A former Blackwater employee connected to Erik Prince, the billionaire security magnate who served as an informal adviser to the Trump administration, provided security for Rudy Giuliani during his December 2019 trip to Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
The security assistance, which has not been reported previously, came as Giuliani ramped up his campaign to get President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration to open investigations that could damage Biden ahead of the 2020 election, and as Prince pursued a business deal in Ukraine that would grow his personal portfolio and assist the Trump administration in its foreign policy goal of limiting China’s power and influence, according to four sources familiar with his business endeavors.
BuzzFeed News left Prince a voicemail on his mobile phone and sent requests for comment to him and his lawyer by email; they did not respond before publication.
The newly surfaced connection between Prince — the brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump's education secretary — and Giuliani comes as federal authorities are investigating the former New York City mayor’s dealings in Ukraine and ties to its powerful oligarchs and political operatives. Last week, FBI agents searched Giuliani’s Manhattan apartment and office and seized several electronic devices. Giuliani has said he did nothing wrong. He could not be reached for comment for this story; his lawyer, Robert Costello, said he had “no comment.” It is not known whether US authorities are looking at links between Giuliani and Prince; an FBI spokesperson declined to comment.
Prince provided Giuliani with a personal bodyguard by the name of Thomas “Doc” Williams, who accompanied the then–personal attorney for Trump everywhere he went on the Eastern European trip, Andriy Telizhenko told BuzzFeed News. Telizhenko is one of several Ukrainian operatives who worked with Giuliani on his Biden campaign and helped arrange his travel to Kyiv and the Hungarian capital of Budapest with a crew from the right-wing One America News, or OAN, which was filming a segment for a series about the Bidens. Telizhenko was sanctioned by the US in January over attempts to interfere in the 2020 election.
Williams was added to the group by Prince at the request of Andriy Artemenko, Telizhenko told BuzzFeed News. Artemenko is another Ukrainian operative who aided Giuliani and OAN in their quest for dirt on the Bidens and information to support the Republican conspiracy that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. He is now assisting the FBI in its investigation, according to Politico and two people close to Artemenko who spoke to BuzzFeed News.
A cropped photograph posted to Facebook by Telizhenko at the end of Giuliani’s trip to Kyiv on Dec. 6, and shared widely in the media shows those two men with Artemenko; the former mayor’s communications director, Christianné Allen; another aide; and an OAN camera operator at Zhuliany airport before the group boarded a private jet to return to the US. But an uncropped photograph, obtained by BuzzFeed News, shows three other people who were part of the trip: Chanel Rion, an OAN host; Yan Aronov, a business partner of Artemenko; and Williams, the bodyguard.
Artemenko did not respond to a request for comment after telling BuzzFeed News he would return a call. Artemenko, who also goes by the name Andy Kuchma, and Aronov are both executives of AirTrans LLC, a part of Frontier Resource Group, a company founded by Erik Prince. OAN’s Rion and the network’s president, Charles Herring, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reverse image searches conducted by BuzzFeed News led to several other photographs of Williams, further confirming his identity. They led to social media pages that suggest he is a Marine veteran and an active member of a rugby league for retired members of the military. Furthermore, a 2017 press release announcing the addition of Williams to the advisory council of Protection From Abuse, a nonprofit security service, says he had previously served as director of special programs for Blackwater, the private security company founded by Prince that is now known as Academi.
Additionally, Williams’ Twitter account, where he describes himself as a “former adventure tourist” and shares content about Blackwater and Prince.
Williams blocked a BuzzFeed News reporter on Twitter after a request for comment was sent via direct message. Attempts to reach Williams via Protection From Abuse and his rugby team were unsuccessful.
As Giuliani, the OAN crew, and the Ukrainian operatives moved around Kyiv with their private security guard in December 2019, Prince was apparently looking into a potentially major acquisition in Ukraine.
The four sources who spoke to BuzzFeed News — Andrew Mac, a Washington, DC–based adviser to Zelensky; Igor Novikov, a former adviser to the Ukrainian president; and two other sources with knowledge of Prince’s activities in Ukraine who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic — said that in late 2019 and early 2020, Prince was looking into purchasing three aviation companies: Motor Sich, a privately owned jet and helicopter engine maker, as well as the Kharkiv State Aircraft Manufacturing Company and Antonov, both state-run aircraft producers.
While all four sources said they believed Prince’s acquisition of Motor Sich, let alone all three companies, was a far-fetched idea, he was interested enough to make at least two visits to the country in 2019 and 2020, meeting with officials close to Zelensky, according to Mac and Novikov. And helping him was his business associate with local connections, Artemenko.
“I remember him bragging about it in November and December 2019, in Washington and Budapest and Kyiv — I’m working with Erik, we’re trying to buy Motor Sich, and it’s a big contract,” Telizhenko recalled Artemenko telling him. Telizhenko said Artemenko personally brought Prince to the city of Kharkiv to see the factory there.
In April 2020, Artemenko was hired by Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, who also helped Giuliani with his smear campaign against the Bidens and was sanctioned by the US in September for attempting to influence the US election. Artemenko confirmed that agreement in an interview with Politico shortly afterward. Telizhenko and Novikov told BuzzFeed News that in exchange for Artemenko’s help in the US, Derkach was also using the leverage he had in Kyiv to assist Artemenko and Prince.
In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, Derkach said he was working “solely within the framework of my powers as a member of parliament of Ukraine — a representative of the people of Ukraine.” He said what he did to aid Prince was “in accordance with the US laws” and pointed to a registered lobbying agreement he entered into with Artemenko in April 2020.
Prince’s focus on the latter two companies has not been previously reported. The Wall Street Journal first reported his interest in Motor Sich in November 2019. Prince told BuzzFeed News in February 2020 that he was not pursuing the company.
But BuzzFeed News’ sources said that in late 2019 — and again in recent months, according to one of the sources — Prince was actively pursuing at least Motor Sich. The source who was aware of Prince’s renewed interest in acquiring the company described that idea as “fanciful,” since Zelensky signed a decree in January imposing sanctions on Chinese aviation firm Skyrizon, which has tried to acquire control of Motor Sich by buying stakes from its Ukrainian owners, and Kyiv announced in March that it would nationalize the engine maker.
If Prince had a shot at buying the company, all four sources said, it was while Trump was president; the company was of great importance to his administration as it tried to keep the advanced engine technology first developed by Motor Sich during the Soviet Union away from China. Besides engines for helicopters and aircraft, the company also makes engines for use in cruise missiles and drones.
The tussle over the company, the crown jewel of Ukraine’s defense sector, began in 2016, when Skyrizon attempted to take control of the company, buying 56% of Motor Sich, as it continued to transform and modernize its armed forces to eventually rival the US. But the deal was frozen by the Security Service of Ukraine on national security grounds in 2018, leading to the current confusing and complex situation.
The Chinese investors behind Skyrizon have brought a $3.5 billion arbitration case against Ukraine for blocking the sale.
The Trump administration’s campaign to block China from acquiring a controlling stake in Motor Sich began in 2019, and was led by then–national security adviser John Bolton, and Tim Morrison, then a top adviser on Russia and Europe on the White House National Security Council, according to BuzzFeed’s sources. Bolton and Morrison could not be reached for comment.
On a visit to Kyiv in August that year, three Ukrainian officials told BuzzFeed News previously, Bolton tried to persuade Zelensky to quash Motor Sich’s purchase. One of the Ukrainian officials described the US interest in the Motor Sich at the time as an “obsession.” Another said the pressure to block the China deal came as Trump and Giuliani were pressing the Zelensky administration to open politically motivated probes into the Bidens, and the US was holding up $391 million of military assistance and $30 million of arms and ammunition for Ukraine.
Mac said Prince failed to acquire the company because, in the end, he couldn’t get backing from the US. A second company based in California was also being pushed by US officials at the State Department as a potential and preferred buyer. That company’s managing partner told BuzzFeed News in an interview last year that it was in talks with a Dallas-based private equity firm to buy Motor Sich. But the deal never materialized.
Ukraine isn’t the first foreign locale where the alleged dealings of Giuliani and Prince appeared to overlap. Both men were reported to have attempted back-channel diplomacy with the regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro during the Trump administration. ●
Correction: AirTrans LLC is part of Frontier Resource Group. A previous version of this story misstated the company's name.