How to Identify the Kremlin Ruling Elite and its Agents

Nov 16 2017

The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, has proposed a set of criteria as the U.S. government compiles a list of corrupt Russian individuals and businesses with ties to the Kremlin.

The list is set to be published in a U.S. government report to Congress in February 2018, as mandated by a new sanctions law signed by the U.S. President in August. Section 241 of the new sanctions law* requires a report listing “the most significant senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth”. However, the law does not lay out specific parameters to identify the “closeness” of persons to the Putin regime.

On Tuesday (Nov. 14), in an effort to explore this criterion, the Atlantic Council gathered at the Russell Senate Office Building, bringing together leading experts, including: 

Ambassador Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former coordinator on sanctions policy at the U.S. Department of State;

Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor at Georgetown University;

Andrei Piontkovsky, a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and a senior adviser for Free Russia Foundation; 

Andrei Illarionov, a senior fellow at Cato Institute and a former chief economic adviser to Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Fried said the report may be one of the most important elements of the new sanctions law. It has raised intense speculation in Moscow on who might be included in it and what that might mean for the Russian political and business elite and for Russia’s standing in the West.

He also said the report may persuade the Russian political and business class that they are better off by distancing themselves from the Putin regime and that it is a mistake to think that President Putin can protect them.

The ambassador also noted the need for clarifying the criteria for assessing ties with the Kremlin.

To this end, Mr. Aslund laid out the Atlantic Council’s proposed guidelines to U.S. authorities:

1) The person named is close to the Russian regime, measured by his or her involvement in planning, ordering, preparing, financing, executing, or otherwise supporting the aggressive, corrupt, or criminal actions noted above; or

2) The person’s fortune has been made through corrupt commercial operations with the Putin regime for the sake of personal gain; or

3) The person has held assets for Putin in what appears to be a corrupt fashion, even if he or she personally is not involved in the actions mentioned above, or his or her known personal fortune is not great enough to be considered of “oligarch” scale.

While the panel didn’t speculate about particular names that might be included on the list, Mr. Aslund discussed categories of people the report could include, such as those organizing mercenary forces in Ukraine and Syria and involved in cyber-warfare and disinformation campaigns. It could also include the oligarchs who profit from business ties with the Kremlin, Putin’s close circle from the 1990s, golden children, among others

Mr. Illarionov noted that Russian aggression has gone beyond the international borders and has become an international problem – therefore needing an international solution. Moreover, he said, the U.S. demands related to corruption and human rights violations are in line with Russia’s own laws.

“The criminal code of the Russian Federation is not too different from the criminal code of the United States,” Illarionov said. “Therefore, the crucial difference between them is not the conduct of criminal code per se, but the actual practice of written and unwritten laws. Too often today in Russia those who are guilty are not punished.”

Mr. Piontkovsky also supported an international response to Russian corruption, saying it could potentially improve U.S.-Russian relations. Piontkovsky explained that while Kremlin aggression often lies beyond the legal jurisdiction of U.S. authorities, the U.S. and European governments still have a powerful tool at their disposal – measures to freeze Kremlin-linked assets.

“Activists and leaders of the Russian opposition call for the U.S. government to hit the most vulnerable point of the Russian kleptocracy – their huge assets in the U.S,” Piontkovsky said.

“We have a classical Al Capone situation. You remember that your famous gangster was tried and sentenced for tax evasion, not for hideous crimes,” he said, adding, “the Russian ruling leadership is a collective Al Capone,  who can be tried here for money-laundering.”

______________________

*Section 241 of the new sanctions law, H.R. 3364, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, requires the U.S. administration to submit a report (“Report on oligarchs and parastatal entities of the Russian Federation”) listing “the most significant senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth”. The report is expected to provide details on individuals’ relationships with President Vladimir Putin and other members of the Russian ruling elite, as well as identifying corrupt practices and estimating their net worth. Furthermore, the report must also assess the emergence, leadership structure and beneficial ownership of parastatal entities.

The list is set to be published in a U.S. government report to Congress in February 2018, as mandated by a new sanctions law signed by the U.S. President in August. Section 241 of the new sanctions law* requires a report listing “the most significant senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth”. However, the law does not lay out specific parameters to identify the “closeness” of persons to the Putin regime.

On Tuesday (Nov. 14), in an effort to explore this criterion, the Atlantic Council gathered at the Russell Senate Office Building, bringing together leading experts, including: 

Ambassador Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former coordinator on sanctions policy at the U.S. Department of State;

Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor at Georgetown University;

Andrei Piontkovsky, a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and a senior adviser for Free Russia Foundation; 

Andrei Illarionov, a senior fellow at Cato Institute and a former chief economic adviser to Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Fried said the report may be one of the most important elements of the new sanctions law. It has raised intense speculation in Moscow on who might be included in it and what that might mean for the Russian political and business elite and for Russia’s standing in the West.

He also said the report may persuade the Russian political and business class that they are better off by distancing themselves from the Putin regime and that it is a mistake to think that President Putin can protect them.

The ambassador also noted the need for clarifying the criteria for assessing ties with the Kremlin.

To this end, Mr. Aslund laid out the Atlantic Council’s proposed guidelines to U.S. authorities:

1) The person named is close to the Russian regime, measured by his or her involvement in planning, ordering, preparing, financing, executing, or otherwise supporting the aggressive, corrupt, or criminal actions noted above; or

2) The person’s fortune has been made through corrupt commercial operations with the Putin regime for the sake of personal gain; or

3) The person has held assets for Putin in what appears to be a corrupt fashion, even if he or she personally is not involved in the actions mentioned above, or his or her known personal fortune is not great enough to be considered of “oligarch” scale.

While the panel didn’t speculate about particular names that might be included on the list, Mr. Aslund discussed categories of people the report could include, such as those organizing mercenary forces in Ukraine and Syria and involved in cyber-warfare and disinformation campaigns. It could also include the oligarchs who profit from business ties with the Kremlin, Putin’s close circle from the 1990s, golden children, among others

Mr. Illarionov noted that Russian aggression has gone beyond the international borders and has become an international problem – therefore needing an international solution. Moreover, he said, the U.S. demands related to corruption and human rights violations are in line with Russia’s own laws.

“The criminal code of the Russian Federation is not too different from the criminal code of the United States,” Illarionov said. “Therefore, the crucial difference between them is not the conduct of criminal code per se, but the actual practice of written and unwritten laws. Too often today in Russia those who are guilty are not punished.”

Mr. Piontkovsky also supported an international response to Russian corruption, saying it could potentially improve U.S.-Russian relations. Piontkovsky explained that while Kremlin aggression often lies beyond the legal jurisdiction of U.S. authorities, the U.S. and European governments still have a powerful tool at their disposal – measures to freeze Kremlin-linked assets.

“Activists and leaders of the Russian opposition call for the U.S. government to hit the most vulnerable point of the Russian kleptocracy – their huge assets in the U.S,” Piontkovsky said.

“We have a classical Al Capone situation. You remember that your famous gangster was tried and sentenced for tax evasion, not for hideous crimes,” he said, adding, “the Russian ruling leadership is a collective Al Capone,  who can be tried here for money-laundering.”

______________________

*Section 241 of the new sanctions law, H.R. 3364, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, requires the U.S. administration to submit a report (“Report on oligarchs and parastatal entities of the Russian Federation”) listing “the most significant senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth”. The report is expected to provide details on individuals’ relationships with President Vladimir Putin and other members of the Russian ruling elite, as well as identifying corrupt practices and estimating their net worth. Furthermore, the report must also assess the emergence, leadership structure and beneficial ownership of parastatal entities.

Lukashenka’s Ryanair Hijacking Proves Human Rights is a Global Security Issue

May 24 2021

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – THE KREMLIN’S INFLUENCE QUARTERLY

May 20 2021

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them, we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.

Criminal operations by Russia’s GRU worldwide: expert discussion

May 06 2021

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

YouTube Against Navalny’s Smart Voting

May 06 2021

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

FRF Lauds New US Sanctions Targeting the Kremlin’s Perpetrators in Crimea, Calls for Their Expansion

Apr 15 2021

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.