Tag Archives: Ilya Zaslavskiy

The PR Campaign:

April 2020 has witnessed a conspicuous uptick of publications in Western and Russian media in support of the Nord Stream 2 project:

All of these publications reference the release of results of an opinion poll and in English.

Who Paid for the PR Campaign? 

The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)

OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.

In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.

The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”

This OAOEV survey coincided with the November 1, 2019 appointment of Mario Mehren as the new spokesperson of its Russia working group. Mehren is a member of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream 2.

Mr. Mehren is also the Chairman and CEO of the natural gas and crude oil company Wintershall Dea – one of the two German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project (the second is E.On). It is a joint venture of a German concern BASF (67%) and LetterOne (33%) co-owned by Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan.

There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that these oligarchs have close ties with the Putin’s regime and its intelligence services.

Wintershall Dea owns stakes of gas reserves in Russia and chemical factories in Germany that rely on the export of that gas.

In this role as the head of Wintershall Dea, Mario Mehren met with the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller numerous times:

Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.

Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.

Who Executed the Polls?

The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.

Survey Claims:

Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.

While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.

The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.

The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:

  • Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
  • Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
  • More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.

What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?

With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.

Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.

Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.

In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.

Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.

Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.

Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.

Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.

What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?

With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.

While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.

Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.

With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.

Whatever Natalie Portman’s own reasons were for turning down the so-called “Jewish Nobel” awarded by the Genesis Prize Foundation, she did the right thing. The Genesis Foundation now wants to give a second award, this one for lifetime achievement, to US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg should also decline the honor. The prize is sponsored by Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, and German Khan, partners in the powerful Russian Alfa Group consortium. Alfa-Bank, a company in the consortium’s portfolio and Russia’s largest private bank, is under FBI investigation for what is widely presumed to be interference in the US presidential elections due to an unusual volume of communication between Alfa’s internet servers and those of the Trump campaign.

Accepting the Genesis Prize could place Justice Ginsburg in a direct conflict of interest in the event that the US Supreme Court considers Russia’s meddling in US elections. According to Western media reports, Blavatnik and Vekselberg, two oligarchs closely interlinked with Alfa, are likely under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Recently their company Rusal, and Vekselberg personally, were sanctioned. Alfa figures heavily in the dossier of the British intelligence officer Chris Steel and Khan’s son-in-law, a Dutch lawyer, was the first man convicted under Mueller’s investigation for lying to the FBI.

As an activist fighting the influence of Kremlin-controlled oligarchs in Western countries together with many other anti-Putin activists, this is not the first time I have urged leading western institutions to wake up to Alfa-Bank’s undermining of democratic values. For example, many people signed our public letter to Oxford University, where, in a truly Kafkaesque joke, Alfa sponsored a joint business award with Oxford’s Said Business School and Blavatnik opened a School of Government in his name at Oxford. I care deeply about democracy in the West and in Israel in particular. Benjamin Netanyahu and some members of his government are dangerously neutral on the global mischief wrought by Russian oligarchs. In fact, Israel’s prime minister is currently the subject of corruption investigations involving Len Blavatnik (for now as a witness), who has close business links to the Kremlin and Alfa Bank.

My family is Jewish and we don’t see much difference between the Gestapo and the various secret police agencies like the KGB and its current-day successor FSB that have propped up the Soviet regime and now Russia. Shortly after the Nazis entered the city of Dnepropetrovsk, they murdered tens of thousands of Jews, including my great grandmother Dora. She was married to a non-Jewish Russian who was subsequently employed by the Nazis in their passport bureau. After the Red Army came in, he then continued in the same job, a fact that illustrates how the NKVD, precursor to the KGB, often used the same cadre as Germans.

Dora’s brother Khanya was a Zionist who was kicked out of Ukraine in the 1920s and who took part in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. My grandmother Inna lost touch with him as Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made contact dangerous. Her tutor in medical sciences was one of the professors tortured under the so-called Doctors’ Plot in 1952-3.

On the other side of the family, my grandfather Alexander, an employee in the Soviet ministry of economy, was framed by NKVD as an Italian spy in 1939. My parents suffered anti-Semitism in the USSR and had many friends whom the KGB refused exit from the country. We finally left Russia for the US through a family reunification program. However, in the mid-2000s I went back in the naive hope of creating positive change in Moscow, where I ended up working at TNK-BP, an oil company co-owned by the Alfa investment group.

In 2008-9, the FSB, with active help from the private security services of TNK, directly controlled by German Khan and Mikhail Fridman, falsely accused my brother and me of being spies. The Kremlin and its oligarchs used us as one of the pretexts to oust 150 Western managers of the company and seize full control of the company, which they successfully did. TNK-BP’s tenacious CEO, Robert Dudley, refused to leave the country and was poisoned in the TNK offices by unknown assailants, and other westerners were harassed in various ways.

It was never proven that the oligarchs were behind the poisoning, but they certainly benefited from BP’s demise. They took control and sold the company in a shady, overpriced offshore deal – the biggest in Russian corporate history – personally micro-managed by Putin. These very oligarchs now award “Jewish Nobel” prizes and teach corporate governance in the West while advocating on behalf of Putin’s regime.

Justice Ginsburg and other US Jewish celebrities lured by Alfa’s prizes should examine the myriad ways these oligarchs are connected to the Kremlin and its FSB apparatus, and how severely they undermine the interests of the West and Israel. Alfa entities illegally traded oil with Saddam Hussein through an abused UN program and gave loans to Russia’s Atomstroyexport nuclear power exporter to build a nuclear plant in Iran. Until recently, they also gave loans to Russian military plant Uralvagonzavod, whose arms were used against Ukraine. Just two years ago Alfa-controlled Vimpelcom was caught giving bribes to Gulnara Karimova in an $800 million case prosecuted by US and Dutch authorities. Then Fridman’s lawyer was arrested in Spain on suspicion of further telecom fraud. German Khan has been cited by a UK judge as having used intimidation tactics against a TNK employee, while the US embassy and a former insider have alleged that oligarchs sent oil via Gunvor, a company of Putin’s crony, the billionaire Gennady Timchenko, who is now under Western sanctions.

In 1992, as Trade Minister, Petr Aven personally shielded Putin from a criminal investigation when he was caught with illegal trade involving the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. In 1993, as relayed by the esteemed, late social scientist, Karen Dawisha, in her book “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” Kroll Associates’ report to Boris Yeltsin “recounted widespread instances of ‘bribery of officials, blackmail, and the illegal transfer of currency resources to foreign banks.’” The Kroll report identified Minister Petr Aven as one of the officials.

Oligarchs have been employing lobbyists in the West and sponsoring many academic and cultural institutions, like Oxford University or the Genesis Foundation, to present themselves as “private” businessmen “independent” of Kremlin. But until recently, Alfa’s key entity employed the son-in-law of Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov and Putin’s elder daughter, while in Europe they employ the son of the ex-director of the notorious GDR’s Stasi secret service.

Alfa’s lobbyist Richard Burt, who is also a lobbyist for Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom, was most likely involved in making the connection between oligarchs and Natan Sharansky, who chairs the Genesis prize selection committee. Aven continues to sit on the board of the Kremlin’s thinktank, RIAC, together with key Putin’s men.

Investigations into Alfa’s role in Russia’s meddling in US elections may prove that they are innocent on that account but there is already no doubt that these oligarchs are closely linked with Putin and FSB. This is why my family is against their participation in the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial. I urge US celebrities to do their due diligence before dealing with Alfa oligarchs and call upon them to make the ethical choice.

This paper is a continuation of publications on the Kremlin’s subversive activity in Europe prepared by Free Russia Foundation. The first paper, The Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe, published jointly with the Atlantic Council, looked at Gazprom’s overall current tactics in Europe, including its pipeline plans, energy propaganda, and other policies.

Continue reading Corruption Pipeline: The Threat of Nord Stream 2 to EU Security and Democracy

When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, it was widely believed that Western-style democracy and liberal capitalism based on free elections, separation of powers and the rule of law would eventually take root in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and other regions emerging from the Cold War.

Even when ex-Communist Party leaders and representatives of Soviet security services returned to power throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the late 1990s to mid-2000s, mainstream political thought never once doubted the inevitability of democracy’s march across the globe. Experts debated speed and direction, but rarely questioned the ultimate destination.

Unfortunately, recent global events have shown that the post-Cold War flow of money and values was not a one-way affair. When the floodgates opened after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the post-Soviet swamp was not swept away but instead served to muddy Western waters. In most FSU countries, democratic institutions and national economies have not become as strong and transparent as originally envisaged—in fact, the reverse trend has often been highly and sometimes tragically visible.

The truth is that the West has largely failed to export its democratic norms and is instead witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own value system. This destructive import of corrupt practices and norms comes not only from post-Soviet kleptocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from China and other countries around the world whose ruling elites now possess far-reaching financial and political interests in the West.

Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative has just published the new report by Ilya Zaslavsky, research expert of Free Russia Foundation.

Read the full report at Kleptocracy Initiative’s site

As part of my work for Free Russia Foundation, I am carrying out research on two projects. The first one is devoted to influencing that Gazprom and its pipeline projects have in the EU. The second is an ongoing project called Underminers which focuses on agents of post-Soviet corruption in the West and will be fully launched in the fall. Between May and July this year we presented some of the findings from these two projects in Washington and in six European capitals. We got some insightful feedback and would like to share it here.

On May 24, our report paper The Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe: Implications for Policy Makers was presented at the U.S. Senate, where Senator Jeanne Shaheen formulated her long standing opposition to the pipeline due to its security implications for the European Union and transatlantic relations. A few days later Kremlin-controlled media outlet Life.Ru commented on our event with deceitful propaganda, saying that “Russian opposition lobbies new sanctions against Gazprom” and that the real reason for that is the greed of US LNG companies that simply want to replace Russian gas in Europe. Incidentally, just a few days ago this outlet was reportedly defunded by Kremlin which shows that lies do not sell forever.

Meanwhile, about the same time, Trump administration signed long awaited legislation to fight corruption and gross human rights violators around the world called Global Magnitsky Act. However, we at FRF remain skeptical about actual political will within the executive to use this instrument wholeheartedly against post-Soviet kleptocracies, although we remain hopeful that the Congress will not reduce its pressure in this policy area.

In Europe, we started in Sofia where we held two presentations at The Centre for the Study of Democracy of which the paper on Gazprom was the most publicly discussed. Bulgaria is heavily influenced by Russian energy companies and Gazprom’s proposal to extend Turkish Stream into the country remains one of the most contentious issues in the region. Our colleagues from CSD suggested that Gazprom’s pipeline projects by-passing Ukraine represent a financial and security threat to Bulgaria itself, not only to Ukraine, and that corruption of Russian energy companies has a pervasive negative impact on democratic institutions and domestic politics. However, there was a lot of discussion about the need for a wider and more coherent European and US response to Kremlin’s aggression. There is a strong pro-Putin faction among Bulgarian policy-makers that has been continuously supported by Moscow with money, propaganda and other destructive means, including through what CSD calls Russian amplifiers, i.e. Kremlin-connected kleptocratic operatives in Bulgaria.

Our next stop was in London at Chatham House and The Henry Jackson Society. The first meeting was under Chatham House rules, so without giving any concrete affiliation, I can say that there was a number of Gazprom’s European partners who advocated in favor of Nord Stream 2, claiming that it is strictly a commercial project financially lucrative to Europe, that its construction might give impetus to Eastern Europe to reform its gas networks after transit payments from Russia stop and that Ukraine has been “a basket case for 25 years.” We offered our counter arguments, claiming that Nord Stream 2 as previously Nord Stream 1 and expansion of pipelines within Russia for the South Stream had been highly corrupt and benefited Putin’s cronies, that such corruption at the expense of taxpayers would not be confined to Russia alone and is being already exported to Europe, that Ukraine has proven to be a more reliable partner despite Kremlin’s provocations in 2006 and 2009, especially in the last three years and that security implications of Kremlin’s gas plans are much wider than just bypassing Ukraine.

Discussion of post-Soviet underminers of democracy in London had to be timid because of the outdated libel laws of the country that really favor oligarchs, not free press and critically minded researchers, but the turnout at the event was impressive. I was personally surprised to see a former master of a major Oxford college who previously approved donations to the University from Russian kleptocrats but now seemed to have changed his views on this subject. The need to distinguish between corruption and corrosive practices and other key takeaways from the event was brilliantly summarized here.

At our next event in Warsaw jointly held with Za Wolna Rosja association and Buziness Alert we primarily focused on political and security threats of Gazprom to Central and Eastern Europe and EU laws, principles and institutions. Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, rightfully pointed out that German policymakers, when not talking to the press, treat Gazprom’s pipeline projects as political and so should each country in the EU without any pretense that this is only about economics and commercial gain. Interestingly, Belarussian TV station (not controlled by Minsk) covered the event in detail, showing that this Russian-speaking Belarusian diaspora also understands the problem and does not want Belarus to end up at the mercy of Gazprom and its partners in Berlin if Germany became the main receiving hub for Russian gas in Europe.

We then had a closed session organized by https://www.martenscentre.eu with EU parliamentarians from the ruling EPP coalition in Strasbourg (covered only by Latvian media as one of the organizers was from Latvia), where there was almost a total unity on understanding threats from Kremlin-led pipeline projects and corruption for European aspirations of transparency, governance and energy competition and diversification. However, one deputy said that EU is a hopeless place where we won’t be able to overcome the influence of lobbyists and politicians paid by Kremlin and that FRF should concentrate its efforts of changing attitudes in Washington, D.C., a stance that shows how bleak the EU picture is for some policymakers. Notably, as if to prove his point, we subsequently learned that this event was somehow crashed by representatives of Gazprom lobbyists and Russian diplomats who quietly recorded our discussion.

However, the most complicated event was in Berlin at the German Council on Foreign Relations where I had to face two panelists in favor of Nord Stream 2 and an audience which was heavily attended by Gazprom’s representatives, partners and supporters. We had to discuss some of the same points as proposed by energy companies at the Chatham House few days before, while Kirsten Westphal from Berlin fund of science and politics (SWP) offered a very narrow gas supply/demand view of Western European security and both panelists and representatives of energy companies questioned my “allegations” of widespread corruption in Gazprom and its export to Germany and Europe. This took place despite me citing concrete and multiple undisputable investigations carried out both by western and Russian independent media outlets.

Even more shocking was a remark of one of the organizers of the event to me that “your position against Gazprom was too American and this is why your actual points were not properly appreciated by the audience.” While I definitely spoke as a representative of the Free Russia Foundation and an expert on gas with a background in both Russia and the U.S., I think the commentator was actually right and the anti-American sentiment and ways how Moscow skillfully exploits it are indeed highly present in Germany nowadays. Luckily later that day we met with a group of Russian-speaking activists residing in Berlin that are not duped by Kremlin propaganda and appreciates the need to counter kleptocratic export to the EU.

Our last stop was in Kyiv where we did not have to explain these obvious things about the corruption of Gazprom and Kremlin’s subversive propaganda in Europe. The most prominent event was at Ukrainian Crisis Center together with local think tanks and Deputy Minister of Energy Natalia Boyko. While experts had different views on the actual prospects of Gazprom pipelines intended to by-pass Ukraine, all seemed to agree that Kyiv should remain proactive and its response should be focused on domestic reforms: liberalization of its own gas sector, strict abiding by existing international contracts and being a reliable partner keen to be integrated into European gas regulatory and business norms. TV and radio interviews showed that there is genuinely free journalism now in Ukraine capable of asking critical questions about our expert abilities, EU and US adherence to democracy and joint security, pervasive power of trans-border corruption and stumbling blocks in Ukrainian politics.

Notably, very similar topics – such as US and EU ability to counter post-Soviet kleptocracy – were raised at the Helsinki Commission upon our return to Washington, D.C. I have been raising the issue of influence of Kremlin-controlled oligarchs on the US for years, including lately on Trump’s administration, and was pleasantly surprised that this topic got attention and brought large audience to the event (see here) and comments from top-level experts like Dan Fried, a former top State Department official on sanctions policy.

Finally, the topic of corruption of Gazprom and Kremlin-connected oligarchs in the energy sector also got a brilliant coverage for a Russian-speaking audience, as an expert of the Free Russian Foundation, Vladimir Milov, who is a former deputy minister of energy, is now part of the main opposition movement in Russia led by Aleksei Navalny. Milov runs his own YouTube show in Moscow and his program on economy called Where Is the Money? is part of NavalnyLive YouTube program and has hundreds of thousands of views. For those of you who understand Russian here is an hour-long program from early August where we freely discuss all main Kremlin state energy companies and infrastructure projects and how they influence the whole region with their pervasive corruption.

We continue active research and exposure of post-Soviet corruption. The Free Russian Foundation is going to issue a special report on Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the fall, while the project Underminers will see a major boost for its launch scheduled for the end of September. Mark your calendars, as on October 11, 2017 Kleptocracy Initiative of the Hudson Institute will present our research paper on How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West (exact time and announcements will be provided closer to the event). This study seeks to provide some theoretical basis and key concepts for the very practical ideas of the Underminers project which we hope will educate about the export of corrosive practices from Eurasia and we welcome your interest and participation in this discussion and research.

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.

Continue reading Kislyak’s spider web of networks of oligarchs and Putin’s apologists in the U.S.

Vladimir Putin is coming to the General Assembly (GA) of the United Nations this month. This visit has sparked a discussion about his motives and intentions among Russian-speaking opposition figures and experts in international affairs.

Continue reading Putin’s values pose old and new existential threats to the West