Both Donald Trump, Jr., and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer with whom he met in June 2016, have tried to portray their meeting at Trump Tower as nothing more than a lobbying effort aimed at lifting a discrete set of sanctions known as the Magnitsky Act. The implication is that Veselnitskaya, as well as Rinat Akhmetshin (who was only later revealed to have been at the meeting), were nothing more than lobbyists doing the bidding of private paymasters directly affected by the aforementioned bill. And when U.S. journalists mention President Trump’s Azeri associates, Aras Agalarov and his son Emin, they often refer to them as billionaire developers, as if they were merely entrepreneurs and businessmen.
The truth is, there is no such thing as an independent billionaire in Russia. The line between “the state” and “private” enterprise is more than just blurry; in many cases, it doesn’t exist at all. The security services are not just responsible for intelligence gathering; they also run extortion rackets and take cuts of everything from the illicit drug trade to cross-border financial transactions. Every larger business needs a krysha (literally “roof”, or protection) from someone in power. As Russian corruption-fighter and opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s most recent exposé showed, the extravagant looting has directly benefited the second most powerful man in Russia, former Western darling Dmitry Medvedev. Estimates of Putin’s own take vary, but it is no longer much in dispute that the Russian President is the King of the Kleptocrats. Of course businesses and companies exist in Russia, but the larger they get, the more their corporate structure becomes nothing but a thin veneer of legitimacy over corrupt patronage schemes that flaunt both the spirit and the letter of the law.
The passage of the Magnitsky Act in 2012 seriously upset a large subset of the Russian mafia state, including Putin himself. To those unfamiliar with how Russia works, this might seem puzzling at first. Why all the drama over sanctions on a few oligarchs? But to those more attuned with Russia’s inner workings, it’s much less perplexing. As American financier Bill Browder, whose wildly successful asset management company Hermitage Capital had been the target of a state-backed raid and takeover attempt in the 2000s, explained to us last week when we caught up with him, Putin and his subordinates live by a kind of Faustian deal.
“[Putin] allows people to get rich off the proceeds of government service,” Browder said, “and then he asks them to do services he’s interested in for the state.” In the process, Putin takes a cut for himself, and of course jealously guards his loot. But there is also a larger contract being observed that forces Putin to act forthrightly. “He asks [his subordinates] to do very terrible things—to torture people, to kill people, to kidnap people, in order for the government to seize people’s properties. And in return he offers them impunity. If all of a sudden…he can’t promise them foreign impunity, that messes up everything for him.”
Digging through the murky networks connecting the people who attended that mysterious meeting at Trump Tower last year won’t provide the definitive “smoking gun” that so many in Washington are desperate for, tying the President’s campaign to some fanciful plot hatched inside the Kremlin to subvert American democracy. But at the same time, it casts serious doubts on arguments that there is nothing to see in the meeting itself. On the contrary, there is plenty to see. Looking at these networks recasts both our understanding of the real nature of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and of what having a purely transactionally minded businessman for a President might mean for the United States—whether there was “collusion” or not.
So let’s have a look. Bear with us, as this gets a little dense.
Pyotr and Denis Katsyv
The now-notorious Natalia Veselnitskaya is an employee of one Pyotr Katsyv, who was Transport Minister and then Vice Governor of Moscow Oblast (the region surrounding, but not including, Moscow City, roughly the size of France). He is now Vice President of Russian Railways, perhaps the second most prominent state-owned company in Russia after Gazprom, and is one of the most powerful and well-connected men in the entire region.
Katsyv was born in Khmelnitsky Oblast in Ukraine, in a small Jewish town, in 1953. He may have been recruited by the KGB to watch over his community (the Fifth Directorate had a special Jewish Department for keeping an eye on Jewish dissidents), and gained his earliest connections that way. Vladimir Yakunin, who was Katsyv’s boss at Russian Railways, is also widely believed to have been a KGB man.
According to reporting by the OCCRP, Pyotr’s son Denis appears to have profited from an elaborate tax fraud scheme in Russia worth some $230 million. The person who discovered the fraud, a young lawyer named Sergey Magnitsky, was jailed for his trouble, appears to have been denied medical care in prison, and may have even been beaten to death while in custody. Bill Browder, the man who hired the young Magnitsky to investigate the fraud, was outraged by what had happened to him. In what can only be described as a Herculean lobbying effort, Browder managed to convince U.S. lawmakers to push through a sanctions bill—the aforementioned Magnitsky Act—directly targeting the individuals who colluded in and profited from the above-mentioned tax scam. To date, 44 individuals, some of them not yet publicly revealed, have been put on the sanctions list since the Act’s passage in 2012.
Interestingly enough, Denis Katsyv’s name does not appear among the publicly named individuals targeted by the Magnitsky Act, but he has faced legal problems in a U.S. case related to the fraud. His name first appeared in U.S. media when the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, opened a case against Prevezon Holdings, Ltd., Katsyv’s shell company in Cyprus that was allegedly involved in laundering the proceeds of the Magnitsky tax fraud. Prevezon was accused of using $600,000 of these Magnitsky fraud funds towards the purchase of real estate in Manhattan worth some $15 million. Natalia Veselnitskaya was sent to help manage the Prevezon case, and was in charge of hiring lawyers for Denis Katsyv. Katsyv is said to have spent between $30 to $40 million on his defense. Bharara was fired by President Trump in March of this year, and the case was subsequently settled in May for close to $6 million.1
It’s important to remember that the underlying crime that provoked the Magnitsky Act, beyond the likely murder of Magnitsky himself in prison, is brazen fraud: a theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian state coffers. It’s striking the extent to which the Kremlin has gone to defend and protect those alleged to have profited from those crimes. But in Putin’s Russia, not all tax frauds are created equal. One of Pyotr Katsyv’s associates, Alexey Kuznetsov, the former Finance Minister of Moscow Oblast, was accused by Russian authorities in 2011 of defrauding the state of 14 billion rubles ($320 million). Kuznetsov fled to France, where he is currently awaiting a French court’s decision on whether to honor an extradition request. According to Russian investigative reports, Katsyv appears to have been involved in helping Kuznetsov launder his money. Nevertheless, unlike his former colleague, he remains unmolested by authorities.
It’s not clear how Pyotr Katsyv first met the successful Russian-Israeli billionaire businessman Lev Leviev, the so-called “King of Diamonds.” Their two families appear to have started doing business together as early as 2003, when Denis became the CEO of Irostratos Ltd., a Cyprus offshore that was at the time a part of the Leviev’s LL International Holdings BV.
By 2008, AFI Europe NV, one of Leviev’s companies in the Netherlands, sold 30 percent of its four subsidiaries to the above-mentioned Prevezon Holdings for €3 million. The deal was closed on the eve of Denis Katsyv’s becoming the sole shareholder of Prevezon. These four subsidiary companies in turn owned major stakes in 35 properties in Germany, including 20 in Berlin. AFI Europe NV had previously estimated its assets at €105 million, which would have valued the subsidiaries sold to Prevezon at around €20 million. The fact that they were transferred to Prevezon at a fraction of their appraised value suggested the deal was a sham, and that Katsyv and Leviev were more than mere partners. When AFI tried to return the €3 million back to Prevezon in January 2014, Dutch authorities intercepted and froze the transfer at the behest of U.S. authorities investigating the Prevezon case.
And it was another Leviev company, AFI USA, that sold the Manhattan real estate properties (at 20 Pine Street) to Prevezon—the properties at the heart of Preet Bharara’s ill-fated case against Katsyv.
Eagle-eyed readers might remember Leviev’s name from a minor and somewhat scattershot Politico story from a few months back, a story that documented both Donald Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s personal links to various Russian Jewish figures through the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. In 1999, Putin’s friends Lev Leviev and mega-oligarch Roman Abramovich founded the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia as a counterweight to a rival Russian Jewish organization led by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, a man increasingly on the outs with the new regime. Chabad rabbi Berel Lazar was elected the new organization’s head; Leviev, who had already been involved in Chabad’s charitable activities and programs across the world, was likely championing his cause. And it was through Chabad’s networks that the two eventually met the Trumps.
Leviev may have first encountered The Donald through their mutual friend Tamir Sapir, a Georgian emigré (with possible KGB connections) who built a billion-dollar fortune in the 1980s by investing the earnings from a barter trade in oil and fertilizer with the Soviet Union into Manhattan real estate. Leviev and Trump appear to have first had an official meeting in May 2008 in New York, where they reportedly discussed working on a possible project together in Moscow. Meanwhile, Abramovich, and especially his wife Dasha Zhukova, appear to have become very close to Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka through the years. How Kushner met Leviev is less clear, but he did end up buying several floors of the old New York Times building from him in 2015 for $295 million. The deal, and a subsequent refinancing loan worth $285 million received from Deutsche Bank against the property, are said to be of interest to the Mueller investigation.
Aras and Emin Agalarov, and Mr. Chaika Too
Rounding out the dense web of connections represented at the Trump, Jr. meeting is the Agalarov clan—the so-called “pop star” Emin and his “businessman” father Aras—both of whom are said to have gotten to know Donald Trump through the staging of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. But neither is Emin just some Azeri singer, nor is Aras just some developer. These are well-connected people.
The Agalarovs own the Crocus Group, one of the larger real estate development firms in Russia. Emin had been intimately involved in running the firm for several years before he got serious about music. Until recently, Emin was married to Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev (who happens to be a close personal friend of Vladimir Putin). One of the Agalarov’s main properties, the Crocus City Hall, was built in Moscow Oblast right around the time that Pyotr Katsyv was coming up in the region’s bureaucracy. In 2014, the Crocus Group was explicitly written into a bilateral deal with Kyrgyzstan to be the exclusive provider of services to help the Central Asian country integrate into Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. And in 2015, the Agalarovs received a state contract to build sections of Moscow’s Central Ring Road, a juicy infrastructure project with plenty of opportunities for various cost overruns and similar shenanigans familiar to graft-happy developers the world over. Needless to say, in Russia, building this kind of “fortune” has nothing to do with luck.
Finally, the man who pulled the Veselnitskaya meetings together, Emin’s publicist Rob Goldstone, made reference to Russia’s “Crown prosecutor” in his email to Trump, Jr.: “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” As most reporting has pointed out, this is a completely unambiguous reference to Yury Chaika, the Prosecutor General of Russia, a man close to Agalarov and loyal to Putin.
Chaika gained some international notoriety a year and a half ago when Alexey Navalny released a popular 40 minute video detailing the property empire and mafia ties of the prosecutor’s two sons. Chaika was furious, and accused Bill Browder of having financed the investigation. Aras Agalarov at the time wrote an open letter defending his friend Chaika and comparing Navalny to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Browder, for his part, had previously accused Chaika of having stymied official investigations into the causes of Magnitsky’s death. Late last week, Browder’s firm filed a complaint with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, alleging that Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and his staff director Paul Behrends had met with Chaika’s deputy Viktor Grin, a man sanctioned under Magnitsky, in Moscow in April 2016, and had received a dossier of materials for lobbying against the Magnitsky Act. The meeting ultimately led to the screening of a revisionist film at the Newseum in Washington, DC—a film meant to muddy the waters surrounding the circumstances of Magnistky’s death. Around that same time, Trump, Jr. was meeting Veselnitskaya in Manhattan.
One of the most striking elements of the effort to repeal the Magnitsky Act is how it has involved the entirety of the Russian government apparatus, all the way up to Vladimir Putin. The outraged reaction on the part of the Kremlin has ranged from a reciprocal set of travel bans on U.S. officials to a grotesque prohibition on U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans. Veselnitskaya, acting at the behest of Denis Katsyv and Prevezon, helped set up a lobbying group in 2016—the creatively-named Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation—that cynically tries to leverage the adoption prohibition in order to build support for repealing the Magnitsky Act. The organization claims on its website to be “dedicated to overturning the Russian adoption ban”—a ban that exists only because the Magnitsky Act is in place.
It’s a bit of ideological juijitsu worthy of Putin himself. This was the pitch Veselnitskaya allegedly used on Trump, Jr., during their meeting. And indeed, as Donald Trump revealed in a free-ranging interview with the New York Times, Putin brought up “adoptions” in the course of their undocumented, hour-long conversation at a G20 dinner in Hamburg the other week as well.
Why would Putin personally intercede to overturn a bill that sanctions people seemingly only tangentially related to him? “He received some of the proceeds of the crime that Sergey Magnitsky had exposed,” Bill Browder told us when we spoke to him last week, pointing to funds received by Sergey Roldugin, Putin’s famous cellist buddy and suspected bag man exposed during the Panama Papers leaks of last year. And more than the inconvenience of having a couple hundred million dollars taken away, Putin appears rattled by the very precedent of the Magnitsky Act. “Putin, one of the wealthiest men in the world, with many many billions sitting in offshore bank accounts, could have all his money frozen and seized,” Browder went on. “And therefore, he sees that all the hard work he has done in the past seventeen years—stealing money and killing people—would be for naught if all that money gets taken away by the West.”
Just Doing Business With the Bear
It’s easy to get lost in this kaleidoscope of colorful characters. Disoriented, one is tempted to conclude one of two things: Either that—as both Trump, Jr., and Veselnitskaya, each in their own way, have tried to argue—this was “just” lobbying, and that since nothing seems to have come of it, there is nothing to see. Or that the layers upon layers of proxy actors is evidence of a brilliant sinister plot, hatched deep in the bowels of the Kremlin, to install a patsy in the White House.
Given what we know so far, neither appears to be strictly true.
Yes, Veselnitskaya was lobbying on behalf of her paymasters Pyotr and Denis Katsyv to overturn the Magnitsky Act. But as we have tried to show, Pyotr and Denis are no mere businessmen trying to overturn a law for only their own ends. Rather, they appear to be some kind of fixers or conduits for a network of former KGB men informally connected to Putin himself, and they have clearly received the full backing of the Russian state, up to and including the intercession of the Russian President himself on behalf of their “cause” with a sitting President of the United States at the G20. This is not “just” lobbying—it is the pursuit of an important foreign policy objective of the Russian Federation.
This points to something that American pundits rarely appreciate about Putin’s Russia: Foreign policy objectives are frequently suborned to the simple goal of personal enrichment. Putin doesn’t “hate democracy” as much as he sees it as a pesky impediment to him keeping the plum position at the feeding trough. His Russia, though displaying the trappings of a modern society, is rooted in an older social arrangement that uses personalized patronage networks to distribute wealth and maintain order. Westerners can have trouble coming to terms with how profound the difference is between the way things things are done in a place like Russia compared to how things are done back home. Nominally impartial bureaucracies exist in Russia, and while they can be as maddeningly slow and grinding as their Western counterparts, they wear their pretense to impartiality much more lightly.
Understanding this, it becomes much less difficult to imagine that Russia’s meddling in our elections last year was first and foremost motivated by the rapacious greed of a cadre of highly connected “businessmen”, including Putin himself. When it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, this network checked its rolodex, saw that it had links to Trumpworld, and made its pitch to help, with the ask implicit. By the time Putin was directly involved, some broader considerations (such as bloodying and getting revenge on Hillary Clinton, whom the Russians thought was going to easily win) may have come into play as well. But the initial, and primary, driver was likely the economic self-interest of Putin’s elites.
The network’s rolodex had at least two vectors for its approach. The Katsyvs were associates of Lev Leviev, who had sold several floors of the Times building in New York City to Jared Kushner. The Agalarovs, also close to the Kremlin’s commanding heights, did a deal with Trump through his involvement in the Miss Universe pageant. From what has been revealed thus far, neither of those transactions appear to have been in any way illegitimate or illegal. (Though, to be fair, without a clear audit of all of the President related ventures, we have little to go on but news reports.)
Both vectors were tried, but thus far at least, they have not yielded any results for Moscow. Yes, the President has an unnerving and enduring sympathy for strongmen leaders like Putin and Erdogan, and has for decades advocated for improving relations with Russia. Nevertheless, President Trump has publicly expressed strong support for the Magnitsky Act, and has made no overt efforts to repeal it. And beyond Magnitsky, the White House has now pledged (perhaps reluctantly, but still) to sign into law a new raft of sanctions on Russia in response to their election meddling, scheduled to be passed by Congress today. Was any quid pro quo arrangement discussed with Russian acquaintances eager to help? We simply don’t know. But even if it had been discussed, and the Russians lived up to their end of the bargain, they haven’t yet gotten much in return.
Associating with Russian oligarchs is of course not a crime. But President Trump’s reaction to the fact that his son didn’t bat an eye at meeting with Russians openly offering the services of their state—“everybody would do that”—suggests that even without a deal, we have as a country regressed a fair bit. Trump viscerally likes Putin and Erdogan because he recognizes them, sees in them a way of governing that is instantly familiar. Power emanates from the individual, states are personalized, government is the business of putting trusted cronies in a hierarchy below you to do your bidding, and economics is tied to a spoils system where friends are rewarded and enemies are punished. All of these are anathema to a modern state, which though it never completely transcends the patrimonial cronyism of its less-developed brethren, at least aspires to.
Cynics (including such people as Putin and his circle) scoff that modern states’ frequent inability to fully live up to their impartial ideal shows that they are rotten and hypocritical to the core. That’s one reason why Russia tends to give cover to anti-establishment candidates of the right and left who say that the system is rigged and the rule of law is a sham.
But this view misses the point: the ideal of impartiality, even if never fully attained, helps grow economies, expand opportunities, and limit political violence. A transparent decision-making process, even if not perfectly reliable, allows individuals in a society to plan more effectively, and thus begin to pursue the economic opportunities afforded them by the post-industrial era. A belief in the possibility of fairness allows societies to strive to more fully reform themselves to the ideal. Without this necessary hypocrisy, on the other hand, there is nothing preventing societies from devolving into an ever-more corrupt and clientelistic arrangement, which in today’s world has reached a kind of apotheosis in Putin’s Russia.
Thankfully, our institutions have thus far held up and appear to be checking the President’s worst instincts. Still, there’s little to celebrate—and not just because of President Trump’s clear affinity for a more personalistic brand of politics. It’s hard to re-embrace ideals once they have started to seem hollow to a substantial segment of the electorate.
1 Democratic lawmakers cried foul at the decision, demanding to know if the Department of Justice had inappropriately intervened in the case after Bharara’s firing. Sources from the prosecutor’s office denied these charges, telling The Daily Beast that the decision to settle was made because the case was far from a “slam dunk”, and that there had been no improper interference from the DoJ.