By Simon Shuster/Kyiv
July 7, 2021
On the second night of his visit to Kyiv, Erik Prince had a dinner date on his agenda. A few of his Ukrainian associates had arranged to meet the American billionaire at the Vodka Grill that evening, Feb. 23, 2020. The choice of venue seemed unusual. The Vodka Grill, a since-defunct nightclub next to a KFC franchise in a rough part of town, rarely saw patrons as powerful as Prince.
As the party got seated inside a private karaoke room on the second floor, Igor Novikov, who was then a top adviser to Ukraine’s President, remembers feeling a little nervous. He had done some reading about Blackwater, the private military company Prince had founded in 1997, and he knew about the massacre its troops had perpetrated during the U.S. war in Iraq. Coming face to face that night with the world’s most prominent soldier of fortune, Novikov remembers thinking: “What does this guy want from us?”
It soon became clear that Prince wanted a lot from Ukraine. According to interviews with close associates and confidential documents detailing his ambitions, Prince hoped to hire Ukraine’s combat veterans into a private military company. Prince also wanted a big piece of Ukraine’s military-industrial complex, including factories that make engines for fighter jets and helicopters. His full plan, dated June 2020 and obtained exclusively by TIME this spring, includes a “roadmap” for the creation of a “vertically integrated aviation defense consortium” that could bring $10 billion in revenues and investment.
The audacity of the proposal fit with Prince’s record as a businessman. For nearly a quarter century, the former Navy SEAL has been a pioneer in the private military industry, raising armies in the Middle East and Africa, training commandos at his base in North Carolina and deploying security forces around the world for the State Department and the CIA. Under the Trump Administration, Prince’s family—a powerful clan of right-wing Republican donors from Michigan—saw their influence rise. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, was appointed Secretary of Education, while Prince himself leveraged contacts in the White House to chase major deals around the world.
This account of Prince’s ambitions in Ukraine is based on interviews with seven sources, including current and former U.S. and Ukrainian officials as well as people who worked directly with Prince to try to realize his aspirations in Ukraine. Those business plans, which have not been previously reported, were confirmed by four of the sources on both sides of the negotiations, all of whom recalled meeting in person with Prince last year to discuss them. The documents describe a series of ventures that would give Prince a pivotal role in Ukraine’s military industry and its ongoing conflict with Russia, which has taken more than 14,000 lives since it began seven years ago.
The ones he pursued in Ukraine were among the most ambitious of his long career. But with Trump out of office, the Ukrainian government has slowed the process and invited more competition for the assets Prince coveted. “Had it been another four years of Trump, Erik would probably be closing the deal,” says Novikov, one of its lead Ukrainian negotiators.
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