foreign agent hired by Tymoshenko’s network worked with Giuliani for Israeli firm Mer Security and Communications, which conducted a multimillion-dollar Congolese influence operation lobbying the Trump administration against sanctions. Naomi Decter Munson, a low-profile foreign agent based in Washington, D.C. hired by ITBC, was also part of that operation.

Giuliani remains adamant he never acted as a lobbyist for Congo or any other foriegn government, though he has made inconsistent claims about his participation in Mer Security’s foreign influence operations.