Exclusive: How an Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani in a Plot Against the 2020 Election
Illustration by Aaron Marin for TIME; Derkach (Courtesy); Unsplash (4
BY SIMON SHUSTER/KYIV MAY 28, 2021
The accused Kremlin agent was not hard to find. It only took a few days of pestering him for a meeting in early April before his answer arrived via encrypted message, beneath a profile picture of a lion showing its fangs. “I tried very hard and found an opportunity,” Andriy Derkach wrote to me in Russian, adding politely, “if it is convenient for you.”
We set a time in Kyiv the next day, but he declined to send an address. Instead, he dispatched one of his bodyguards to pick me up in a black van and drive in circles for a while, weaving through the gridlock of the Ukrainian capital, before handing me off to two more bodyguards in the back of a luxury apartment tower.
Through a side door and up a few flights of stairs was a space that could have housed a start-up in Brooklyn or Silicon Valley: exposed brick painted in a shade of avocado, glass partitions, a foosball table, a black cat that eyed me from its nook in the waiting room. Only a few of the details aligned with my host’s reputation. There were Orthodox icons crowding the shelves, and invisible speakers played a sound that barely registered, like the distant chatter of a crowd, designed to jam unwanted listening devices. As we sat down in a conference room, Derkach urged me to tape our conversation. “I’m already recording,” he noted flatly, though it wasn’t clear why or with what.
In the world of espionage, it’s rare to come across a spy with an office, a website and a story to tell. It happens now and then, usually when the spy has retired and written a memoir. But active intelligence operatives, especially those with ties to Moscow, do not tend to speak on the record while pursuing their mission in the field. That’s partly what makes Andriy Derkach so perplexing.
The U.S. government—under both Joe Biden and Donald Trump—has called Derkach an “active Russian agent.” About a month before our meeting in Kyiv, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all U.S. spy agencies, accused him of being a Kremlin operative par excellence, the tip of the spear in a Russian plot to sway the 2020 presidential election. In a declassified report, it said with “high confidence”—the gold standard for such conclusions—that Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized and “probably directed” the plot to help Trump win a second term. As part of this operation, the report concluded, “Putin had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach.”
Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach at a news conference in Kyiv in October 2019. Gleb Garanich—Reuters
Derkach’s efforts did not resemble Russia’s more infamous round of election interference. During the 2016 presidential race, Russian military hackers stole and leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, hiding their work behind proxy servers and fake identities. Derkach, a seven-term member of the Ukrainian parliament, worked in plain sight, often publicizing his efforts in the press as they unfolded.
In the fall of 2019, he gained access to Trump’s inner circle through Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer. He then provided Giuliani with documents purporting to show that Joe Biden and his family were involved in corruption. After their first meeting, Derkach even posted a photo of himself with Giuliani on Facebook, mugging for the camera as they exchanged a stack of documents. In the months before Election Day, he released a series of secret recordings of Biden pressuring top Ukrainian officials to fight corruption. The source of those tapes remains a mystery to this day.
The paradox of these maneuvers is that their brazenness helped shield Derkach: if he was a spy, his associates told me, why would his work be so overt? The allegations of election interference, Derkach says, are merely “rumors and gossip,” and he claims he went after the Biden family to expose corruption in Ukraine. At our meeting in Kyiv, I asked him several times about the U.S. assessment that he is a Russian operative, and he dodged the questions: “Let’s talk about your President instead.”
In the run-up to the election, the FBI and CIA both warned the Trump Administration that Derkach was advancing a Russian disinformation campaign. Trump and his allies nonetheless continued to amplify the narrative, initially on Twitter, Facebook and cable news and then, roughly a month before Election Day, from the stage of the first presidential debate. The online forums of QAnon, the cult-like movement of Trump obsessives, also promoted the Derkach material; at one point it appeared in posts from Q, their anonymous prophet.
The plot served multiple interests. Derkach could not have gotten through to American voters without help from Trump and Giuliani, while the Trump campaign’s attacks against the Biden family relied in large part on the ammunition Derkach provided. Whatever the truth of the U.S. allegations against Derkach, Russia benefited from his efforts.
Yury Shvets, who served undercover as a KGB spy in Washington throughout the 1980s, says he was awed by the events as they played out. “They got inside the Americans’ heads,” Shvets, who studied the operation closely, told me by phone from his home outside D.C. Derkach’s actions, he says, bear the hallmarks of Soviet and Russian tradecraft, and succeeded in ways that most disinformation campaigns could only aspire to. “They would have been popping champagne over this back in Moscow,” says Shvets.
The operation showed that, in the present age of American division, foreign influence campaigns do not need to be clandestine to achieve their goals. They only need to serve the interests of one side of the partisan divide, baiting Americans to welcome the help of a foreign power. The plot also showed how hard it is for the U.S. to fight back. The costs of running this playbook have been manageable for Russia—a fresh set of U.S. sanctions that evoked hardly more than a shrug from Putin.
As for Derkach, the fallout could be worse. The U.S. has not released any direct proof of its allegation that he is a Russian agent. But his activities are now reportedly the focus of a federal investigation in New York, according to a May 27 report in the New York Times. So far, however, the personal sanctions imposed against him for election interference in Sept. 2020 have not been much of a deterrent. He is still at it—still offering up dirt on President Biden to any American who asks.
When he appeared in the waiting room, Derkach looked relaxed, much younger than his 53 years. He’d ditched the business suit and thick mustache I had seen in his Facebook photo with Giuliani. Instead he wore a shaggy beard and a carmine sweater unzipped to the middle of his chest, vaguely resembling the Orthodox saints depicted in the icons that filled his office.
On the table in front of him, he had arrayed the tools of his trade in a neat stack of yellow folders. Each contained a set of kompromat (the Russian term for “compromising material”) about a specific politician, billionaire or public figure. The folder he handed me was labeled Reports About Record-Setting Bribe. Inside was a sheaf of papers—mostly press clippings, printouts from Twitter, and a letter that Derkach had sent to members of the U.S. Senate—accusing President Biden and his family of corruption. The accusations related mostly to Hunter Biden, the President’s son, who held a lucrative seat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was Vice President.
“This isn’t even the deep state. It’s a state-run corruption machine,” Derkach said with mild frustration, as though repeating things that should be obvious. “The machine is called DemoCorruption.” This is the term Derkach invented for his baroque conspiracy theory, which holds that Biden sits atop a vast system of graft that permeates the Democratic Party and colludes with George Soros and other Western billionaires.
Rising from his seat, Derkach uncapped a highlighter and began to draw schematics on a whiteboard, an indecipherable pattern of squiggles and numbers. To his right was a poster he had printed to better illustrate the theory. It had the shape of a pyramid, with Biden and Soros atop a panoply of U.S. and Ukrainian officials, diplomats, oligarchs and spies. “The only interest Biden has is to protect the income of this group of comrades here,” he said, looking at the poster. “If you want I can give you all this on a thumb drive.”
It seemed obvious that he had delivered this lecture before, and he smiled when recalling the time Giuliani was his audience. “Giuliani is a very capable lawyer. I appreciated his meticulousness,” Derkach said. “When we spoke, it was very useful for me. He records everything. He writes everything down in his notebook. He never relaxes.”
The pair first spoke in the fall of 2019, during the first impeachment Trump faced in the House of Representatives. The inquiry had been embarrassing for Trump and Giuliani; it was even more humiliating for Ukraine. A parade of witnesses, many of them highly regarded diplomats and military veterans, detailed how the President and his lawyer had pressured Ukraine to open investigations related to the Biden family. In an infamous phone call in July 2019, Trump urged his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to “do us a favor” by launching these probes.
The House impeached Trump for abuse of office, but the Republican majority in the Senate voted to acquit him. Giuliani likewise emerged undaunted. He carried on with his mission in Ukraine, merely adjusting his tactics. Instead of pushing Ukraine to probe the Bidens, Giuliani launched a renegade investigation of his own, relying on a cast of sources and fixers in Kyiv to help him gather information on the Bidens. Among them was a former diplomat named Andriy Telizhenko, a Trump devotee who shares Giuliani’s taste for whiskey and cigars.
His function, Telizhenko told me, was “just to help Mr. Giuliani connect to the right people in Kyiv, filter the evidence, what is true, what is not true.” The information came from every corner of Ukraine’s political swamp: local tycoons, political operatives, corrupt cops and prosecutors. “We were getting stuff from everywhere,” Telizhenko says. “Documents, tapes, you name it.”
The process for assessing this material was haphazard. Telizhenko, who told me he was on the payroll of at least two Ukrainian oligarchs at the time, would give Giuliani advice on what sources seemed reliable. They would then compile their findings and pass them to Trump’s allies in Washington, including Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and officials at the State and Justice Departments. As the material flowed in, Attorney General William Barr created what he called an “intake process” to assess its credibility. Two Republican Senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, used some of Giulani’s material in their own investigation of the Biden family.
Derkach seemed eager to get in on the action. In Nov. 2019, he called a press conference in Kyiv to talk about his theory of DemoCorruption, using visual aids translated into English to make sure the message reached a wider audience. The briefing room was small, but there were plenty of empty seats when I arrived in the middle of his presentation.
As he began taking questions, I asked Derkach whether he realized that his attacks against the Bidens could be seen as an act of foreign election interference. He looked annoyed. “These matters can be interpreted by different people in different ways,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”
News of the press conference was quick to reach Giuliani’s associates in Kyiv. Some of them were skeptical. Telizhenko, who was at that point Giuliani’s main fixer in Ukraine, says he repeatedly raised the alarm about Derkach to his boss. “It was the Russia connection,” he told me when I asked him to explain these concerns. “Even if his material looked good, it smelled terrible. It was all tainted by Russia. I explained all this to Rudy.”
But Giuliani pressed ahead. A few days after Derkach’s press conference, he got a call from an unfamiliar number. Giuliani was on the line, and he wanted to know more about what Derkach had uncovered. “He says to me, ‘Hey, what an interesting story!’” Derkach recalls of their first conversation, in late Nov. 2019. “‘When I get to Kyiv, I’d like to meet with you and talk about it.’” They set a date for the following month.
Andriy Telizhenko, who served as a fixer for Giuliani in Ukraine, in Kyiv on May 21, 2021. Oksana Parafeniuk for TIME
Had Giuliani looked into Derkach’s background—even with a simple Google search—he would easily have learned the basic details of his ties to the Russian intelligence services. Derkach had never made a secret of his past.
His father, Leonid Derkach, worked during the height of the Cold War as a KGB officer at a top-secret factory in eastern Ukraine that produced the Soviet Union’s most advanced ballistic missiles. One was a rocket the U.S. nicknamed Satan, designed to carry a nuclear payload big enough to wipe American cities off the map.
In the early 1970s, as that weapon underwent its final tests, Derkach’s father went back to school. He gained admission to the Soviet Union’s premier academy for spies, the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow. A generation later, his son followed in his footsteps. After finishing his military service at a strategic missile base, where nuclear rockets were deployed in underground silos, the younger Derkach enrolled in 1990 at the KGB academy in Moscow. (The degree he received was a doctorate in law, though his studies suggest interests beyond jurisprudence. The subject of one thesis paper, he told me, was how to organize meetings with secret agents.)
During the second year of his course work, Derkach and his fellow students faced a crisis of leadership. Hardliners at the KGB had staged a coup that August, seeking to overthrow the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist General Secretary of the Communist Party. The putsch not only failed in humiliating fashion but also precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union later that year. All the empire’s constituent republics, from the Baltic states in Europe to the borderlands in Central Asia, became independent countries overnight, each with its own government, bureaucracy and intelligence agency, staffed primarily by KGB veterans.
At the academy in Moscow, Derkach says, “Everyone had to answer the question: where are you going to serve?” Of the 16 Ukrainians in his class, he says, 14 decided to go home after graduation rather than pursue careers in Moscow. Derkach was among them. In 1993 he went to work as an intelligence operative in his hometown of Dnepropetrovsk, the fading industrial powerhouse where his father had served for many years as a senior KGB officer.
The following year, the Derkach family got its big break in politics when Ukraine elected a former rocket engineer named Leonid Kuchma as its President. Kuchma was a close family friend, having worked for years alongside the elder Derkach at the missile factory that produced the Satan rockets. When Kuchma ascended to the presidency, he brought the younger Derkach with him to Kyiv, appointing him to senior posts in his administration, including chief adviser on foreign economic relations, and helping him to win a seat in parliament in 1998. That same year, Kuchma also appointed the elder Derkach to head the Security Service of Ukraine, the nation’s main intelligence agency.
Leonid Derkach’s tenure as intelligence chief was brief. Secret recordings made inside Kuchma’s office by a rogue bodyguard and leaked to the press in Nov. 2000 showed President Kuchma and Derkach discussing their ties to the Russian mafia. The recordings also implicated both of them in the murder of an investigative journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless, mutilated body had been found weeks earlier in a forest outside Kyiv.
Leonid Derkach and President Kuchma both denied any connection either to that murder or to Russian organized crime. But their reputations were forever marred by what became known as “the cassette scandal.” The elder Derkach was fired the following year. Ukraine soon got a new spy chief with no background in the KGB, Ihor Smeshko, who began investigating the Derkach family after taking up his post in 2003. Throughout his tenure, Smeskho told me, he maintained close relations with the FBI.
When we met on a recent evening in Kyiv, Smeshko had prepared a folder of material related to his investigations of the Russian mafia. (It seemed to be a habit among the city’s intelligence veterans, collecting files and passing them on to reporters.) He never brought any charges against the Derkach family, but the probe led Smeshko to believe that, following the cassette scandal, the younger Derkach had continued to serve as “an element of Kremlin soft power.”
Derkach has always denied this, and he grew evasive when I pressed about his ties to Moscow. He said he had “probably” met with Putin over the years at “some events of a social nature, some negotiating processes.” But he would not talk about these meetings in any detail. Only a couple of times, while discussing his education at the KGB academy, Derkach admitted how useful his skills and connections from that world remain for him today. “If I’d studied at the conservatory, I would dance,” he told me. “If I’d studied to be a nanny, I’d be changing diapers. But my life turned out in such a way that I was taught what I was taught. And I do it, in my view, pretty well, to a high standard.”
Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin speaks with Leonid Derkach, the Ukrainian intelligence service chief, during an April 2000 meeting.Reuters
The humiliation of his father did not seem to handicap Derkach’s career. On the contrary, the years that followed the cassette scandal traced a peripatetic journey, passing through the worlds of politics, industry and religion while often appearing to further President Putin’s vision for Ukraine.
While serving in parliament in the early 2000s, Derkach launched his own TV network and radio stations that broadcast in Russian. He did not shy from using his media outlets to attack political rivals. But he also invited them on air, embracing the public spectacle of debate in ways Ukrainian viewers had seldom seen before.
Though he says he enjoyed the clout and adrenaline that came with running a news network, the most satisfying work of his life, he told me, was not in television but in the nuclear sector, much closer to his father’s field of expertise. In 2006, the government appointed the younger Derkach president of a state-owned firm that controls all four of Ukraine’s atomic power stations. The job was demanding in part because of its historical baggage. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 had seen one of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors explode, spewing a cloud of radiation over half of Europe. International monitors and Western governments have kept a close eye ever since. For Derkach that meant dealing with visits from safety watchdogs and managing the trade in nuclear fuel. “It meant balancing relations with the Russians, with the Americans,” he told me.
Around the same time, Derkach began to play a greater role in Ukraine’s religious affairs. When I asked him about this, Derkach denied that his work with the Russian Orthodox Church had anything to do with politics. “It was a very personal thing,” he told me, describing his visits to a Greek monastery on the Holy Mountain of Athos in northern Greece, where Orthodox believers, including Putin and members of his inner circle, often go to pray for absolution. I asked to see photos of those trips but Derkach demurred. “It’s not something to advertise,” he said. “And I’m not a saint, most definitely not a saint.”
Starting in the mid-2000s, Derkach taught at the main Russian Orthodox seminary in Kyiv, lecturing priests about relations between church and state. He also sat on an advisory council that guided the decisions of senior Russian clergy back in Moscow. The council, created in 2009, had around 140 members, says Sergei Chapnin, who met Derkach at its gatherings. It was not unusual, Chapnin says, for people with an intelligence background to advise or even join the clergy.
For Putin, himself a veteran of the KGB, the connection between the church and the intelligence services has been an instrument of foreign policy. The Russian President had long made it a priority to advance the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, helping it to face down rival clergy in the struggle for Ukrainian souls. “The infiltration of the KGB was serious and deep inside the Church during the Soviet period,” Chapnin told me by phone from Moscow. “This friendship still exists, and it is only growing.”
During Putin’s last visit to Ukraine, in July 2013, he marked an important anniversary for the Church: 1025 years since Putin’s namesake, Prince Vladimir the Great, converted to Christianity and brought his pagan subjects into the faith. In a speech to mark the occasion before a roomful of priests and politicians, Putin argued that their shared religious heritage would forever bind Ukraine and Russia. He hoped it would also discourage Ukraine from signing an integration deal with the European Union later that year. “We all know what happened after the Soviet Union fell apart,” Putin told the hall of dignitaries. “Today we live in different countries. But that in no way cancels out our common historical past.”
The appeal from Putin did not win many hearts in Kyiv, at least not among its people. Although the government took his advice and refused to sign the E.U. integration deal, thousands of Ukrainians responded by taking to the streets that winter. One of their core demands was for Ukraine to build closer ties with the West and make a final turn away from Russia. As an adviser to Ukraine’s prime minister, Derkach was involved in the efforts to stop the uprising, and he voted for a set of laws in January 2014 that sought to criminalize political protests.
The passage of those laws only accelerated the revolt. A month later, police snipers killed dozens of protestors in the streets of Kyiv. The regime collapsed the following day. Its leaders packed their treasures into helicopters and sought refuge in Moscow. With a majority of parliament siding with the protesters, Ukraine demanded swift integration with the West, and Russia responded with force, sending troops into the country that spring.
Under Putin’s direct supervision, special forces began their assault by seizing Crimea, a vast peninsula in southern Ukraine that was soon annexed into Russia. The land grab marked a historic break between the U.S. and Russia. As part of its response, the White House entrusted Joe Biden, then the Vice President, to help Ukraine get back on its feet after the revolution and fend off further Russian attacks.
As the conflict intensified, Derkach left his advisory role in the Orthodox Church and stopped teaching at the seminary. He turned his attention to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, becoming one of its most vocal hecklers. He recalls a typical exchange in 2016, when Ukraine decided, with the encouragement of U.S. diplomats, to require that public officials publish their assets and incomes in an online register. Derkach attacked the anti-corruption measure as a form of American “trolling,” the latest sign that Ukraine had become a “hostage” to the West.
After Trump was elected, Derkach began insisting that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016. This theory had no basis in fact; it had first appeared in a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry a few weeks after Trump won those elections. Derkach devoted himself to popularizing it.
On television shows and in the halls of parliament, he insisted that Ukraine had colluded with the U.S. embassy in Kyiv to help Clinton’s campaign. He even tried to launch a parliamentary investigation of the matter.
Within Trump’s inner circle, Giuliani became the most vocal advocate of the fiction Derkach was promoting. Giuliani clung to these allegations for over two years, long after they were widely debunked as a conspiracy theory by senior officials in the Trump Administration. “I can prove it!” he said on ABC News in late Sept. 2019. Members of the Clinton campaign, he added, “were colluding with the Ukrainians, conspiring with the Ukrainians!”
Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, speaks to reporters at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 31, 2019.Eric Thayer—The New York Times/Redux
About two months later, on Dec. 4, 2019, Rudy Giuliani arrived in Kyiv on a flight from Budapest, passing through customs with a suite of advisers and a bodyguard. The impeachment inquiry had by then exposed the details of Giuliani’s plan to get Trump re-elected with help from Ukraine. There was no longer much sense in hiding it. As he prepared to travel to Kyiv, Giuliani even invited a film crew to document his exploits for One America News, the pro-Trump cable network.
William Taylor, who was then the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, says the embassy worked hard to stymie Giuliani’s efforts in the city. “For one thing, we urged the government not to meet with him,” Taylor told me. But Giuliani was no longer interested in pressuring the government. According to two of the people who accompanied him on that trip, their base of operations was a luxury hotel and spa called the Equides Club, which boasts its own golf course and equestrian stables on the southern edge of Kyiv. The place was secluded, allowing Giuliani to meet his sources away from the roving reporters, myself included, who were searching for him around the city’s more central restaurants and hotels.
The man who helped organize the trip was Andriy Artemenko, a Ukrainian businessman and lobbyist who resides near Washington and is well connected in Trump’s circle. He is a longstanding business partner to Erik Prince, a major Republican donor and Trump ally. “Rudy called and asked me to help arrange his meetings for the trip,’” Artemenko told me. “He was approaching it as the personal lawyer of the President of the United States. It’s not like he came as an undercover agent,” he added, pantomiming a cartoon spy hiding behind the collar of a trench coat. “It was all completely open.”
Artemenko, a Kyiv-born citizen of Canada, had plenty of contacts to share. One of them was Derkach, who told me he has known Artemenko since at least since 2014.
Once they were settled in the Equides Club, Artemenko began inviting guests to meet with Giuliani. Derkach showed up on the second day, wearing a dark blue suit with a burgundy tie and carrying a folder of documents. As he walked into the hotel, Derkach felt puzzled by the furtive atmosphere. “I don’t like secret meetings,” he recalled telling Giuliani when they sat down in one of the hotel’s dining rooms to talk. “We’re having an official conversation.”
To dispel the air of conspiracy, Derkach asked whether he could take a photo of their meeting. Giuliani agreed. The resulting snapshot shows both with stern expressions, staring at the camera as the accused Russian agent passes a sheaf of papers to the lawyer of the U.S. President. The photo caused a minor scandal in the U.S. media after Derkach posted it on Facebook that night. But Giuliani was not deterred. In February 2020, they met again in New York City, to film an episode of Giuliani’s talk show, “Common Sense.”
Derkach’s campaign against the Bidens soon accelerated. That spring and summer, he released a series of audio tapes of the presidential candidate. Recorded in 2016, while Biden was Vice President, the tapes did not contain anything obviously incriminating or even particularly embarrassing. The first featured Biden calling on the President of Ukraine to fire the country’s top prosecutor or face the loss of $1 billion in U.S. financial assistance. The demand was consistent with Biden’s public stance against the prosecutor, whom the U.S. and European Union had blamed for Ukraine’s failure to root out graft. Biden’s request was even included in an official, public White House summary of the conversation at the time.
But Derkach painted the tape as proof of his theory of DemoCorruption. On social media, Trump and his allies ran with that message. The leaked tape was played on Fox News and other conservative media. Trump shared a link to it on Twitter, as did his eldest son, Donald Jr., helping to draw millions of views to the Derkach material on YouTube.
The material also spread on the forums of QAnon, raising particular alarm among some U.S. officials. The FBI had identified the movement as a domestic terrorism threat as early as May 2019. About a year later, a link to a Derkach press conference appeared as the 4500th post from Q, the movement’s figurehead, who hinted at the post’s significance for the future of the 45th President. “Worth listening (reading),” Q wrote on the movement’s main forum, known as 8kun, on June 23, 2020, the day after Derkach released the second of his Biden tapes. “The doubters will soon be believers. Years in the making,” read a related post from Q an hour later.
As the tapes trickled out, they fueled one of the central falsehoods propagated by the Trump campaign in 2020—the claim that Biden had acted improperly in Ukraine to help his son’s financial fortunes. No evidence ever emerged to support this accusation, and even Senators Johnson and Grassley, two of Trump’s Republican allies, concluded after a yearlong investigation that Biden had not used the power of his office to help his son. Yet the material Derkach and Giuliani promoted still became one of Trump’s favorite talking points.
During the first presidential debate in September 2020, Trump repeatedly hurled the accusation at his rival. “He threatened Ukraine with a billion dollars if you don’t get rid of the prosecutor,” Trump shouted. “You’re on tape doing it! You’re on tape!” Biden denied doing anything wrong, and the moment quickly passed. Amid the crosstalk, few people noticed Trump’s reference to a tape—apparently the same one Derkach had released a few months earlier in Kyiv.
U.S. intelligence agencies later concluded that the release of those recordings was part of a broader Russian effort to “launder influence narratives” against President Biden. From Russia’s perspective, Trump’s use of them on the debate stage was the climax of a campaign that had taken nearly a year to orchestrate, says Shvets, the former KGB spy in Washington. This was the moment, Shvets told me, when Trump had his chance “to fire the political weapon” that Derkach and Giuliani had loaded for him.
It wasn’t enough to cost Biden the election. But in the history of information warfare, it may be the only time a foreign power has managed to introduce a piece of kompromat into the spotlight of a U.S. presidential debate. As he delivered it live on television, Trump did not seem bothered by its source.
After the Giuliani raid, members of the media gathered outside the Manhattan building on April 28, 2021. Jeenah Moon—The New York Times/Redux
The fallout from Giuliani’s work in Ukraine hit home on the morning of April 28, when federal agents served a warrant at his apartment in Manhattan and seized his electronic devices. His lawyer, Robert Costello, told reporters afterward that the warrant was part of a criminal probe related to Giulani’s work in Ukraine. Investigators wanted to know whether Trump’s lawyer had illegally lobbied for Ukrainian officials without registering with the Justice Department, as is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Costello said.
In the months leading up to that raid, investigators questioned numerous witnesses about Giuliani’s work in Ukraine. Two of those witnesses told me the investigators were especially interested in his ties to Derkach. “They wanted everything – every meeting, every text,” one of them told me.
When news of the raid broke, I happened to be at the Trump International hotel in Washington, waiting in the lobby to meet with another witness in the case. Artemenko, the lobbyist who had helped organize Giuliani’s trip to Kyiv in 2019, had not yet heard the news when he arrived. He spent a few moments staring at the television screens above the lobby bar, which showed footage of federal agents outside Giuliani’s apartment building. “Not at all surprised,” he said once the images sunk in.
For more than a year, Artemenko says, he has been cooperating with federal investigators, telling them what he knows about Giuliani’s travels to Ukraine and his meetings with Derkach. It is not clear what, if anything, that relationship has to do with the criminal investigation against Giuliani. (A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan declined to comment on the matter.)
But well before the raids on Giuiliani’s apartment, the fortunes of his Ukrainian associates began to turn. Telizhenko had his U.S. visa revoked and his U.S. bank accounts frozen when the government sanctioned him in January over alleged election interference. In announcing those sanctions, the Treasury Department said Telizhenko was “part of a Russia-linked foreign influence network associated with Andriy Derkach.”
Three months earlier, in Sept. 2020, the U.S. had also imposed harsh sanctions on Derkach and publicly identified him as “an active Russian agent.” Giuliani tried to distance himself from Derkach the next day, telling NPR that “my work with him was over months ago well before the election.” (Giuliani did not respond to my requests for further comment.)
The government in Kyiv followed the U.S. sanctions with its own, revoking the licenses of television channels that had broadcast Derkach’s claims against the Bidens. President Zelensky says investigators are working on the case in Kyiv. “Ukraine needs to do everything it can. It needs to turn this case inside out, finding the slightest reason to say: ‘There! Derkach committed this and that,’” the President told me a few days before my meeting with Derkach.
Ukrainian investigators are still trying to understand how the alleged Russian agent got his hands on those recordings of Biden in the first place, and whether any crimes were committed as part of the apparent leak. “This was the biggest problem,” Zelensky says. “With whose permission was [Biden] taped at the time? And how did those tapes get from the office of the President to someone else?”
On that question, Derkach has stuck to the same improbable answer. He says he got the tapes from “investigative journalists” who were so afraid to publish the tapes that they handed them over to Derkach. Two of Ukraine’s best investigative journalists told me this explanation made no sense: publishing the tapes would not be dangerous in Ukraine, and even if there were some risk of backlash, Derkach would not be the person they would turn to for help.
Still, the cover story has provided Derkach a level of protection, allowing him to don the mantle of free speech and investigative journalism. The declassified report from U.S. intelligence agencies does not suggest any alternative for where Derkach could have gotten those tapes, and the Director of National Intelligence has declined to release the evidence supporting its allegations about Derkach. Even if New York prosecutors end up indicting him as part of their reported investigation, it’s far from clear whether Derkach can be brought to trial.
About a month after our interview, Derkach abruptly cancelled a scheduled photo shoot with a TIME photographer, saying he had been forced to leave Ukraine in a hurry. “That’s how the circumstances have unfolded,” he wrote to me. I was reminded of the suddenness of that departure after the New York Times reported he was under federal investigation. I wrote to ask whether he knew about the investigation when he left Ukraine, and whether he had gone to Russia, which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. Derkach would only say he was not in Russia, and called the question “provocative.”
Up to now, the worst consequences he has faced for his role in the 2020 presidential race are the U.S. sanctions imposed against him, and he concedes that these have caused him considerable pain. What hurts the most, he told me, is the impact on family members who had no connection to his work with Giuliani. Derkach’s father, who recently underwent an amputation due to severe diabetes, can no longer travel to the U.S. for medical treatment. His daughter, who studied journalism at the University of Southern California and maintained a home nearby, also had her U.S. visa revoked. Derkach was even forced to take his 10-year-old son out of a private school in Kyiv affiliated with the U.S. embassy there. (The school did not reply to my request for comment.)
As he described his final meeting with the school’s director, Derkach’s look of wry indifference lifted for a moment to reveal a flash of anger. “Explain it to me,” he demanded. “These people from the U.S. embassy, when they wage revenge against my children, are they building a democratic society?”
Maybe not. Maybe they are just trying to deter others from meddling in a U.S. election. Their actions may not seem fair to Derkach. But to President Biden, the attacks and accusations against his son may also have felt like a sucker punch. “That’s not exactly right,” Derkach said, snapping back into the narrative he had invited me to hear. “It’s not only about Biden. The main thing is the scheme of DemoCorruption. Biden is just the personification of this. He is its god. The system is bigger than him.”
No matter the cost, Derkach intends to continue attacking that system and publicizing his attacks by any means he can. Two days after we met, he sent me a link to a statement he had posted on his website. It claimed, in flawless English, that during the U.S. presidential race he had released only a fraction of the Biden tapes at his disposal. “There are still five hours more.”