In the months before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an oligarch with Russian ties allegedly paid for locals to paint swastikas around Kharkiv, sources say. The effort, according to the sources, was part of a false flag operation to exaggerate Ukraine’s Nazi presence at a time when Putin was using it as a pretext for war.
The alleged plot, according to multiple sources, involved Pavel Fuks, a real estate, banking, and oil magnate who, the sources claim, was co-opted by Russian security forces to participate. Through intermediaries, Fuks allegedly offered between $500 and $1,500 for street level criminals to vandalize city streets with pro-Nazi graffiti in December, January, and February.
The accounts of Fuks’ alleged efforts to stir up animosity in Ukraine is derived from multiple sources, including U.S. intelligence reporting. Rolling Stone spoke to an Ukrainian who says he confronted Fuks twice about the alleged swastika plot. Another account of the plot was relayed to the U.S. government in recent weeks by a U.S. informant with high-level business and government contacts in Ukraine. A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, confirmed that the allegations about Fuks’ activities had been received and distributed for analysis throughout the U.S. intelligence community. Finally, Rolling Stone spoke to four other sources who spoke on condition of anonymity and confirmed they heard about Fuks’ alleged role in a plot to paint swastikas independently of one another.
Oleg Plyush, a former top Ukrainian kickboxer who says he’s a friend of Fuks and spoke to him about the swastika plot, tells Rolling Stone he learned about the scheme from an intermediary involved with finding people to carry out the vandalism. According to Plyush’s account, when confronted about the scheme, Fuks claimed that “he had no choice” and that it was his “assignment” — mandatory if he wanted to stay in business in the region.
Fuks did not return emails sent to his business and personal accounts. His US lawyer, John Lomas, did not return emails and a phone call seeking comment.
Fuks is Jewish and a major contributor to a holocaust memorial in Kyiv, and there’s no reason to believe he would pay for swastikas out of antisemitism. Instead, if confirmed, the plot suggests there was at least one deliberate attempt by the Russian security state to manufacture evidence to exaggerate the sway of Nazism in Ukraine. In the run-up to the invasion and after, Putin claimed Ukraine had fallen under Nazi control and that the invasion was necessary to liberate the country — a claim broadly dismissed internationally but that, with the help of state-run media, seems to have taken hold among many Russians.
Plyush tells Rolling Stone he is aware of three instances of anti-Semitic graffiti that Fuks allegedly paid for. He claims the alleged campaign extended to Kyiv, where a local Jewish publication found swastikas spray-painted in November near the city’s main synagogue. Plyush said that the low-level “street thugs” who were hired to paint the symbols, two of whom he says he personally knows, were offered around $1,000 or $1,500 each. Other sources put the amount at around $500.
Plyush provided a copy of his passport and offered to testify under oath, if needed, to his alleged encounter with Fuks. “I have no fear. I’m not afraid of anyone,” he tells Rolling Stone, speaking through a translator in a phone interview.
Rolling Stone was unable to independently verify any specific incidences of vandalism connected to Fuks’ alleged scheme. Anti-Semitic graffiti is not uncommon in Ukraine and has been for many years before the current conflict. “Today it is difficult to surprise anyone with extremist graffiti on the face of Kharkiv,” a local publication, Vgorode, wrote in 2011. “A swastika here, a swastika there, here calls to kill some foreigner.” Indeed, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists have a long-standing presence in Ukraine. A party of Ukrainian nationalists sided at one time with Nazis in WWII; the leader of that movement has been lionized throughout Ukraine, including a birthday celebration held by a paramilitary group in Kharkiv in the weeks before the invasion. Nazi ideology permeates the notorious Azov battalion, which was founded by a far-right nationalists.
None of that, however, lends credence to Putin’s claim that Ukraine was under Nazi rule — or that Putin, who presides over a country with a sizable far-right problem of its own, was sincerely motivated by anti-Nazi sentiment when he launched his invasion on Feb. 24. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, and Ukraine criminalized anti-Semitism last year. Instead, Putin’s invasion is widely understood as an effort to exert Russia’s regional hegemony, a pre-emptive strike on a neighboring state that had reoriented to build closer ties with the West.
Desecrating Jewish sites and using Nazi symbols to foment unrest is a known subversive tactic employed by Russian intelligence, often referred to as “active measures.” Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, revealed in his memoir, Spymaster, that Soviet spies had synagogues in New York and Washington vandalized during the Cold War. KGB officers paid American agents to paint swastikas on synagogues to show that the United States was inhospitable to Jews. The KGB’s New York station even hired people to desecrate Jewish cemeteries, Kalugin wrote.
“We did it everywhere, wherever we could in the old days,” Kalugin tells Rolling Stone. Putin’s call to “denazify” Ukraine is a modern-day example of Russia’s “active measures” used to show the other side as much worse than it really is, Kalugin says.
Fuks’ alleged involvement in the Kharkiv operation adds another chapter to a controversial business tycoon with powerful friends, powerful enemies, and a long list of ugly legal battles.
Fuks says he was denied entry in 2017 into the United States and also testified that he was hit with a five-year travel ban. US authorities have not explained why he was denied entry, and Fuks believes it’s the work of his enemies. In a previously unreported development, a U.S. official tells Rolling Stone that Fuks was denied entry to the United States because of ties to Russian organized criminal groups. (A representative of U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not return a message left seeking comment.)
“Honestly, he’s mafia, it’s the most simple way to say it,” Olga Lautman, senior fellow at the nonprofit Center for European Policy Analysis, told The Daily Beast.
Allegations about Fuks having ties to Russian organized crime also surfaced in a lawsuit filed in California state court in Orange County by a former business associate who alleged Fuks is an affiliate of East European criminal organizations, an agent of Russian intelligence services, and a money launderer. (The judge hearing the evidence has not yet ruled in the case.) Fuks posted on his Telegram channel that the former business associate is “a fraudster.” Fuks suggested that the allegations against him were made in response to a separate lawsuit Fuks had filed against the former associate, Yuri Vanetik.
Russian intelligence services have a long history of co-opting those connected with organized crime. Kalugin, the former KGB general, says he wouldn’t be surprised if they were using the same playbook today. “As you know, President Putin is part of the Russian so-called ‘culture’ of conducting wars, real ones and propaganda, just like in the USSR,” Kalugin says. “He is part of this old Russian generation that is trying to restore as much as he can of this Soviet life.”
Fuks has a fearsome reputation in Ukraine, where he is reportedly known in some circles by his alias “Mercenary.” Several sources in Ukraine spoke to Rolling Stone about Fuks on condition of anonymity because they say Fuks is known in the country for seeking vengeance against people who crossed him. He once told a TV interviewer that he punished some of his workers who refused to stop smoking by having them eat their cigarette butts. A defense witness in Fuk’s lawsuit against Vanetik testified in September that he heard Fuks threaten Vanetik, saying he was going to “do him in.” (During the trial, Fuks denied making the threats.) “When I was young, I beat people up,” Fuks once said on Russian television, according to an investigative profile by Al Jazeera. “I don’t like it when someone lies to me.”
“Fuks is widely viewed by many in Kyiv to be basically a gangster and, despite his denials over the last three years, his money is basically tied up in Russia,” said Vladislav Davidzon, author of a book on Ukraine and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Center. “His reputation in Ukraine is currently terrible.”
Russia had been a second home for Fuks. He made his fortune there in real estate and banking and held Russian citizenship. Fuks has said that he sold his businesses in Russia and returned to Ukraine in 2014 to pursue new opportunities. Another version of events is that Fuks left Russia trailed by huge debts and allegations of fraud. A warrant was issued for his arrest in Russia for allegedly embezzling $220 million, but Fuks testified that it had been rescinded. At one point, Russia also imposed sanctions on Fuks. Last year, he said he had renounced his Russian citizenship. His current whereabouts are unclear.
It’s widely believed “that he’s a Russian-backed guy and that he’s involved in some murky and not transparent businesses somehow related to Russian interests,” says a former senior executive at the Ukrainian state-owned energy giant, Neftogaz, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Fuks’ role as the general director of a large Moscow development company in the 2000s led to meetings with Donald Trump to negotiate a Trump tower in the Russian capital. The deal fell apart after Trump demanded $20 million up front in 2006 for the right to use his name, according to an account Fuks provided to Bloomberg. A former Trump executive told Newsweek in 2016 that the Trump Organization maintained links with Fuks over the years.
In 2016, Fuks was in Washington for Trump’s inauguration, which reportedly attracted attention from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He claims he paid $200,000 for a VIP package he thought included tickets to the swearing-in ceremony, but ended up watching the event from a hotel bar.
A spokesman for the former president did not respond to a request for comment.
Fuks’ introduction to Rudy Giuilani came when he hired the former New York’s mayor security firm. Fuks described Giuliani to The New York Times as “the lobbyist for Kharkiv and Ukraine.” That description has caused some grief for Giuliani, who is the subject of a federal investigation examining, among other things, whether he served as an unregistered foreign lobbyist. Giuliani has said Fuks mischaracterized his firm’s work: Giuliani Security & Safety provided security consulting services on Kharkiv’s emergency response system.
Giuliani did not respond to text messages seeking comment.
In another previously unreported development, a source with knowledge of the arrangements tells Rolling Stone that Giuliani told an associate he was paid $300,000 for his work for Fuks. Over glasses of expensive Scotch whiskey one day in 2020, Giuliani allegedly related that he had grown somewhat frustrated with Fuks because it took some work to get him to pay his bill. “We had to apply pressure,” Giuliani said, according to a source with knowledge of the events. The source says Giuliani didn’t seem too bothered when he was told that Fuks, like many of Ukraine’s elites, associated with criminals.
The source says that Giuliani replied: “They’re all criminals.”