Foreign influence campaigns targeting the US raise disinformation concerns ahead of Ukrainian election

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Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky (SERGIY GUDAK/AFP/Getty Images)

New records reveal foreign influence operations targeting the U.S. allegedly intended to elevate the profile of comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky in the days leading up to Ukraine’s presidential election runoff scheduled for April 21, 2019, and pitting him against incumbent Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko — but there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) records identified by the Center for Responsive Politics and made public by the Justice Department on April 17 reveal that the firm behind the filings is Signal Group Consulting, a fully-owned subsidiary of Washington law firm Wiley Rein.

While Signal has registered with the Justice Department to represent a handful of other foreign interests in prior years, all of the activities reported in FARA records filed directly by Wiley Rein have one common beneficiary: Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko gained international attention after her imprisonment in Ukraine that was the subject of a controversial report and suspected disinformation campaigns uncovered in an investigation stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling surrounding the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The report, bolstered by a broader influence campaign by former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates along with lobbying powerhouse Skadden Arps, attempted to justify Tymoshenko’s imprisonment and resulted in Skadden’s retroactive FARA registration, a $4.6 million settlement for failure to register with DOJ, and the indictment of former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig.

Weeks before the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election, Wiley Rein submitted an amendment to DOJ admitting Tymoshenko has been the “principal beneficiary” of foreign influence operations for a mysterious entity called Aveiro LP and that the firm has quietly continued lobbying work for her husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko, “for the principal benefit of Yulia Tymoshenko.”

Wiley Rein’s long history with Tymoshenko spans back to lobbying work as a foreign agent of Oleksandr Tymoshenko from 2011 until his wife’s release in 2014. Although Wiley Rein did not report any lobbying for Tymoshenko for years until its admission to DOJ in 2019, the closely aligned mission of mysterious foreign principals hiring Wiley Rein in the years between raised speculation that the entities were effectively shell companies functioning as a strawman for an undisclosed client like Tymoshenko.

Following Tymoshenko, Zelensky is only the second major candidate in Ukraine’s presidential election to make an appearance in FARA disclosures as a foreign principal or beneficiary of foreign influence operations targeting the U.S. Although incumbent Ukrainian President Poroshenko does not have any active foreign agents registered under FARA, the statute does include several exemptions for foreign government officials acting exclusively within their official capacities so Poroshenko’s potential to exert influence in the U.S. is not precluded entirely.

While it may appear Zelensky has taken a page out of Tymoshenko’s playbook by hiring the subsidiary of her longtime lobbying firm, allegations of covert influence operations and disinformation campaigns swirling around the Ukrainian presidential election make the truth more difficult to parse out.

Citing a “wave of disinformation” in the days leading up to the runoff presidential election in Ukraine, Zelensky’s campaign issued a statement April 18 — hours after the FARA records were made public — that its team has not engaged any lobbyists or lobbying firms to organize a visit of its representative to the U.S. “We have no contact with Signal Group,” the campaign declared.

The previous day, Signal’s Executive Vice President John Procter told RFE/RL that the firm “began short-term work for Zelensky last week that includes facilitating meetings for the candidate’s team with members with the Trump administration and Congress.”

Registration records don’t include a contract, but handwritten notes in the registration materials price the foreign influence operation at $60,000. Activities detailed in the registration records include facilitating media interviews and meetings with think tank scholars as well as a “program of public relations and government relations meetings.”

The registration notes that Signal Group was hired on behalf of the candidate through a contract with an individual named Marcus Cohen, whose ties to the candidate and background are not immediately clear from the available paper trail.

Signal representatives have said Oleg Dubina — a former Ukrainian official who was appointed the head of Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz by then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and was allegedly forced to sign a controversial gas contract with Russia’s Gazprom — is Zelensky’s senior economic adviser. Zelensky’s campaign denied the claim.

This wouldn’t be the first alleged covert foreign influence operation targeting a Ukrainian politician that has been revealed in FARA records, coming on the heels of a series of secretive foreign influence operations bankrolled by networks of entities that appear to be little more than shell companies churning money to teams of U.S. lobbyists and foreign agents claiming to represent Tymoshenko’s interests but were alleged to be part of a campaign to discredit her.

Whether the Ukrainian presidential election goes to Ukraine’s incumbent president or the comedian-turned-politician challenging him, allegations of funny business involving covert campaigns and disinformation show no signs of going away anytime soon.

Procter declined to comment, telling CRP that Signal “does not have anything to add beyond what has already been submitted” in FARA filings.

 

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