Our latest efforts to counter Kremlin’s “festival of thiefdom” in the West

Dec 27 2017

In the last few months, we at Free Russia Foundation have made consistent efforts: to expose Kremlin’s corruption and subversive plans surrounding Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and to educate about agents of post-Soviet corruption in the West.

This article summarizes our results and is a follow up to our initial work on it in 2017.

As far as Gazprom is concerned up to July we have been promoting our joint report with the Atlantic Council on Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe, which laid out an independent and realistic vision about subversion activity of Russian leadership through the gas industry in the West. However, we quickly understood that that report alone was not enough, as many Western counterparts of Gazprom remain totally uninformed about rampant corruption of the monopoly that has spread into Europe in various forms a long time ago. For this reason, in autumn we analyzed key anti-corruption investigations related to Gazprom’s management and published a report with a self-explicable title Corruption Pipeline: The Threat of Nord Stream 2 to EU Security and Democracy

This analysis is only a tip of the iceberg. If we had to uncover the full magnitude of how Putin’s regime uses corruption to undermine EU countries in the energy sector, it would take a series of reports. However, this paper specifically deconstructs historical myths about Germany’s supposed success in transforming USSR positively through gas trade and shows never fulfilled promises of benefits from Nord Stream 1 inside Russia. It also challenges established consensus among German corporations and elsewhere among Gazprom partners that Russian monopoly will never succeed in bringing grand corruption schemes inside Europe because EU law enforcement and regulators are apparently so efficient. In fact, they are not, Gazprom has already brought its criminal practices into Europe and in our paper, we show how it does it.

In October we visited Visegrad countries discussing the menace of Nord Stream 2 for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as the pipeline will potentially cut off and disrupt not just Ukraine but the whole region to the east of Germany. In Czech Republic we presented at Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), a meeting which was attended primarily by officials from relevant government agencies, various Embassies and experts on Russian security. While the audience agreed with postulates about the extent of Kremlin’s corruption and meddling in Europe through energy, the overall feeling was that the Republic had turned away from opposing Nord Stream 2 to a quiet neutrality. Czech energy companies had by now invested heavily into new capacity in anticipation for the launch of the pipeline and want a proper return on their initially reluctant investment.

We arrived in Prague when an anti-EU billionaire Andrej Babic won in parliamentary elections, and since then there has been a fear that the country will fall prey to Putin’s influence even further. However, there are many other parties and views in the Czech Republic and we found that our vision is being widely shared. The battle for hearts is not finished and the long-term position of the country towards Putin’s regime is something worth fighting for in public fora in Prague.

Another country on the fence about Nord Stream 2 is Slovakia. Bratislava’s GlobSec think tank has extensively covered this issue. This meeting had fewer policy-makers and more local analysts who seemed to share our view on the growing correlation between national security weakened cohesion between NATO members and Russia’s use of corruption in hybrid warfare against the West.

On the latter broad topic Free Russia made a joint report with the Kleptocracy Initiative (KI), Hudson Institute called How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West and on 11 October the Institute convened different experts on post-Soviet space and corruption to discuss the issue at a two-part panel. Just a few weeks before that a preliminary copy of the report was presented to current and former U.S. foreign policy professionals at the Dacor Beacon House.

In Visegrad countries we discussed the KI report at the cultural festival “Kulturus” which resulted in a collaboration article with Prague-based political analyst Alexander Morozov Toxic Money from Kremlin: Where is the Red Line?. In this expert comment, Alexander looked at the issue that Free Russia monitors closely: what Kremlin oligarchs will be sanctioned under the upcoming Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the much-anticipated decision in the US government is slated for February. In a move that we believe is connected to CAATSA, today US Treasury sanctioned 10 thieves-in-law (kingpins of Eurasian mafia) acknowledging the extent of their power and penetration into politics and business.

In November Free Russia made another round of presentations of both reports in Europe, this time in Denmark and Norway. Copenhagen’s CEPOS think tank kindly gave a platform to discuss all burning issues that we wanted to raise and the turnout, as the video of the event shows, has been tremendous. One of the reasons for that was a pending vote in the Danish parliament on the fate of Nord Stream 2. On 30 November, just ten days after our presentation, the parliament decided that its foreign policy ministry can from now on prohibit use of Denmark’s territorial waters for Gazprom’s pipeline on the grounds of national security. We believe our report on Gazprom’s corruption that was passed to Danish policy-makers may have played its part in tilting the vote in support of the motion.

In Oslo there was a closed presentation of both reports at Civita think tank and then a public hearing on the adoption of the Magnitsky Act as part of 40th anniversary of Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). This great event brought together dozens of activists and researchers from CIS and EU countries. I talked about my research on Russian law enforcement officials that are already on U.S. Magnitsky list and how it showed that these people have been implicated in multiple cases abusing human rights and promoting corruption in Russia and beyond. I also placed that research in the broader context of the KI report mentioned above to show that violations in Russia go hand-in-hand with the multi-layered export of corruption to the West. NHC is planning to release select video recordings of the hearing shortly.

Finally, the year is ending on a very positive note – our colleagues have launched a long-awaited project Underminers. The idea is to publish 100 concise and easy-to-share profiles of agents and other intermediaries of post-Soviet kleptocracies that actively undermine democratic institutions and values in the West. The project was launched in early December and states two fundamental goals – to raise awareness among Western audiences and to increase support for the development and implementation of a comprehensive containment strategy against kleptocrats. The project kicked off with several profiles and an inaugural expert comment by Arkadiy Babchenko, a popular Russian blogger, and journalist, with a provocative polemical piece If Putin’s thieves become respected in the West, why should one obey laws? We expect this project to publish all 100 profiles in a speedy fashion over the course of several weeks in early 2018 (but without dumping all of them at once) and become a platform for learning and debate.

by Ilya Zaslavsky

This article summarizes our results and is a follow up to our initial work on it in 2017.

As far as Gazprom is concerned up to July we have been promoting our joint report with the Atlantic Council on Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe, which laid out an independent and realistic vision about subversion activity of Russian leadership through the gas industry in the West. However, we quickly understood that that report alone was not enough, as many Western counterparts of Gazprom remain totally uninformed about rampant corruption of the monopoly that has spread into Europe in various forms a long time ago. For this reason, in autumn we analyzed key anti-corruption investigations related to Gazprom’s management and published a report with a self-explicable title Corruption Pipeline: The Threat of Nord Stream 2 to EU Security and Democracy

This analysis is only a tip of the iceberg. If we had to uncover the full magnitude of how Putin’s regime uses corruption to undermine EU countries in the energy sector, it would take a series of reports. However, this paper specifically deconstructs historical myths about Germany’s supposed success in transforming USSR positively through gas trade and shows never fulfilled promises of benefits from Nord Stream 1 inside Russia. It also challenges established consensus among German corporations and elsewhere among Gazprom partners that Russian monopoly will never succeed in bringing grand corruption schemes inside Europe because EU law enforcement and regulators are apparently so efficient. In fact, they are not, Gazprom has already brought its criminal practices into Europe and in our paper, we show how it does it.

In October we visited Visegrad countries discussing the menace of Nord Stream 2 for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as the pipeline will potentially cut off and disrupt not just Ukraine but the whole region to the east of Germany. In Czech Republic we presented at Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), a meeting which was attended primarily by officials from relevant government agencies, various Embassies and experts on Russian security. While the audience agreed with postulates about the extent of Kremlin’s corruption and meddling in Europe through energy, the overall feeling was that the Republic had turned away from opposing Nord Stream 2 to a quiet neutrality. Czech energy companies had by now invested heavily into new capacity in anticipation for the launch of the pipeline and want a proper return on their initially reluctant investment.

We arrived in Prague when an anti-EU billionaire Andrej Babic won in parliamentary elections, and since then there has been a fear that the country will fall prey to Putin’s influence even further. However, there are many other parties and views in the Czech Republic and we found that our vision is being widely shared. The battle for hearts is not finished and the long-term position of the country towards Putin’s regime is something worth fighting for in public fora in Prague.

Another country on the fence about Nord Stream 2 is Slovakia. Bratislava’s GlobSec think tank has extensively covered this issue. This meeting had fewer policy-makers and more local analysts who seemed to share our view on the growing correlation between national security weakened cohesion between NATO members and Russia’s use of corruption in hybrid warfare against the West.

On the latter broad topic Free Russia made a joint report with the Kleptocracy Initiative (KI), Hudson Institute called How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West and on 11 October the Institute convened different experts on post-Soviet space and corruption to discuss the issue at a two-part panel. Just a few weeks before that a preliminary copy of the report was presented to current and former U.S. foreign policy professionals at the Dacor Beacon House.

In Visegrad countries we discussed the KI report at the cultural festival “Kulturus” which resulted in a collaboration article with Prague-based political analyst Alexander Morozov Toxic Money from Kremlin: Where is the Red Line?. In this expert comment, Alexander looked at the issue that Free Russia monitors closely: what Kremlin oligarchs will be sanctioned under the upcoming Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the much-anticipated decision in the US government is slated for February. In a move that we believe is connected to CAATSA, today US Treasury sanctioned 10 thieves-in-law (kingpins of Eurasian mafia) acknowledging the extent of their power and penetration into politics and business.

In November Free Russia made another round of presentations of both reports in Europe, this time in Denmark and Norway. Copenhagen’s CEPOS think tank kindly gave a platform to discuss all burning issues that we wanted to raise and the turnout, as the video of the event shows, has been tremendous. One of the reasons for that was a pending vote in the Danish parliament on the fate of Nord Stream 2. On 30 November, just ten days after our presentation, the parliament decided that its foreign policy ministry can from now on prohibit use of Denmark’s territorial waters for Gazprom’s pipeline on the grounds of national security. We believe our report on Gazprom’s corruption that was passed to Danish policy-makers may have played its part in tilting the vote in support of the motion.

In Oslo there was a closed presentation of both reports at Civita think tank and then a public hearing on the adoption of the Magnitsky Act as part of 40th anniversary of Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). This great event brought together dozens of activists and researchers from CIS and EU countries. I talked about my research on Russian law enforcement officials that are already on U.S. Magnitsky list and how it showed that these people have been implicated in multiple cases abusing human rights and promoting corruption in Russia and beyond. I also placed that research in the broader context of the KI report mentioned above to show that violations in Russia go hand-in-hand with the multi-layered export of corruption to the West. NHC is planning to release select video recordings of the hearing shortly.

Finally, the year is ending on a very positive note – our colleagues have launched a long-awaited project Underminers. The idea is to publish 100 concise and easy-to-share profiles of agents and other intermediaries of post-Soviet kleptocracies that actively undermine democratic institutions and values in the West. The project was launched in early December and states two fundamental goals – to raise awareness among Western audiences and to increase support for the development and implementation of a comprehensive containment strategy against kleptocrats. The project kicked off with several profiles and an inaugural expert comment by Arkadiy Babchenko, a popular Russian blogger, and journalist, with a provocative polemical piece If Putin’s thieves become respected in the West, why should one obey laws? We expect this project to publish all 100 profiles in a speedy fashion over the course of several weeks in early 2018 (but without dumping all of them at once) and become a platform for learning and debate.

by Ilya Zaslavsky

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.