Tag Archives: Oligarchs

WEDNESDAY APRIL 29, 2020

11:00 – 12:00 EST / 17:00 – 18:00 CET

LIVE WEBCAST – AMERICA: PUTIN’S OLIGARCHS’ PLAYGROUND

Register for free to receive the webcast url

America has become a safe harbor for incredibly wealthy men who made billions from their post-Soviet homelands. For some, the U.S. offered a fresh start to those seeking to leave behind bad reputations, political risks or legal problems in their home countries. For others, it was a society that allowed them to safely park their assets all while continuing to indulge the leaders they sought to escape.

Enter the twenty-first century and the posse of Putin’s oligarchs: Deripaska, Malofeev, Blavatnik, Vekselberg, Yakunin, and Prigozhin with their sacks of money, their blandishments, and, when necessary, their legal threats.

These are men used to making their own rules – including rule No. 1: Don’t call them oligarchs. They come from their own closed societies to bask in the freedom offered in the U.S. But, in their own ways, they insist on tweaks to our society to suit their needs and habits. If their dark pasts or motives are challenged by journalists, threats to investigators and reporters often follow. To launder their reputations, they have been buying up experts and think-tanks, and even bribing politicians. This is a story of powerful men using seemingly unlimited resources to purchase their own version of the American dream – with a distinctly Soviet-style twist.

Please join Free Russia Foundation at 11:00 EST / 17:00 CET on April 29, 2020 for the report launch “Kill the Messenger: How Russian and Post-Soviet Oligarchs Undermine the First Amendment” and a discussion of how Putin’s oligarchs are working to reshape American society by corrupting its values and institutions, and what can be done to curtail their brutish ways

With
The report’s author
Casey Michel
Investigative Reporter

Moderated by
Michael Weiss
Director for Special Investigations
Free Russia Foundation

Followed by
Q&A with the audience

Register for free to receive the webcast url

The case of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is a story of impunity both in Russia and in the West. This oligarch, who was connected with the Kremlin and Russian security services, got away with inflicting a major environmental catastrophe, and instead of facing any consequences, received billions of dollars from another well-connected oligarch as well as the opportunity to live on a supposedly clean slate in the West. He evidently took his corrosive business practices to his new places of residence, including Monaco, which, according to multiple reports, led to the undermining of local police and the resignation of a justice minister. The oligarch continues to enjoy connections with the Kremlin and, when necessary, safety in Moscow. Through these connections, he has effectively avoided facing any consequences for his actions vis-à-vis local law enforcement. This ongoing case is a testimony to the erosion of legal institutions in a key European location.

Dmitry Rybolovlev, former owner of the Russian potash empire Uralkali, was implicated in a major environmental catastrophe in the Perm region. Author Oliver Bullough visited the site of one of the catastrophes at Rybolovlev’s potash plants in Berezniki and noted in his latest book Money Land that the oligarch’s negligence of proper safety procedures at his salt mines led to large swaths of the city literally falling into huge sinkholes that formed above the mines (Oliver Bullough, Money Land: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take It Back (Profile Books, 2018), pp. 219-220.)  Igor Sechin, then deputy head of presidential administration, reviewed the complicated case and, despite condemning evidence, absolved Rybolovlev of responsibility for any of the damages and allowed him to safely leave the country.

Rybolovlev’s companies did not fully provide even the modest compensation he initially agreed to in 2007-2009, but he did sell his stake in Uralkali to Suleyman Kerimov, another Kremlin-connected oligarch (see a separate case about him below), at a high price and depart safely for full time residence in Switzerland and Monaco (The main source in the West on all this has been this NYT article; key Russia source). With money taken out of Russia, Rybolovlev bought mind-bogglingly high-end properties in New York and around the world, expensive art, and football club in Monaco.

Since then, Rybolovlev has been trying to present himself as an independent businessman who cut his ties with Russia and the Kremlin, however, this effort has been a failure on multiple levels. First, the story of close connections between Rybolovlev and Sechin came up at a Congressional hearing last year. Secondly, Der Spiegel wrote in November 2018 that “rumors still circulate in Western intelligence circles today that Rybolovlev bought his way out from under the multibillion-dollar cloud hanging over him”. Thirdly, while Rybolovlev mostly lived in the West, a quick Google search shows that in 2016 he negotiated with Gennadiy Timchenko’s company Stroytransgaz regarding the lease for his property in central Moscow. This proves that Rybolovlev continues to have business relations with Kremlin insiders despite his claims that he permanently moved to the West for a new life.

For considerable time this claim has been taken at a face value by Rybolovlev’s interlocutors and counterparts in the West (especially those who engaged in various lucrative relations with him). In 2017, however, Prince Albert II of Monaco and a number of other high-ranking officials broke all contact with the billionaire. According to Journal du Dimanche, Rybolovlev, who invested 300 million euros in the development of his Monaco Football club, was declared persona non grata by the authorities. In September 2017, the Monaco Prosecutor’s Office initiated a lawsuit against Rybolovlev regarding the bribery of officials and high-ranking police officers. Rybolovlev and his immediate circle have allegedly put a lot of pressure on the investigative authorities and the police of Monaco. They attempted to send the detectives off course while they were investigating the case against the Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who had sold about 40 paintings by famous artists to the billionaire at unreasonably inflated prices”.

At the heart of the complicated Monaco case lie claims and counterclaims about Rybolovlev’s art collection and whether or not his former art dealer, Yves Bouvier, swindled the Russian oligarch. The focus of the scandal then turned towards Rybolovlev himself, who Bouvier claimed used his political clout to coordinate attacks against the art dealer by law enforcement officials.

Monaco’s Justice Minister, Philippe Narmino, had to step down from his position because of this case, facing questions from prosecutors after it was alleged in the press that he might have received gifts from Rybolovlev while the Russian launched fraud claims against Bouvier. Bouvier and his associates presented evidence that they were illegally recorded as part of Rybolovlev’s campaign to prove that he had been defrauded by Bouvier. The dealer himself was arrested by police officers of the Monegasque security “just as he was setting foot in Monaco … This led to accusations against the Russian billionaire of having taken advantage of his relations with senior Monegasque officials, including the Minister of Justice Philippe Narmino, to arrest and charge Bouvier.”

The art dealer was arrested in February 2015 on his way to Rybolovlev’s villa. His lawyer contended that Rybolovlev and his lawyer took part in arranging the arrest. Media outlets published some of the hundreds of SMS messages leaked from the phone of Rybolovlev’s lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, which were turned over to the investigative judge in charge of the case”. In these messages, Bersheda warns the Monegasque police of the arrival of Yves Bouvier to the Principality.

The Minister of State, head of Monaco’s government, was very reluctant and evasive with regard to the investigations into this matter and even suggested abridging them.  Nevertheless, the authorities of Monaco and other countries have attempted hold the culprits accountable and some disciplinary measures were taken against the police officers involved in helping Rybolovlev. This help was allegedly provided in exchange for high-end tickets to Monaco FC and other lavish perks emanating from Rybolovlev’s circle.

On January 8th, 2019, the Monaco revision court rejected Rybolovlev’s appeal against the use of his lawyer’s mobile phone by the Monegasque justice, who continues to suspect the oligarch and his lawyer of trading in influence and corruption. Following this decision, Rybolovlev’s lawyers suggested that they might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming breach of privacy and other misconduct on the part of the the investigators. This investigation is far from over and while it continues, the oligarch and his circle still enjoy a wide sphere of influence in the principality. On January 16th, Rybolovlev returned to Monaco with a plan to invest 55 million euros in sport infrastructure in the country, a feat that the Russian press took as “comeback” for the billionaire.

Whatever the outcome of this complicated investigation is, one thing is already clear. The Kremlin-backed conduct of the oligarch, who brought his business and legal practices from Russia to Monaco, led to the demise of a justice minister, but so far has had no real consequences either for him or his political and business interests in the West.

Photo by Pasquale Iovino

The case of the Kremlin-connected oligarch Suleyman Kerimov is a testimony to the power of the Russian state when it is used to the benefit of its allies in western courts. In 2017-18 Kerimov faced serious allegations of money laundering and other wrongdoing in the French courts. After the introduction of political pressure from Moscow, however, the French legal system started to produce strange results that eventually led to the dismissal of all charges levied against the oligarch. Recently, however, a French judge placed Kerimov back under formal investigation on suspicion of compliance in aggravated tax fraud. The outcome of this new case will indicate the ability of the French legal system to act independently despite pressure from the Russian government.

Suleyman Kerimov, nicknamed the “Russian Gatsby”, is the 21st richest person in Russia with an estimated net worth of 5.4 billion euros, the majority owner in Russia’s biggest gold mining company, Polyus PJSC, and a senator in the Russian Federation Council for the region of Dagestan. Upon landing in Nice for a vacation trip in November 2017, he was arrested by the French police and questioned for two days over alleged tax evasion and money laundering in connection with the purchase of real estate on the French Riviera.

The court in Nice charged him with tax fraud, set bail at 5 million euros, and forced Kerimov to give his passport away and to not leave France. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation sent a note to the French authorities, stating that Kerimov should have immunity from prosecution, by virtue of his diplomatic passport (link). According to the French, however, Kerimov did not use it when he flew to Nice. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that Kerimov’s immunity does not apply to actions not connected to his functions (link).

Two weeks later, prosecutors asked for Kerimov to be placed in custody or for his bail to be increased to 50 million euros. The court in Aix-en-Provence then set the bail to 40 million euros, put restrictions on those, with whom he may communicate, but still allowed him to stay out of custody (link).

In 2018, under provisions of a law passed by congress in 2017, the US treasury department announced sanctions against Russian oligarchs (including Kerimov), companies, and senior government members in retaliation against Moscow’s meddling in 2016 US presidential elections (link). Two months later, Kerimov won in a ruling at a court in the Aix-en-Provence that removed the charges set against him and allowed him the right to leave France. According to Kerimov’s defense team, they persuaded the court that the allegations did not qualify as money laundering, only as tax fraud (link). The prosecutor stated, however, that he is surprised by the ruling and indicated that he will consider an appeal to the highest French court (link).

Due mostly to a lack of understanding about why Kerimov was cleared of charges and based on the statements by the prosecutor’ office, it would appear that the judicial process may have been influenced by diplomatic relations between France and the Russian Federation. About a month before the final ruling, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the Russian President in Moscow (link). There is no substantial evidence for these claims and so far there has been no new information about the potential decision of the prosecutor’s office to appeal. After the acquittal, the Russian Federation Council met Kerimov with an enthusiastic ovation (link).

In March 2019, however, the French judge placed Kerimov back under formal investigation on suspicion of compliance in aggravated tax fraud, evidently after the prosecutor in the southern city of Nice took some additional steps in the court (link). The judge’s move to place Kerimov under formal investigation means that he becomes a formal suspect, but such investigations can be dropped without going to trial (link). Kerimov’s defense team already said that the oligarch considers the new investigation harassment. It can thus be reasonably expected that the story of dropped charges may repeat itself the second time around.

It should also be noted that Kerimov already had had highly controversial involvement in incidences of corruption. In 2012, a report by London’s The Henry Jackson Society, titled “The Shuvalov Affair,” described two major 2004 investments by Russia’s then Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov that yielded unusually high returns (link). One was a $49.5 million loan made to Alisher Usmanov to help buy a stake in Anglo-Dutch steel company Corus, the other a $17.7 million bet on Gazprom stock via Suleiman Kerimov’s Nafta Moskva.

Many experts continue to see this as a clear-cut form of bribing and money laundering between the oligarch and Putin’s top official. Shuvalov has repeatedly denied that there was anything improper or illegal about his business activities and his relationships with billionaires like Kerimov and Usmanov (link). Despite harsh libel laws, however, neither of the figures involved sued the authors of the report, preferring instead to let the news cycle die and its revelations simply be forgotten.

In April 2016, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) wrote about the Panama Papers and how they revealed Sergei Roldugin, the Russian cellist and businessman, as the secret caretaker of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s enormous wealth. OCCRP reported that Roldugin had received large sums of money from Suleiman Kerimov, using opaque financial mechanisms including offshore accounts. In two complex deals with Kerimov companies, Roldugin effectively received the rights to receive 4 billion rubles (US$ 59 million) and US$ 200 million respectively for a payment of just US$ 2 (link).

A devastating, complacency-shattering interview with Ilya Zaslavskiy, one of the world’s leading experts on Moscow’s overt and covert designs on the West.


This article originally appeared in
The Times of Israel

 

WASHINGTON, United States — Despite the global headlines about Russian meddling in foreign elections, Israeli experts have thus far expressed little concern that it could happen here.

At Tel Aviv University’s CyberWeek cybersecurity conference in June, for instance, Israeli officials made light of the impact of fake news and foreign influence campaigns on Israeli society. Fake news is a “nuisance,” Eviatar Matania, head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, told a panel at the conference, not a major threat. Other speakers said they had seen no signs of Russian influence campaigns targeting Israel.

But the recent release by researchers at Clemenson University of three million Russian troll tweets created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency between 2012 and 2018 paints a different picture.

Reporters from Israel’s Channel 10 News found that tens of thousands of the tweets dealt with Israel and the region and some were written in Hebrew, indicating they were indeed targeting Israelis and people who care about Israel.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Washington, DC-based expert on Russia and head of research at the Free Russia Foundation — a nonprofit led by Russians abroad that says it “seeks to be a voice for those who can’t speak under the repression of the current Russian leadership” — told The Times of Israel that he would be extremely surprised if Russia weren’t carrying out covert influence campaigns in Israel.

“We now know for a fact that Russia has been interfering on a massive scale in US, German and UK elections and referendums,” said Zaslavskiy, who is also a member of the advisory board at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and an academy associate at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) think tank.

“We know that they intervened in the Catalonia referendum as well as a referendum on Ukraine in Holland. They continue to interfere in the US midterms and they have been meddling in all sorts of local elections in Eastern Europe. and the post-Soviet space,” he said. “So why wouldn’t they interfere in Israeli elections when Israel is so important to their strategic interests?”

Asked why Israel is of interest to Russia, Zaslavskiy, who is Jewish and immigrated to the United States from Russia as a young adult, said that “Israel is of strategic importance to the Kremlin  — because Israel is actually one of the forces that could contain Russia, could prevent some of the abuses that Russians are carrying out.”

He cited, for instance, developments in Syria. “Israel is not a great friend of Assad, but now the Israeli government has sort of accepted that Russians uphold him and have got a foothold in Syria,” he said. Asked how things could have been different, Zaslavskiy replied “Israel could have been more vocal and critical about Russia’s role in Syria.”

More generally, “you could have expelled some of the Russian oligarchs, you could have prevented some of the money laundering,” he said. “You could actually impose some sanctions on Russia and limit their influence in your country.”

Why hadn’t that happened? During a deeply disconcerting interview in the US capital Zaslavskiy offered some insights. And as the conversation developed, he moved rapidly beyond election meddling to a wider, nightmare vision of an ascendant Russia, with Western democracies weakened and outflanked. Regarding Israel specifically, he described covert, Russian-led processes already unfolding that he believes are undermining the rule of law and democracy itself, and set out specific measures that he believes must urgently be taken if the decline is to be halted and contained.

An existential danger

Zaslavskiy believes that both Israel and the West face an existential danger from Russia unless the problem of covert and overt Russian influence is fully acknowledged and decisive measures are taken to combat it. He says most of the West fails to grasp the gravity of the threat, which includes not just efforts to meddle in elections but the exporting of corruption and criminality from post-Soviet countries to the West, thereby undermining democracy itself.

In a recent report for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative entitled “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West,” Zaslavskiy argues that the West did not in fact win the Cold War and that its norms and values, like democracy and the rule of law, are very much in peril.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

In reality, Zaslavskiy goes on, “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.”

The new norms being exported to the West, which he dubs neo-Gulag norms, include the idea that those in power are the only real and rightful decision-makers and that the rest are ultimately “prison dust.”

Another such norm, he writes, is that “everything and everyone is for sale, or at least susceptible to manipulation or some form of control.” And finally, the Russian ruling elite believes that “individual human life does not matter anywhere, unless it is someone from their inner circle or equally as powerful as they are.”

The Times of Israel sat down with Zaslavskiy at a cafe in Washington, DC, to discuss the connections between Putin, Israel, organized crime, election meddling and the decline of democracy in the West.

The Times of Israel: There has been a lot of talk about Russian influence campaigns and Russian interference in elections. What aspect of this threat do you think people in the West are failing to grasp?

Ilya Zaslavskiy: They are failing to grasp two main things. First they think that the corruption, criminality and anti-democratic developments that happen in a place like Russia have very little to do with their own life or their own country. That’s the first delusion.

Today, everything is so much more integrated. When criminal groups supported by security services are allowed to do things in their own country, they immediately export their practices and values to the West, to safe havens where they can actually not only keep their money but can continue their activities.

The second thing people fail to realize is that, unlike during the Cold War, there are open channels of business that these kleptocrats can exploit to export their norms and practices legally.

You see a lot of money from kleptocratic countries pouring into the West and paying for lawyers, lobbyists, PR people, even journalists, as well as former security people and security companies. In Soviet times this was not possible. Today, a Russian kleptocrat can continue his criminal activities in the West in broad daylight, without being prosecuted and hardly being covered by the press.

How might this be happening in Israel, and how might Israelis not be aware of it?

There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel.

Some have Israeli citizenship and operate abroad and some operate in Israel. It’s not only that they have a luxurious lifestyle, throw fancy parties and buy amazing real estate. That’s another delusion in the West. Many Westerners believe that oligarchs bring their dirty money to their new country but merely as consumers.

In fact, they start to invest in assets — in strategic assets, in politics and in newspapers.

The vast majority of oligarchs can be hired on an ad-hoc basis by the Russian state or Kazakh state, and can be exploited for political purposes by this kleptocratic state.

I recently co-authored a report — “How to Select Russian Oligarchs for New Sanctions?” — that explains why and under what criteria the US government should add oligarchs like the Alfa Group oligarchs to sanctions.

There are very powerful figures with lots of money, lobbyists and PR support in Israel. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu shows up at events with some of them.

Let’s say you have an oligarch who is close to Putin. What would they be doing in Israel? Why should Israelis care?

They can do multiple things. First, they can normalize Kremlin narratives about Israeli interests.

For example, the way they present Russia’s place in the Syrian conflict, in relations with enemies of Israel like Iran, or concerning the Soviet diaspora in Israel.

I’m sure they help promote Kremlin propaganda about the Second World War and Russia’s [ostensibly] almost exclusive role defeating the Nazis. And they peddle the Jewish veterans’ theme with the orange and black St. George ribbon. It’s a ribbon that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazism that has come to be associated with Russian propaganda against Ukraine and against the West — how the West never really stood up to the Nazis, for example. These are not just historical narratives; they are very useful for today’s politics.

But the other thing oligarchs can do in Israel is to co-opt the elite, under the guise of cultural and charity events. They can throw fancy parties with caviar and beautiful women and invite politicians. They have held these receptions around Western capitals. I have followed some of these in London, as well as here in Washington.

Why would a Russian oligarch own a newspaper or TV station?

They may have financial interests and hope to make money but for many of them it is not done for commercial purposes. The reason is to support politicians through the media, and that allows you to get a foothold in the government. You do nice things for the government and then they do nice things for you in return. You establish a relationship and it’s a long-term thing.

It’s all very interconnected. The payback is not immediate but it’s a very solid investment.

Let’s say a Russian oligarch moves to Israel and starts investing in all kinds of businesses and giving money to charity. Why not just assume he’s retired?

No one from that world of state security or organized crime is off the hook because the Russian state has too much compromising material on them, as well as incentives. Also, if you don’t comply you can be eliminated. There is now a book on how Putin most likely ordered killings of dozens of people inside Russia and outside Russia who did not comply with his interests, including from his own security services or organized crime.

For example, he first used polonium not on Alexander Litvinenko but most likely on Roman Tsepov, who was part of the organized crime group in St. Petersburg in the 1990s that allegedly worked closely with Putin during his rise to power. It’s easier for anyone to comply. There are many oligarchs abroad that he uses on an ad-hoc basis. It’s switch on, switch off. It’s not too demanding or too crazy, and it’s actually acceptable to most of these people.

What’s the connection between the Russian state and organized crime?

In Soviet times there were three worlds that were distinct — with separate, even contradictory, goals. There was the Communist Party, the security services and organized crime. Organized crime was more or less antagonistic to the Soviet regime.

Under Putin these three worlds collided and fused and learned from each other. Security services now oversee the businesses of organized criminal groups. Organized criminal groups carry out the political building and conduct operations for the Kremlin. The ideology of the Communist Party was thrown down the drain but the cynical and pragmatic practices, like co-opting the far right, co-opting the far left, co-opting Christianity or Judaism, remained.

You co-opt whoever is important to you in any given country. You can even contradict yourself in different countries but just divide and rule through all these channels — through ideology, through organized criminal groups, through corruption. Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel.

If there were a Georgian or Russian oligarch who wanted to open hundreds of call centers throughout Israel and scam people abroad out of money, is that something that co-opting the elite would allow them to do?

Yes. But compared to corruption in Russia which involves billions for a single road or pipeline, binary options and forex are a relatively small-scale fraud. Russia as a state is also involved in hacking and dodgy cryptocurrencies; we now know that for a fact from Robert Mueller’s investigation. Russia as a state, especially its security services and associated oligarchs, are involved in all sorts of dodgy things, including in the digital realm.

Someone like Putin would not follow specific criminal activities like binary options, but he sits at the top of a pyramid and there might be levies that make their way from an Israel-based criminal enterprise all the way to the top.

Why would a Georgian or Russian criminal decide to put call centers in Israel of all places?

For a variety of reasons. Corrupt Russian money penetrates any vulnerable spot in the world. The criminality has not just penetrated Israel. It’s in Europe, in Asia, the Middle East and the US.

Why do there seem to be many Jewish oligarchs?

It’s a very useful topic to anti-Semitic circles and it’s not true. Maybe in the late 80s and 90s indeed there were a lot, perhaps too many, visible Jewish oligarchs because of the legacy of the Soviet era and tsarism. Jews had been marginalized and pushed into the black market. They traditionally had math skills, due to the way they were raised, and they helped each other, as does any minority network; ethnic minorities tend to help each other.

Under Putin, I think it’s a specific propaganda tool to expose Jewish oligarchs much more than the rest of the oligarchs. “Oligarch” is actually no longer a useful term in my view, because it suggests that they still have some power. They lost all their power to Putin. Their only currency today is loyalty, it’s not dollars.

Whatever dollars they have in their accounts can be taken away from them at a snap. Yes, they can store their money offshore but they can’t stop working for the Kremlin. Most of them still own too much in Russia and there are too many hooks and levers on them.

There is no distinction between public and private property in Russia. Everything is owned in one way or another by the Kremlin. So the money that they give as donations, very often they are asked to give the donation. And they have no choice but to give it.

Actually, the Russian state tries to present some of these oligarchs as if they are no longer with the regime, as if they are now in the West. It’s all very misleading. I could count actual Russian oligarchs who are completely removed from the Russian state with one hand.

What about Leonid Nevzlin?

Well, Nevzlin is one of the exceptions. He was ousted from Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky too.

I don’t like the term oligarch. I prefer the term handlers, operatives, maybe agents, rich agents. Many of them are actually front men for the money that they ostensibly have. It’s not actually considered fully their money. I’m sure they’re representing some of the Kremlin money, just under the guise of it being their money.

Just to return to your question about the Jewish oligarchs. Currently there are many rich and powerful security people around Putin. They are mostly Russian or a variety of nationalities, but they are secretive and very well protected. Some of the federal ministers as well. Most of the Russian Duma and government are millionaires. They’re just officials but they have the lifestyle of a mini-oligarch.

Should we feel sorry for the oligarchs? It sounds like they can’t escape their gilded cages.

Well some of them managed to escape and these are very exceptional, but obviously at a very high cost to themselves.

There are actually many whistleblowers and refugees from the Russian regime, some of them reformed, some of them not. London has a lot of people like that. Some of them managed to take out some money while others didn’t. They lost a lot, some involuntarily because they fell out of the system. Only few deserve any kind of empathy. Otherwise it’s a very complicated and dark world.

Why do oligarchs give so much money to Jewish and Israeli charities, especially religious ones?

It’s co-option and soft power, and they may be even be using these charities to give political donations.

For themselves, it’s reputation-laundering and legitimacy. It also allows them to advance narratives that are useful to the Kremlin — like about World War II.

For instance, this whole debate about Ukraine. Russia tries to say the current government is a Nazi government, and how all of western Ukraine and their parties are anti-Semitic, how the West opened a second front in World War II at too late a stage and did not help Russia. The Kremlin can co-opt Jews to promote these narratives.

And then there are the May 9th celebrations [V-Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis in 1945] by Russia around the world, including in Israel on a large scale now.

Funding Jewish charities also gives them access to people. If you have a high-level event at the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Jewish History, you get access to politicians so you can co-opt them. If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed and stunned. MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, operas, Carnegie Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery. The list is endless.

Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs.

I’m sure that Russian oligarchs have managed to co-opt many politicians in Israel.

Look at [the rise in Russia of] Chabad. People in Chabad say, “We are just promoting the Jewish legacy. At least there is no anti-Semitism under Putin.” They find all sorts of excuses [to be supportive of Putin]. Before Putin, Chabad was a marginal group, at least in the former Soviet Union.

What is the Russian ruling class’s goal in Israel?

To create an environment — a political environment and economic environment — where it’s too difficult for Israel to resist some of the strategic interests of the Kremlin in the region. Not to oppose Russia’s interests.

But they’re also interested in subverting democracy. A strategic goal for the next few years is to subvert democracy in the West. In some ways they have already succeeded, and the appetite comes with food, as they say. So once they subvert democracy, the goal is to advance more corruption, more vested interests and then just turn the whole West into a corrupt world.

Why do they want to turn the West into a corrupt world?

Because then you can engage in what Russians love, which is realpolitik. Whoever is strong gets his own zone of influence and no one else can interfere. Russia would like to divide the world into zones of interest.

Look at what they did with influencing the American elections and possibly Brexit.

By the time of the 2016 elections in the United States, Russians already had all sorts of Putin understanders and supporters in the press, in the lobbying groups, in business circles, in chambers of commerce, among politicians, even in Congress. They have all these people who are associated with Russia through attending events at the Russian Embassy, going to conferences in Russia and Europe, sitting on boards of Russian companies or galleries associated with Russian money. It’s all done through open channels.

They also influence think tanks and their debates and narratives about Russia. There are several think tanks in Washington, for example, which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption — and that acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment.

Why does Putin want to destroy democracy? Because it competes with his patronage system?

Yes. If I had to judge, I think it’s just his enormous lust for power and he’s a control freak. He just can’t get enough. But maybe, some people suggest that his circle pressures him. I would imagine they pressure each other and it’s a constant game of power, so he has to stay afloat and show benefits.

You’ve said you think journalists are not writing enough about Putin and his oligarchs?

I see it as a huge problem that the Western press is just incapable of covering many of these topics. The press has been marginalized by the internet, so it’s a global trend. Newspapers have lower budgets, they struggle more for advertising, there is much more private and partisan ownership of media outlets. These are all global trends but they influence coverage on Russia also.

Even high-level, big outlets like The New York Times and Guardian face extremely aggressive, litigious teams of lawyers and lobbyists of these oligarchs who have infinite pockets and can afford long legal fights.

Many newspapers don’t have proper foreign country correspondents. If they do, they have to write quick articles, like one per week without delving into difficult topics. Then there is a vicious cycle where complicated cases about Russia are not covered in the West and so there is no interest about them. And since there is no interest there is no coverage.

Very often I found that I wasn’t able to put important topics out there just because it was too complicated for the journalist to write. Not even because of libel issues or because of time constraints. He or she would say, “My editor will not take it through because it’s too complicated. It delves too much into Russian detail.”

Most amazingly, most major media outlets do not have a full-time Russian translator and researcher who can fully devote his or her time to the most basic background research for the few investigative journalists that these outlets struggle to support.

What will happen to Israel if it does nothing about the corrupt kleptocratic influence you describe?

The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that. There is no longer separation of powers. There is prevalence of the executive. There is organized crime and no one takes action against it. The police do nothing. This is the first step.

Israel may give up many of its positions in Syria very soon. I can’t exclude that.

What definitely will happen if we continue on the current trajectory is that the entire West will turn into some kind of Hong Kong. where superficially it is democracy. It has some kind of elections, it looks capitalist and there is modern technology, but in reality a corrupt, non-democratic government actually runs it.

For the average person what does that mean? That you’re either a criminal or you’re poor?

Exactly, if you don’t become part of the corrupt network, you’re much worse off. You’ll be on the sidelines, as happens now in post-Soviet states. There will be growing income inequality, shady deals, no social mobility and all these problems that are associated with semi-corrupt authoritarian states.

There may still be some semblance of democracy. The press will do fewer and fewer investigations and more entertainment and brainwashing. It will be much more partisan — so the only differences of opinion you can get is from vested interests, not from independent and objective civil society.

What can be done?

It’s a very harsh, difficult choice. The first step is acknowledgement of what is going on, followed by investigations and revelations of all these things.

I am not even sure what can trigger such acknowledgement and exposure. Even the meddling in US elections has not triggered the United States enough, although at least something is happening.

After this acknowledgement happens, you need a very robust policy of containment. There is no other choice.

Some money flows have to be stopped; some people have to be kicked out of your country, or even stripped of their Western citizenship. There must be much stricter anti-money laundering and due diligence of companies, and auditors should hire Russian or Georgian or Chinese translators to look into the background of people trying to buy assets in the West.

Security services have to have a major say in any strategic purchase related to security, defense or the national interest.

And then obviously there should be more funds for independent investigative reporters. I am friends with an organization called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They tell me that to train one proper investigative journalist and to keep him safe and to keep him protected from libel suits, you have to have a budget of about $300,000 a year, maybe $400,000.

When societies start investing in investigative journalism like that, that’s when the job will be done. And it can’t be one investigative journalist. You have to have dozens.

If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts, some donations, some Kickstarters. Ultimately people should understand that this will hit them back in terms of their own welfare and their access to democratic institutions, but ultimately even economically.

It could happen in very unexpected ways. Your child could end up in a war with Syria, or some conflict instigated by Russia somewhere in the world. In a way this is a repetition of the 1930s. No one thought that events in Nazi Germany would have any repercussions for the United States. But then the country ended up fighting the Germans when it was too late.

Could this covert Russian influence constitute a factor in a future Israeli war?

What people in general in the West should understand is that the West and NATO are now becoming a minority force in the world; the power of the United States is declining. These large authoritarian states are taking over if not the world then at least Eurasia, countries like China and Malaysia that are not going to become democratic any time soon. The richer they get, the more authoritarian and the more aggressive and expansionist they become.

Democratic countries are becoming like an oasis in the desert. A better metaphor is that the West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened. It’s not like the small lake will clean up the swamp. It’s the other way around. So unless you close the doors and put some filters in place, you will be taken over as a swamp as well.

It won’t be easy. Consumption in the West will have to be scaled back from those money flows from Eurasia. Some industries will have to suffer, especially those that benefit from gas and oil contracts, as well as lobbyists, PR people, lawyers, all offshore accountants and real estate people. They will have to suffer; they will not make as much money.

But the society as a whole will benefit and be able to hold on to its values, like due diligence and good governance.

In terms of Israel specifically, if this does not happen, then I think the NATO alliance will be marginalized and might have to be involved in conflicts it doesn’t want. And then Israel will be much more on its own against its foes, and might not receive as much American help as it might hope to in such circumstances.

So all this has direct security implications for Israel as a society, and Israel as a state, unfortunately.

The main photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on September 22, 2015. (Kremlin.ru)

A devastating, complacency-shattering interview with Ilya Zaslavskiy, one of the world’s leading experts on Moscow’s overt and covert designs on the West.


This article originally appeared in
The Times of Israel

WASHINGTON, United States — Despite the global headlines about Russian meddling in foreign elections, Israeli experts have thus far expressed little concern that it could happen here.

At Tel Aviv University’s CyberWeek cybersecurity conference in June, for instance, Israeli officials made light of the impact of fake news and foreign influence campaigns on Israeli society. Fake news is a “nuisance,” Eviatar Matania, head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, told a panel at the conference, not a major threat. Other speakers said they had seen no signs of Russian influence campaigns targeting Israel.

But the recent release by researchers at Clemenson University of three million Russian troll tweets created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency between 2012 and 2018 paints a different picture.

Reporters from Israel’s Channel 10 News found that tens of thousands of the tweets dealt with Israel and the region and some were written in Hebrew, indicating they were indeed targeting Israelis and people who care about Israel.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Washington, DC-based expert on Russia and head of research at the Free Russia Foundation — a nonprofit led by Russians abroad that says it “seeks to be a voice for those who can’t speak under the repression of the current Russian leadership” — told The Times of Israel that he would be extremely surprised if Russia weren’t carrying out covert influence campaigns in Israel.

“We now know for a fact that Russia has been interfering on a massive scale in US, German and UK elections and referendums,” said Zaslavskiy, who is also a member of the advisory board at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and an academy associate at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) think tank.

“We know that they intervened in the Catalonia referendum as well as a referendum on Ukraine in Holland. They continue to interfere in the US midterms and they have been meddling in all sorts of local elections in Eastern Europe. and the post-Soviet space,” he said. “So why wouldn’t they interfere in Israeli elections when Israel is so important to their strategic interests?”

Asked why Israel is of interest to Russia, Zaslavskiy, who is Jewish and immigrated to the United States from Russia as a young adult, said that “Israel is of strategic importance to the Kremlin  — because Israel is actually one of the forces that could contain Russia, could prevent some of the abuses that Russians are carrying out.”

He cited, for instance, developments in Syria. “Israel is not a great friend of Assad, but now the Israeli government has sort of accepted that Russians uphold him and have got a foothold in Syria,” he said. Asked how things could have been different, Zaslavskiy replied “Israel could have been more vocal and critical about Russia’s role in Syria.”

This December 11, 2017 photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watching troops march at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

More generally, “you could have expelled some of the Russian oligarchs, you could have prevented some of the money laundering,” he said. “You could actually impose some sanctions on Russia and limit their influence in your country.”

Why hadn’t that happened? During a deeply disconcerting interview in the US capital Zaslavskiy offered some insights. And as the conversation developed, he moved rapidly beyond election meddling to a wider, nightmare vision of an ascendant Russia, with Western democracies weakened and outflanked. Regarding Israel specifically, he described covert, Russian-led processes already unfolding that he believes are undermining the rule of law and democracy itself, and set out specific measures that he believes must urgently be taken if the decline is to be halted and contained.

An existential danger

Zaslavskiy believes that both Israel and the West face an existential danger from Russia unless the problem of covert and overt Russian influence is fully acknowledged and decisive measures are taken to combat it. He says most of the West fails to grasp the gravity of the threat, which includes not just efforts to meddle in elections but the exporting of corruption and criminality from post-Soviet countries to the West, thereby undermining democracy itself.

In a recent report for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative entitled “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West,” Zaslavskiy argues that the West did not in fact win the Cold War and that its norms and values, like democracy and the rule of law, are very much in peril.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

The West has largely failed to export its democratic norms and is instead witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own value system

In reality, Zaslavskiy goes on, “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.”

The new norms being exported to the West, which he dubs neo-Gulag norms, include the idea that those in power are the only real and rightful decision-makers and that the rest are ultimately “prison dust.”

Another such norm, he writes, is that “everything and everyone is for sale, or at least susceptible to manipulation or some form of control.” And finally, the Russian ruling elite believes that “individual human life does not matter anywhere, unless it is someone from their inner circle or equally as powerful as they are.”

The Times of Israel sat down with Zaslavskiy at a cafe in Washington, DC, to discuss the connections between Putin, Israel, organized crime, election meddling and the decline of democracy in the West.

The Times of Israel: There has been a lot of talk about Russian influence campaigns and Russian interference in elections. What aspect of this threat do you think people in the West are failing to grasp?

Ilya Zaslavskiy: They are failing to grasp two main things. First they think that the corruption, criminality and anti-democratic developments that happen in a place like Russia have very little to do with their own life or their own country. That’s the first delusion.

Today, everything is so much more integrated. When criminal groups supported by security services are allowed to do things in their own country, they immediately export their practices and values to the West, to safe havens where they can actually not only keep their money but can continue their activities.

There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel

The second thing people fail to realize is that, unlike during the Cold War, there are open channels of business that these kleptocrats can exploit to export their norms and practices legally.

You see a lot of money from kleptocratic countries pouring into the West and paying for lawyers, lobbyists, PR people, even journalists, as well as former security people and security companies. In Soviet times this was not possible. Today, a Russian kleptocrat can continue his criminal activities in the West in broad daylight, without being prosecuted and hardly being covered by the press.

How might this be happening in Israel, and how might Israelis not be aware of it?

There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel.

Some have Israeli citizenship and operate abroad and some operate in Israel. It’s not only that they have a luxurious lifestyle, throw fancy parties and buy amazing real estate. That’s another delusion in the West. Many Westerners believe that oligarchs bring their dirty money to their new country but merely as consumers.

In fact, they start to invest in assets — in strategic assets, in politics and in newspapers.

The vast majority of oligarchs can be hired on an ad-hoc basis by the Russian state or Kazakh state, and can be exploited for political purposes by this kleptocratic state.

I recently co-authored a report — “How to Select Russian Oligarchs for New Sanctions?” — that explains why and under what criteria the US government should add oligarchs like the Alfa Group oligarchs to sanctions.

There are very powerful figures with lots of money, lobbyists and PR support in Israel. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu shows up at events with some of them.

Let’s say you have an oligarch who is close to Putin. What would they be doing in Israel? Why should Israelis care?

They can do multiple things. First, they can normalize Kremlin narratives about Israeli interests.

For example, the way they present Russia’s place in the Syrian conflict, in relations with enemies of Israel like Iran, or concerning the Soviet diaspora in Israel.

I’m sure they help promote Kremlin propaganda about the Second World War and Russia’s [ostensibly] almost exclusive role defeating the Nazis. And they peddle the Jewish veterans’ theme with the orange and black St. George ribbon. It’s a ribbon that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazism that has come to be associated with Russian propaganda against Ukraine and against the West — how the West never really stood up to the Nazis, for example. These are not just historical narratives; they are very useful for today’s politics.

But the other thing oligarchs can do in Israel is to co-opt the elite, under the guise of cultural and charity events. They can throw fancy parties with caviar and beautiful women and invite politicians. They have held these receptions around Western capitals. I have followed some of these in London, as well as here in Washington.

Above and photo at top: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, on May 9, 2018. Both men are wearing the orange and black St. George ribbon (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Why would a Russian oligarch own a newspaper or TV station?

They may have financial interests and hope to make money but for many of them it is not done for commercial purposes. The reason is to support politicians through the media, and that allows you to get a foothold in the government. You do nice things for the government and then they do nice things for you in return. You establish a relationship and it’s a long-term thing.

It’s all very interconnected. The payback is not immediate but it’s a very solid investment.

Let’s say a Russian oligarch moves to Israel and starts investing in all kinds of businesses and giving money to charity. Why not just assume he’s retired?

No one from that world of state security or organized crime is off the hook because the Russian state has too much compromising material on them, as well as incentives. Also, if you don’t comply you can be eliminated. There is now a book on how Putin most likely ordered killings of dozens of people inside Russia and outside Russia who did not comply with his interests, including from his own security services or organized crime.

A file photo taken on September 14, 2004, shows Alexander Litvinenko (L), a former Russian intelligence agent, speaking at a press conference in London. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN HAYHOW)

For example, he first used polonium not on Alexander Litvinenko but most likely on Roman Tsepov, who was part of the organized crime group in St. Petersburg in the 1990s that allegedly worked closely with Putin during his rise to power. It’s easier for anyone to comply. There are many oligarchs abroad that he uses on an ad-hoc basis. It’s switch on, switch off. It’s not too demanding or too crazy, and it’s actually acceptable to most of these people.

What’s the connection between the Russian state and organized crime?

In Soviet times there were three worlds that were distinct — with separate, even contradictory, goals. There was the Communist Party, the security services and organized crime. Organized crime was more or less antagonistic to the Soviet regime.

Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel

Under Putin these three worlds collided and fused and learned from each other. Security services now oversee the businesses of organized criminal groups. Organized criminal groups carry out the political building and conduct operations for the Kremlin. The ideology of the Communist Party was thrown down the drain but the cynical and pragmatic practices, like co-opting the far right, co-opting the far left, co-opting Christianity or Judaism, remained.

You co-opt whoever is important to you in any given country. You can even contradict yourself in different countries but just divide and rule through all these channels — through ideology, through organized criminal groups, through corruption. Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel.

If there were a Georgian or Russian oligarch who wanted to open hundreds of call centers throughout Israel and scam people abroad out of money, is that something that co-opting the elite would allow them to do?

Yes. But compared to corruption in Russia which involves billions for a single road or pipeline, binary options and forex are a relatively small-scale fraud. Russia as a state is also involved in hacking and dodgy cryptocurrencies; we now know that for a fact from Robert Mueller’s investigation. Russia as a state, especially its security services and associated oligarchs, are involved in all sorts of dodgy things, including in the digital realm.

Someone like Putin would not follow specific criminal activities like binary options, but he sits at the top of a pyramid and there might be levies that make their way from an Israel-based criminal enterprise all the way to the top.

Why would a Georgian or Russian criminal decide to put call centers in Israel of all places?

For a variety of reasons. Corrupt Russian money penetrates any vulnerable spot in the world. The criminality has not just penetrated Israel. It’s in Europe, in Asia, the Middle East and the US.

Why do there seem to be many Jewish oligarchs?

It’s a very useful topic to anti-Semitic circles and it’s not true. Maybe in the late 80s and 90s indeed there were a lot, perhaps too many, visible Jewish oligarchs because of the legacy of the Soviet era and tsarism. Jews had been marginalized and pushed into the black market. They traditionally had math skills, due to the way they were raised, and they helped each other, as does any minority network; ethnic minorities tend to help each other.

Under Putin, I think it’s a specific propaganda tool to expose Jewish oligarchs much more than the rest of the oligarchs. “Oligarch” is actually no longer a useful term in my view, because it suggests that they still have some power. They lost all their power to Putin. Their only currency today is loyalty, it’s not dollars.

Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs

Whatever dollars they have in their accounts can be taken away from them at a snap. Yes, they can store their money offshore but they can’t stop working for the Kremlin. Most of them still own too much in Russia and there are too many hooks and levers on them.

There is no distinction between public and private property in Russia. Everything is owned in one way or another by the Kremlin. So the money that they give as donations, very often they are asked to give the donation. And they have no choice but to give it.

Actually, the Russian state tries to present some of these oligarchs as if they are no longer with the regime, as if they are now in the West. It’s all very misleading. I could count actual Russian oligarchs who are completely removed from the Russian state with one hand.

What about Leonid Nevzlin?

Well, Nevzlin is one of the exceptions. He was ousted from Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky too.

I don’t like the term oligarch. I prefer the term handlers, operatives, maybe agents, rich agents. Many of them are actually front men for the money that they ostensibly have. It’s not actually considered fully their money. I’m sure they’re representing some of the Kremlin money, just under the guise of it being their money.

Just to return to your question about the Jewish oligarchs. Currently there are many rich and powerful security people around Putin. They are mostly Russian or a variety of nationalities, but they are secretive and very well protected. Some of the federal ministers as well. Most of the Russian Duma and government are millionaires. They’re just officials but they have the lifestyle of a mini-oligarch.

Should we feel sorry for the oligarchs? It sounds like they can’t escape their gilded cages.

Well some of them managed to escape and these are very exceptional, but obviously at a very high cost to themselves.

There are actually many whistleblowers and refugees from the Russian regime, some of them reformed, some of them not. London has a lot of people like that. Some of them managed to take out some money while others didn’t. They lost a lot, some involuntarily because they fell out of the system. Only few deserve any kind of empathy. Otherwise it’s a very complicated and dark world.

Why do oligarchs give so much money to Jewish and Israeli charities, especially religious ones?

It’s co-option and soft power, and they may be even be using these charities to give political donations.

For themselves, it’s reputation-laundering and legitimacy. It also allows them to advance narratives that are useful to the Kremlin — like about World War II.

If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed

For instance, this whole debate about Ukraine. Russia tries to say the current government is a Nazi government, and how all of western Ukraine and their parties are anti-Semitic, how the West opened a second front in World War II at too late a stage and did not help Russia. The Kremlin can co-opt Jews to promote these narratives.

And then there are the May 9th celebrations [V-Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis in 1945] by Russia around the world, including in Israel on a large scale now.

Victory in Europe Parade – Haifa -2018

Funding Jewish charities also gives them access to people. If you have a high-level event at the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Jewish History, you get access to politicians so you can co-opt them. If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed and stunned. MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, operas, Carnegie Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery. The list is endless.

Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs.

I’m sure that Russian oligarchs have managed to co-opt many politicians in Israel.

Look at [the rise in Russia of] Chabad. People in Chabad say, “We are just promoting the Jewish legacy. At least there is no anti-Semitism under Putin.” They find all sorts of excuses [to be supportive of Putin]. Before Putin, Chabad was a marginal group, at least in the former Soviet Union.

Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman seen with Russian-Israeli World War II veterans, as they take part in the Veterans Day parade in honor of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany, at the Knesset. May 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

What is the Russian ruling class’s goal in Israel?

To create an environment — a political environment and economic environment — where it’s too difficult for Israel to resist some of the strategic interests of the Kremlin in the region. Not to oppose Russia’s interests.

But they’re also interested in subverting democracy. A strategic goal for the next few years is to subvert democracy in the West. In some ways they have already succeeded, and the appetite comes with food, as they say. So once they subvert democracy, the goal is to advance more corruption, more vested interests and then just turn the whole West into a corrupt world.

Why do they want to turn the West into a corrupt world?

Because then you can engage in what Russians love, which is realpolitik. Whoever is strong gets his own zone of influence and no one else can interfere. Russia would like to divide the world into zones of interest.

Look at what they did with influencing the American elections and possibly Brexit.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Donald Trump talk as they attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (AFP/Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev)

By the time of the 2016 elections in the United States, Russians already had all sorts of Putin understanders and supporters in the press, in the lobbying groups, in business circles, in chambers of commerce, among politicians, even in Congress. They have all these people who are associated with Russia through attending events at the Russian Embassy, going to conferences in Russia and Europe, sitting on boards of Russian companies or galleries associated with Russian money. It’s all done through open channels.

There are several think tanks in Washington which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption. That acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment

They also influence think tanks and their debates and narratives about Russia. There are several think tanks in Washington, for example, which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption — and that acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment.

Why does Putin want to destroy democracy? Because it competes with his patronage system?

Yes. If I had to judge, I think it’s just his enormous lust for power and he’s a control freak. He just can’t get enough. But maybe, some people suggest that his circle pressures him. I would imagine they pressure each other and it’s a constant game of power, so he has to stay afloat and show benefits.

You’ve said you think journalists are not writing enough about Putin and his oligarchs?

I see it as a huge problem that the Western press is just incapable of covering many of these topics. The press has been marginalized by the internet, so it’s a global trend. Newspapers have lower budgets, they struggle more for advertising, there is much more private and partisan ownership of media outlets. These are all global trends but they influence coverage on Russia also.

Even high-level, big outlets like The New York Times and Guardian face extremely aggressive, litigious teams of lawyers and lobbyists of these oligarchs who have infinite pockets and can afford long legal fights.

Many newspapers don’t have proper foreign country correspondents. If they do, they have to write quick articles, like one per week without delving into difficult topics. Then there is a vicious cycle where complicated cases about Russia are not covered in the West and so there is no interest about them. And since there is no interest there is no coverage.

The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that

Very often I found that I wasn’t able to put important topics out there just because it was too complicated for the journalist to write. Not even because of libel issues or because of time constraints. He or she would say, “My editor will not take it through because it’s too complicated. It delves too much into Russian detail.”

Most amazingly, most major media outlets do not have a full-time Russian translator and researcher who can fully devote his or her time to the most basic background research for the few investigative journalists that these outlets struggle to support.

What will happen to Israel if it does nothing about the corrupt kleptocratic influence you describe?

The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that. There is no longer separation of powers. There is prevalence of the executive. There is organized crime and no one takes action against it. The police do nothing. This is the first step.

Israel may give up many of its positions in Syria very soon. I can’t exclude that.

What definitely will happen if we continue on the current trajectory is that the entire West will turn into some kind of Hong Kong. where superficially it is democracy. It has some kind of elections, it looks capitalist and there is modern technology, but in reality a corrupt, non-democratic government actually runs it.

For the average person what does that mean? That you’re either a criminal or you’re poor?

Exactly, if you don’t become part of the corrupt network, you’re much worse off. You’ll be on the sidelines, as happens now in post-Soviet states. There will be growing income inequality, shady deals, no social mobility and all these problems that are associated with semi-corrupt authoritarian states.

There may still be some semblance of democracy. The press will do fewer and fewer investigations and more entertainment and brainwashing. It will be much more partisan — so the only differences of opinion you can get is from vested interests, not from independent and objective civil society.

What can be done?

It’s a very harsh, difficult choice. The first step is acknowledgement of what is going on, followed by investigations and revelations of all these things.

I am not even sure what can trigger such acknowledgement and exposure. Even the meddling in US elections has not triggered the United States enough, although at least something is happening.

After this acknowledgement happens, you need a very robust policy of containment. There is no other choice.

People walking near Red Square in Moscow, Russia. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Some money flows have to be stopped; some people have to be kicked out of your country, or even stripped of their Western citizenship. There must be much stricter anti-money laundering and due diligence of companies, and auditors should hire Russian or Georgian or Chinese translators to look into the background of people trying to buy assets in the West.

Security services have to have a major say in any strategic purchase related to security, defense or the national interest.

And then obviously there should be more funds for independent investigative reporters. I am friends with an organization called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They tell me that to train one proper investigative journalist and to keep him safe and to keep him protected from libel suits, you have to have a budget of about $300,000 a year, maybe $400,000.

If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts

When societies start investing in investigative journalism like that, that’s when the job will be done. And it can’t be one investigative journalist. You have to have dozens.

If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts, some donations, some Kickstarters. Ultimately people should understand that this will hit them back in terms of their own welfare and their access to democratic institutions, but ultimately even economically.

It could happen in very unexpected ways. Your child could end up in a war with Syria, or some conflict instigated by Russia somewhere in the world. In a way this is a repetition of the 1930s. No one thought that events in Nazi Germany would have any repercussions for the United States. But then the country ended up fighting the Germans when it was too late.

Could this covert Russian influence constitute a factor in a future Israeli war?

The West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened

What people in general in the West should understand is that the West and NATO are now becoming a minority force in the world; the power of the United States is declining. These large authoritarian states are taking over if not the world then at least Eurasia, countries like China and Malaysia that are not going to become democratic any time soon. The richer they get, the more authoritarian and the more aggressive and expansionist they become.

Democratic countries are becoming like an oasis in the desert. A better metaphor is that the West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened. It’s not like the small lake will clean up the swamp. It’s the other way around. So unless you close the doors and put some filters in place, you will be taken over as a swamp as well.

It won’t be easy. Consumption in the West will have to be scaled back from those money flows from Eurasia. Some industries will have to suffer, especially those that benefit from gas and oil contracts, as well as lobbyists, PR people, lawyers, all offshore accountants and real estate people. They will have to suffer; they will not make as much money.

But the society as a whole will benefit and be able to hold on to its values, like due diligence and good governance.

In terms of Israel specifically, if this does not happen, then I think the NATO alliance will be marginalized and might have to be involved in conflicts it doesn’t want. And then Israel will be much more on its own against its foes, and might not receive as much American help as it might hope to in such circumstances.

So all this has direct security implications for Israel as a society, and Israel as a state, unfortunately.

The main photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on September 22, 2015. (Kremlin.ru)

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