U.S. media has recently thrown a lot of light on subversion operations of Russian officials in the US. But even today, after waves of revelations of Moscow’s state-led hacking and other meddling, the focus is mainly on the ambassador Sergey Kislyak himself but not his vast and elaborate networks in Washington, D.C. involving top oligarchs and propagandists from Russia and sways of select American business, lobbying, academic and think tank top shots in the capital and beyond.
In this piece, I want to draw attention to some of those who have cultivated Kremlin-friendly views, events and networks in the U.S. for years, all with a large degree of help from Kislyak and the embassy.
This is all more pertinent today, given ongoing investigations into highly murky and (deliberately?) confusing encrypted connection between Kremlin-controlled Alfa Bank and Trump Organization.
The Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University (AU) is funded by Washington socialite Susan Carmel Lehrman, who has been close to Kislyak and Russian diplomats for many years. The Institute sponsors screenings of Soviet classics and modern Russian films at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, D.C., and hosts big social events: galas, parties, dinners and evenings geared toward networking. Susan is also the main financier of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (ARCCF), which also sponsors large and varied networking events, concerts, exhibitions and commemorative meetings that almost invariably happen with the support of the Russian Embassy.
While cultural events are an honorable endeavor, there are certain characteristics about the way these two organizations operate in the U.S. capital. Both entities get sponsorship from many Western and Russian counterparts. From the U.S. side, many are well-established corporations like PepsiCo, Mars or Phillip Morris that continue to have a business presence in Russia despite sanctions, plus some public relations companies like McLarty Associates.
Members of the latter have been advisers and lobbyists for notorious Putin’s oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, German Khan and their partners in LetterOne and Alfa Bank for years. The famous dossier of ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele correctly alleges that Alfa Bank oligarchs and Vladimir Putin are long-time partners and have compromising materials on each other, something which researches like Karen Dawisha, Anastasia Kirilenko and others have been exposing for years. Notably, media outlets tried to dismiss Slate’s investigation about secret communication channel between Alfa-Bank and Trump organization in October 2016 downplaying it as a marketing or pinging computer link. In our view, as the CNN investigation shows, this remains at best undecided and at worst ridiculous: even if we believe dismissive reports, how many U.S. organizations do you know that keep encrypted marketing email servers systematically pinging Kremlin banks?
One of McLarty’s man, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Burt, is an adviser not only to Alfa oligarchs but also a lobbyist for Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 in Washington. Incidentally, he also wrote a speech for Trump’s presentation in April 2016 at the Center for the National Interest, Washington’s think tank known for its soft “realist” stance on Putin. Three years ago and until recently Burt was also on the Board of another Kremlin-friendly think tank The Center on Global Interests along with Putin’s oligarch Alexey Mordashov.
Burt and Kislyak, together with other Russian diplomats are frequent speakers and attendees of events of Alfa-Fellowship, a program sponsored by Alfa-bank to bring Western middle-aged professionals for one year educational program in Russia. Alfa Fellowship cooperates closely with Rossotrudnichestvo, global educational program of the Russian Embassy. In 2013 The Washington Post wrote that Head of Rossotrudnichestvo in U.S. capital was investigated by FBI for espionage while many Russian opposition activists in Europe have on multiple occasions argued that Rossotrudnichestvo is often used as propaganda and subversion tool of Kremlin worldwide.
Among Russian sponsors of social events mentioned above, there are only entities and oligarchs that are deeply loyal to Putin’s regime. For the ARCCF, for example, these include Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova, Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Bank, Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries and his Blavatnik Family Foundation; Vagit Alekperov’s Lukoil Americas Corporation and Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s Sistema. It also includes Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti. Worryingly, Len Blavatnik, who benefited enormously from his ties with Kremlin, and his associates are lavish contributors to both parties in the House and the Senate, with over 200 donations in 2015-16.
In 2012, the 20th anniversary gala of the ARCCF was devoted to the theme of the 1812 Overture, where Donald M. Kendall and Susan Lehrman were classified not as sponsors but as “cultural emperors,” the Blavatnik Foundation as “cultural tsar,” and Russia’s state-controlled Vnesheconombank was among a group of “cultural ministers.”
Apart from H. E. Sergey I. Kislyak, the board of directors of the ARCCF also includes well known sympathizers of the Putin regime, such as: the Honorable Eugene K. Lawson, former vice chairman of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and the Honorable John R. Beyrle, former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. Notably, on 2 March Beyrle appeared to defend Kislyak to ABC news, suggesting the Russian is a diplomat, not a politician, although overwhelming evidence shows that Kislyak meddled in U.S. politics during the elections.
The Carmel Institute is also known as the Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC). Members of the IRC Advisory Committee also include Kislyak, Beyrle and another former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, the Honorable James F. Collins.
The executive director of the ARCCF is Alexander Potemkin, a former Soviet diplomat. As he was a cultural attaché to the U.S. under the USSR, it is very likely that he was an officer or some affiliate of KGB. He retired in 1990s and decided to stay in Washington, D.C. In 1997 he was already a director of the U.S.-Russian Cultural Fund, a non-diplomatic entity that organized exhibitions from Russia in the U.S. According to Kommersant, in 1997 Potemkin was a reason behind a huge scandal between the aforementioned Fund and the Russian Ministry of Culture. The scandal centered around tax evasion and obscured profits stemming from an exhibition of five Russian museums that Potemkin was supposed to handle on non-profit basis; he reportedly tried to gain commercial profit and hide it from the Russian ministry.
The executive director of the IRC is assistant professor Anton Fedyashin. His father, Andrey Fedyashin, graduated from Moscow State University of International Relations and started his career at the TASS information agency. As a child, Anton Fedyashin came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s together with his father, Andrey, who was then appointed as a TASS news-service correspondent. Andrey Fedyashin’s background suggest that he was some affiliate of the KGB too, as the position of a correspondent in the U.S. capital during the Cold War was frequently not indicative of solely working in journalism.
Anton Fedyashin seems to be fond of the topic of whether or not the U.S. should abandon its Cold War mentality vis-à-vis Putin’s regime. For example, the Russian State University of International Relations, which is very close to Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, praised Anton for his assistance with a series of lectures on this topic in 2012. This theme is repeated often in his numerous television appearances where he is invited as an American academic.
The most important implication of the ARCCF and the IRC’s activity in Washington, D.C., however, is the fact that they have invariably attracted only staunch supporters of Putin. These included two major events and meetings with several “trusted representatives” of Putin: film-maker Karen Shakhnazarov and Igor Buntman. When Fedyashin takes U.S. students to Russia, they also habitually get to meet only Putin apologists like Valery Georgiyev.