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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.
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.
Erik Prince walks to a closed-door House Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30, 2017. Aaron P. Bernstein—Bloomberg/Getty Images
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 documents detail several previously unreported ventures that Prince and his partners wanted the Ukrainian government to approve. One proposal would create a new private military company that would draw personnel from among the veterans of the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Another deal would build a new munitions factory in Ukraine, while a third would consolidate Ukraine’s leading aviation and aerospace firms into a consortium that could compete with “the likes of Boeing and Airbus.”
At least one of Prince’s offers to Ukraine appeared to be in line with U.S. geopolitical interests. As the Wall Street Journal first reported in Nov. 2019, Prince has been competing against a Chinese firm to buy a Ukrainian factory called Motor Sich, which produces advanced aircraft engines. China sought those engines to develop its air force. The U.S., concerned about the rapid growth of the Chinese military, has long urged Ukraine not to complete the sale. Prince emerged as the American alternative, offering to save the factory from China’s clutches.
But the Ukrainians had serious concerns about working with Prince, according to three people involved in the negotiations. Prince’s choice of allies in Kyiv—two men with ties to Russia—raised particular alarm. His Ukrainian business partner is Andriy Artemenko, who made headlines in 2017 by offering the Trump Administration a “peace plan” for the war in Ukraine that envisioned ways for the U.S. to lift sanctions against Russia. Another Prince ally in Kyiv was Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian legislator whom the U.S. has accused of being an “active Russian agent.” Both Artemenko and Derkach worked to advance Prince’s business ventures in Ukraine last year.