KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — In a back corner of the swank H Bar in Houston, near a huge photo of Brigitte Bardot with a dangling cigarette and a deck of cards, two Russian-speaking men offered a Ukrainian gas executive what seemed like an outrageous business proposal.
Andrew Favorov, the No. 2 at Ukraine's state-run gas company Naftogaz, says he sat on a red leather bench seat and listened wide-eyed as the men boasted of their connections to President Donald Trump and proposed a deal to sell large quantities of liquefied natural gas from Texas to Ukraine.
But first, Favorov says, they told him they would have to remove two obstacles: Favorov's boss and the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Favorov says he hardly took seriously the proposal at the early March meeting. The men, who sported open shirts showing off thick gold chains at a conference where most wore business attire, had zero experience in the gas business. And it wasn't plausible to Favorov that they would be able to oust his boss, never mind remove a U.S. ambassador.
What he didn't know as he sipped whiskey that evening was that high-ranking officials in the Ukrainian government were already taking steps to topple his boss, Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolyev. And two months later, Trump recalled U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat with a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader.
The gas deal sought by Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman never came to be. But their efforts to profit from contacts with Republican luminaries is now part of a broad federal criminal investigation into the two men and their close associate, Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney.
The Associated Press reported some details in October of the brash pitch that Parnas and Fruman made to Favorov in Houston. In a recent series of interviews with the AP in Kiev, Favorov painted a more complete picture of his dealings with Giuliani's associates.
His tale, corroborated by interviews with other key witnesses, reveals that the pair continued to pursue a deal for months. The campaign culminated in May, at a meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington that included a lobbyist with deep ties to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and a Republican fundraiser from Texas close to Donald Trump Jr. Three people with direct knowledge of that meeting described it to the AP on condition of anonymity because some of the players are under federal investigation.
The maneuvering over Naftogaz came at the same time that Giuliani, with the help of Parnas and Fruman, was trying to get Yovanovitch out of the way and persuade Ukraine's leaders to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter's work with Burisma, a rival Ukrainian gas company.
To achieve those ends, they sought to eliminate the safeguards put in place over the past decade at the urging of U.S. and European diplomats to help insulate Naftogaz from the corruption rife in the former Soviet bloc.
The story illustrates an essential backdrop of both the impeachment drama roiling U.S. politics and the criminal investigation of Giuliani and his associates: the decades-long tug of war between Russia and the West over Ukraine, in which geopolitical influence, natural resources and corruption are major themes.