Andrey Kostin, the CEO of VTB, the largest Russian bank, 60.9 percent of which belongs to the Russian government, visited Washington DC earlier this week to meet with U.S. Congressmen and Obama Administration officials to discuss sanctions imposed on Russia, and VTB in particular.
As TAI found out from a congressional aide familiar with the meetings, Kostin and several other employees of VTB, including Paul Swigert, the CEO of VTB’s U.S. operations, met with various people around Washington, including the Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R), and State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy, Daniel Fried. The Russian team was accompanied by a lobbyist from the Sidley Austin law firm.
Kostin’s immediate concern is financing. The U.S. had blocked access to long-terms loans for a number of state-run companies and banks, especially those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including VTB. At these meetings, our source tells us Kostin clearly expressed his complete understanding of why VTB had been sanctioned. The bank’s delegation had not come to DC with a particular ask. Instead,
A secondary goal of the delegation was to avoid Kostin’s personal designation should the sanctions escalate, our source told us. Kostin is known to be among those next in line to be sanctioned should the U.S. choose to expand its list. “They tried to play a good-guy bankers game,” our source said, adding that no one, neither on the Hill nor at State, believed that VTB and Andrey Kostin are in any way independent from the Kremlin.
Indeed, it is hard to believe Kostin could have traveled to DC without Vladimir Putin’s blessing, especially since the meetings were not in any way secret (although they were not announced officially either). On the contrary, sending his emissaries to the U.S. to negotiate the lifting of sanctions behind the scenes fits neatly Putin’s normal playbook. While publicly spouting brave rhetoric about how sanctions are having little effect on the economy for his domestic audience, Putin has been sending back-channel messages to the West for a while now. A week ago, Russia’s President used the occasion of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to change his tune in public, calling the U.S. the only superpower the world needs and trying to cajole the EU into easing its sanctions. And just this morning, after the Brexit results had been announced, Putin repeated that Russia is ready for a constructive dialogue on sanctions.
Also speaking at the St. Petersburg Forum, Andrey Kostin called sanctions on Russia “economic warfare that the U.S. is waging against Russia”, adding that Moscow is instead going to cement relations with Asia rather than with Europe. None of this prevented Kostin from going into the enemy’s own camp to try to cement ties with the West.