Lt. Colonel Tom Doman’s introduction to Ukraine, at 4 a.m. on May 27, 2006, was not a warm one.
“We had rocks thrown at us. Rocks hit Marines. Buses were rocked back and forth. We were just trying to get to our base.”
Doman and his 112 reserve Marines and sailors were boarding the buses after dark, with backup from Ukrainian special forces, to get to a compound where they would lay the groundwork for Sea Breeze 2006, a larger international training exercise set to involve 3,500 troops from the U.S., Ukraine, and 12 NATO partner countries. But hundreds of protesters seemed to have come out of nowhere to confront them.
The Marines ended up hemmed in by angry locals in Feodosia, a Ukrainian resort city on the Black Sea. “We had people jeering us and protesting against us until we basically left the country,” Doman says. The Americans couldn’t go outside; they couldn’t reach their supply ship in the town’s port. Some protesters wielded what Col. Bill Black, the Marines’ commanding officer, jokingly called “Ukrainian cocktails” — plastic bottles filled with diesel fuel.
“We did not want to cause an international incident,” says Doman, who was the Marine detachment’s executive officer. “Any time you put Marines out there would be possibly a flashpoint, because people would want to get aggressive.”
But the affair was an international incident nonetheless. After hunkering down in their compound for two weeks, the Marines boarded a jet under cover of darkness and returned home, their mission unfinished. The larger military exercise, an annual event to increase security cooperation between Ukraine and the US, was scrubbed entirely. President George W. Bush would subsequently cancel a planned trip to Ukraine later that month.
A decade later, the aborted exercise is arousing new interest: American diplomatic cables and Ukrainian prosecutors say the anti-US, anti-NATO protests that threatened these Marines were largely partisan plants, organized by politicians who consulted with Paul Manafort, now the prominent campaign aide to presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Manafort’s long-standing, lucrative relationship with the now-banned Ukrainian Party of Regions and its leader, deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, has been the subject of intense media scrutiny since his elevation as Trump’s campaign manager this past spring. But the Yanukovych camp’s reputed key role in the Feodosia protests raises serious questions about whether a key aide to a would-be American president was aware that his foreign clients’ alleged actions may have endangered US policy goals – and US troops.
“Ukraine wanted to come into NATO. We were trying to build our relations,” Doman says. “It was a total surprise we would get that type of [reception].”
A memo leaked to the Times of London on Wednesday suggests Ukrainian prosecutors believe Manafort actively helped to foment unrest in the incident, one of a long line of provocations they say may have contributed to Eastern Ukraine’s secession from the country and Russia’s interference in the region, known as Crimea. The reason for the protests, prosecutors say, was to give Manafort’s clients a domestic political advantage. If that was the aim, they succeeded spectacularly.
Playing politics with boots on the ground
Since the fall of the USSR, the United States has courted ex-Soviet nations like Ukraine with security and economic assistance. The annual Sea Breeze exercise is a major part of that strategy. It joins together NATO members and a few friendly non-members like Ukraine, under a program known as the Partnership for Peace, to coordinate naval, air, and ground forces. And it has never sat well with Moscow nationalists, who regard the exercises as an encroachment in the Russian “near abroad” — independent fragments of their former empire.
That uneasiness wasn’t confined to Russians. Many Ukrainians, especially those with strong ties to Russia, complain that the US-led military maneuvers give away national sovereignty. Which is why, when the time came in 2006 for Ukraine’s Parliament to approve the latest exercise, everything went sideways.
Customarily, Ukraine’s president — at that time, the pro-American, reform-minded Viktor Yushchenko — submits the Sea Breeze plan to Parliament, which gives it a rubber stamp. But in summer 2006, Yushchenko dragged his feet in sending the plan for a vote. Recent elections had tipped control of the Parliament to the nationalist Party of Regions, led by Yushchenko’s rival, Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych, a street gangster with a rap sheet in his adolescence who ruled through a combination of pro-Russian alliances and payouts to key Ukrainian oligarchs, had claimed victory in a 2004 reelection effort against Yushchenko. But the campaign was marked by scandals and rumors of vote-rigging — at one point before the election, Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned, paralyzing part of his face — and a popular uprising forced Yanukovych to yield the presidency to his challenger.
Still smarting from that defeat, Yanukovych found Paul Manafort.
Notorious in Washington and abroad as a laser-focused campaign consultant to Republican presidential candidates and foreign potentates alike, Manafort was hired to put Yanukovych and his allies through an image makeover, and it worked: In early 2006, the Party of Regions nearly doubled its representation in Parliament; if Yanukovych could bring some other parties into his coalition, he could become prime minister — and a major thorn in President Yushchenko’s side.
So when Sea Breeze exercise came up for a cursory vote in summer 2006, Yanukovych was presented with a golden opportunity. Without parliamentary approval, US troops headed to pro-Russian Crimea for the routine training event would technically be invaders. The vote came just short of the majority needed to approve Sea Breeze.
By late May, as the US Marines and their supplies landed in Feodosia, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was organizing its own people, as well as a coalition of other pro-Russian groups — even communists and socialists — to meet US forces with signs, rocks, and bottles.
“Any time you put Marines out there would be possibly a flashpoint, because people would want to get aggressive.”
An internal State Department cable from the embassy in Ukraine, published by Wikileaks, details how the Party of Regions both orchestrated and capitalized on the protests. On May 30, multiple party officials publicly denounced the military exercise as “criminal” and claimed — falsely, it turned out — that NATO ships were advancing on Ukraine. The following week, local governments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, dominated by the Party of Regions, began declaring themselves “NATO-free zones.” Other party officials quickly gravitated to Feodosia to join the protests against the Marines — demanding to inspect their supply ship, stopping vehicles coming out of the city’s port, and claiming — without evidence — that Ukraine was sending “special police” to crush the protesters.
U.S. diplomats immediately protested to the Ukrainian government, saying they were concerned “about the Marines’ security, comfort and impeded ability to complete the task they were sent to accomplish,” State Department cables say. Embassy officials complained that Party of Regions’ officials attempts “to get access to the cargo and to the compound where the Marines are billeted was unacceptable.”
“Our cargo in customs remains stuck. Our personnel remain confined to a sanatorium. Our joint and agreed mission remains unfulfilled,” another State Department official complained.
“The opposition Party of Regions” and their pro-Russian allies “do not wish to see the Yushchenko-led government pull off a joint military exercise in Ukraine’s most pro-Russian region, Crimea,” the embassy concluded. “Barring the development of serious security concerns, we should not give the anti-reform, anti-Euro-Atlantic integration forces a victory by pulling out early.”
“We were quarantined”
On the ground in Crimea, the Marines didn’t know much about the underlying political situation, and they didn’t especially care. They had a mission to carry out. Their advance party was supposed to start construction on a command post for the Sea Breeze exercise, complete with a chow hall and some meeting rooms.
“That’s what we do,” says Doman. “Build mostly one-story buildings — classrooms, training facilities… just building it so other people can use it for training.”
Instead, they found themselves pinned down by protesters who were accusing them of building a NATO base on their home soil.
“Ever since we got there, whatever the group was that was protesting, they would not let our equipment [though], or our building supplies off the pier,” Doman says. “We were quarantined into one building.” The Marines were shuttled into a decrepit hotel that they were told was a vacation spot, he says, “but when I say ‘vacation spot,’ I’m not talking like it was Sandals or anything.”
The whole time, protesters “were throwing stuff, playing music,” Black says. There were “thousands of people” involved, and as the days passed, it became obvious that “the project we were sent to go work on wasn’t going to be completed in time,” he adds. “We couldn’t go to the job site to work.”
Many of the protesters appeared to be “pro-Communist Russian,” Black says. “Folks there dig the Russians.” That was consistent with the US State Department’s findings, too, which suggest the Party of Regions had either helped mobilize pro-Russian Communist protesters or coopted their nationalist demonstrations.
Black also echoed the State Department’s conclusion that many of the protesters seemed to have been planted. “Their hearts weren’t in it,” he says, citing their ineffective diesel-and-plastic local versions of molotov cocktails. “They weren’t really sophisticated. They came there to disrupt the government, [to] embarrass the government.”
U.S. embassy officials on the ground noted “strong similarities among the demonstrators’ props, suggesting coordination and possible common funding. While including elderly pensioners who perhaps might have jumped on the bandwagon, most demonstrators seemed lackluster and only gathered in numbers at times when television cameras were likely to be turned on them.”
Despite the protesters’ apparent low energy, their blockade of the Marines ultimately succeeded. In mid-June, when they were supposed to be replaced by another unit, Black’s and Doman’s Marines pulled out of Ukraine.
“We basically waited out two weeks and under the cover of darkness one night got to an airstrip and flew home,” Doman says. “It was very uneventful in the sense that we didn’t do our mission,” though he and Black both added that they were intensely proud of the Marines’ professionalism and self-control in avoiding a larger incident.
But the damage was done. The US ultimately canceled Sea Breeze. The Marines’ replacements never came.
“These decisions came out of DC,” Doman says. “That’s how high the situation was.”
“Unfortunately the civilian population was extremely sad when we left,” Black adds. “We were there to do some construction work, build a new soccer field, children’s play area.”
The Party of Regions, however, was jubilant; it had scored a critical nationalist victory over Ukrainian president Yushchenko. Amid the political fallout, President Bush canceled a mid-June visit with Yushchenko, for fears of stoking the flames further. By the end of the summer, enough nationalist blocs had joined the Party of Regions’ parliamentary coalition to make Yanukovych prime minister. Four years later — after another Sea Breeze exercise was canceled amid similar protests — Yanukovych completed his political comeback, winning back the presidency he had lost in 2004.
“I am a campaign professional”
A high-ranking US diplomat, who says Manafort regularly lobbied him on Yanukovych’s behalf, suggested that Fusion investigate the Sea Breeze 2006 incident. As Fusion has reported previously, Manafort allegedly collected millions of dollars to closely advise Yanukovych’s Party of Regions on his electoral strategy and foreign policies from 2005 to at least 2014. Internal documents recovered from Yanukovych’s residence after he was overthrown and fled Ukraine in 2014 show Manafort was intimately involved in coordinating Yanukovych’s efforts at wider popularity and legitimacy.
In the Ukrainian government memo written last year and leaked to the Times of London this week, a senior prosecutor alleges that Manafort, in fact, “orchestrated” the Sea Breeze protests and other anti-NATO demonstrations, forcing cancellation of the exercise. “While I was in the Crimea I constantly saw evidence suggesting that Paul Manafort considered autonomy [from Ukraine] as a tool to enhance the reputation of Yanukovych and win over the local electorate,” the prosecutor wrote. Charges were ultimately not sought against Manafort sooner, he says, because vital evidence was lost after Yanukovych fled Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea.
Manafort now advises Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Though he stepped aside from his campaign management role earlier this week, Manafort reportedly still wields immense influence as Trump’s campaign chairman, brokering the candidate’s support within the Washington Republican establishment. Manafort has denied a New York Times report that he was paid as much as $12.7 million in cash for his support of Yanukovych, and he has criticized the press for scrutinizing his work in Ukraine.
“The simplest answer is the truth: I am a campaign professional,” Manafort said in a press release earlier this week. “It is well known that I do work in the United States and have done work on overseas campaigns as well.” As a Trump adviser and surrogate, he has argued that Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, has endangered Americans’ lives and would continue to do so with a weak foreign policy.
Fusion made multiple attempts to contact Manafort and other representatives of the Trump campaign, asking them what role, if any, Manafort played in the 2006 protests that threatened US Marines on Ukrainian soil and forced cancellation of the US’s military exercise. Fusion also sought to ask Manafort whether his clients’ alleged spoiling of Sea Breeze conflicted with his lifelong commitment to Republican government and strong US foreign policy.
Neither he nor the campaign’s representatives responded to Fusion’s requests.
— Deirdra Funcheon, Alcione Gonzalez, and Ingrid Rojas provided research and reporting for this story.