|SAKCHAI LALIT / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS|
Just when you thought the Russia scandal -- you know, the one that eventually will take down the Donald Trump presidency -- couldn't get any more surreal, it just got more surreal.
The main characters in this real-life version of Pulp Fiction include Anastasia Vashukevich, Oleg Deripaska and Sergei Prikhodko. Among the secondary characters, and there are a slew, is Paul Manafort. Yes, that Paul Manafort.
Vashukevich, who as a high-end Belarus prostitute and self-described "sex expert" also goes by the name Nastya Rybka, is a former mistress of Deripaska, an aluminum oligarch and close associate of Vladimir Putin, while Prikhodko is Putin's deputy prime minister and a good friend of Deripaska. Other than mentioning that Manafort apparently owes Deripaska an awful lot of money, we'll get back to Trump's former campaign manager in a moment.
Vashukevich's 15 minutes of fame commenced earlier this week with her arrest for conducting a sex seminar for Russian tourists in the seamy Thai resort city of Pattaya. She ran afoul of the law not because of the nature of the seminar. Pattaya is a Lourdes of a sort in the Southeast Asian sex tourism industry, and Vashukevich's problem, according to authorities, is she did not have a work permit.
When Vashukevich was riding in the back of a Thai police truck following her arrest, she recorded an Instagram video in which she claimed she could provide evidence of Russian interference as "the missing link" in the connection between Putin-orchestrated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Russian officials, and Manafort and Drainer of the Washington Swamp himself.
Her allegation would be easy to dismiss except for a 25-minute video posted last month on YouTube by Aleksei Navalvy, a Russian opposition figure and Putin foe, that includes 2016 video footage of Deripaska sailing on his yacht off Norway with Prikhodko, Vashukevich (photo below) and other prostitutes in which the men discuss Russian-U.S. relations.
Despite Putin's efforts to block the video, it has gone viral with some 6.2 million views. Deripaska has filed a claim against Vashukevich and her associate Alexander Kirillov for invasion of privacy, which prompted them to split for Thailand.
Vashukevich says she can provide incriminating details only if the deportation of she and Kirillov is blocked. She claims that their lives are at risk, hinting darkly that certain Russians want to silence them, while Kirillov, who also calls himself Alex Lesley, has sent a handwritten note addressed to "USA Consul" seeking political asylum.
"Help us and protect us as quickly as possible because we have very important information for USA," Kirillov wrote.
Deripaka, who has connections to Russian organized crime, merits multiple mentions in my Russia scandal timeline. He and Manafort go back to 1995 through their friendships with Konstantine Kilimnik, a Ukrainian businessman who taught Putin judo, has strong ties to Russian intelligence and has been a sometime interpreter for Manafort.
(Manafort met with Kilimnik in New York shortly after becoming Trump's campaign manager, and Kilimnik later bragged to friends that he was involved in the successful effort by Manafort to water down the Republican National Convention platform on Russia.)
Manafort and Deripaska formalized their relationship in June 2005 when the oligarch began paying him to undertake consulting assignments to influence politics, business deals and news coverage in the U.S. and Europe to sanitize Putin's image as a murderous autocratic thug.
In 2008, they partnered in an $850 million Manhattan real estate deal as a way to launder money that eventually fell through, while in June 2016 Manafort, as Trump's campaign manager, offered to provide Deripaska with private briefings on the presidential race, creating a potential opening for Russian interests that has caught Mueller's attention.
In all, Manafort and Deripaska have done an estimated $60 million in business over the years, which is chump change for the oligarch but has been desperately needed income for the cash-starved Manafort and his right-hand man, Rick Gates, who according to a January lawsuit owe Derpaska $18.9 million.
Manafort is under indictment for money laundering, fraud and tax violations and is being squeezed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison by cooperating in his election interference investigation. Gates, also facing a slew of charges, is cooperating with Mueller and will testify against Manafort if he doesn't flip.
What helps make Vashukevich's claims at least somewhat more credible is that Deripaska has a reputation for hanging out with sex workers who do the weirdest things, like a certain salacious claim in the Steele dossier.