By Dan Peak
The Commoner Call (4/9/18)
Dear Fellow Readers,
At long last, the Trump administration has finally issued serious sanctions against Russia. The sanctions cover a combination of Russian oligarchs, related companies and Russian officials. These sanctions are issued under previous censure of Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria. Congress overwhelmingly passed bipartisan sanctions meant to punish Russia for election interference in August 2017, while these latest additions are not part of that legislation, these are certainly aimed squarely at Russian influence in the 2016 election.
More specifically, these latest sanctions punish many Russians directly linked to Trump and the Trump campaign. They are in stark contrast to the many instances of Trump dismissing or equivocating around Russian intrusion.
So, what do these sanctions do and why are they important?
The Washington Post reports: U.S. Sanctions Ensnare Russians With Ties To Trump World.
The Washington Post reports announcement was made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin:
“The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites. Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”
The impact of the sanctions is meaningful:
“The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals or entities named hold in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from conducting business with them — even if they work for international companies outside the United States. The Treasury Department said it would issue guidance to Americans on how to unwind from any business interests they have with them in a way to avoid being punished for violating sanctions.
“The real power of sanctions is they discourage international financial institutions, which typically conduct business at least partially in U.S. dollars, from doing business with them. The administration explicitly warned that non-Americans may face sanctions themselves for facilitating significant transactions with the people and companies named.”
There is much to be respected about these latest actions. The second paragraph above is most important: Going forward, restrictions on access to international banking services is a problem if Russians are moving $20 billion to $25 billion a year out of Russia, this is a huge complexity (Russia Monitor 4-2-18). Financial institutions are forced to take these restrictions seriously, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion in 2012 for laundering Mexican drug cartel money.
On the other hand, there is also a view that the long delay relative to paragraph one was by design. Russian oligarchs have had months to anticipate possible sanctions targeted at their assets so the first paragraph is unlikely to have much impact. Esquire’s Charles Pierce references an NBC News story:
““One U.S. official noted that the delay in initiating sanctions against the oligarchs responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has muted their effect. He said that the oligarchs have had a year to restructure their U.S. holdings. “They had to know these were coming,” he said.”
Also as part of the same NBC News story, “former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin told NBC News that sanctions “on Putin’s inner circle, the dozen or so wealthy oligarchs who park money and real estate in the West,” would hurt Russia more than the just-announced expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats.”
Let’s take a look at who and what was targeted: Treasury Designates Russian Oligarchs, Officials, and Entities in Response to Worldwide Malign Activity.
“The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in consultation with the Department of State, today designated seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they own or control, 17 senior Russian government officials, and a state-owned Russian weapons trading company and its subsidiary, a Russian bank.”
Oleg Deripaska has been a frequent character in the Russia Monitor many times and warrants first consideration given his links to indicted former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and former campaign deputy chair, who pled guilty, Rick Gates.
“Among the most prominent Russian tycoons identified Friday is metals magnate , the billionaire founder and majority shareholder of . Deripaska, 50, made headlines last year due to his links to Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The tycoon has had difficulties in the past in getting a U.S. visa.”
As mentioned, Deripaska has been covered here many times as a link between the Trump campaign and Putin.
Scott Walker’s $1.1 million Russia connection
Another oligarch that has been covered here but less frequently is Viktor Vekselberg, a partner to Deripaska in Rusal (En+ Group, now sanctioned, in turn owns a major share of Rusal, an aluminum producer), but also has significance for ties to a Governor Walker campaign donation. Vekslberg also owns Renovo Group which was also sanctioned.
The Walker campaign donation – we previously presented the research done by the Dallas News from December 2017 and updated April 2018. A dual U.S./UK citizen named Len Blavatnik donated $6.35 million to a number of political action committees in 2015-2016:
Other high dollar recipients of funding from Blavatnik were PACS representing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at $1.1 million.
Walker’s campaign received $1.1 million – Blavatnik is a co-owner of Rusal along with Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg – both now sanctioned. Vekselberg in one of the top 10 richest men in Russia and he co-founded Renovo Group, an energy sector investment fund operating group, in the 1990’s with Blavatnik.
It bears repeating – Len Blavatnik donated $1.1 million to Walker’s PAC – Blavatnik is linked to newly sanctioned persons and companies including Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg. Deripaska has a long relationship with Manafort and Gates. This was not illegal, but $1.1 million was a very large contribution Walker’s PAC, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Someone had to decide to accept this money.
Vekselberg was so pleased with Trump’s election he even came to Washington D.C. for the inauguration, something that won’t be so easy now.
Sanctioned Russian oligarchs and government officials; other notables…
There is Kiril Shamalov. Referencing the same U.S. Department of Treasury news release, “Shamalov married Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova in February 2013 and his fortunes drastically improved following the marriage.” Shamalov became a Putin “billionaire elite”. Previously the Russia Monitor noted via the Panama Papers that Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was linked to Shamalov with Navigator Holdings Ltd., a Ross investment, having a lucrative relationship with Sibur, a Russian gas company partly owned by Shamalov.
There is also Andrey Kostin, President, Chairman of state-owned VTB Bank. VTB Bank was linked to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and a failed Trump Tower Moscow project. Trump senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has his own links to VTB and Kostin. Kushner was the conduit for VTB investment in Facebook and Twitter, and also met with Sergey Gorkov, in December 2016. NBC News reported this from Mikhail Khordorkovsky, an exiled Russian oil executive and once Russia’s richest man:
“If there were any instructions, they came from the level of Kostin, the chairman of the board of VTB bank,” Khodorkovsky said, “or from the level of Mr. Gref, which isn’t nearly as likely, despite the two of them being close.”
There’s also Suleiman Kerimov, another one of the 7 Russian oligarchs hit with sanctions Sunday. He has been linked to Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian lobbyist who was at the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016.
The last person we’ll highlight is Alexander Torshin, the State Secretary – Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. Torshin has been previously noted here as being of interest to the FBI for Russian money funneled to the NRA: FBI Investigating Whether Russian Money Went To NRA To Help Trump.
“The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.
“FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said.”
The Rolling Stone offered their initial investigation of the NRA (last edition of The Commoner Call) and an update noting his relationship to the NRA but also his efforts to broker a Trump-Putin meeting through Trump executive officer and son Donnie Trump Jr.
“Torshin has been an NRA member since at least 2010, cultivating deep ties to its leadership, including at the NRA’s annual conventions and through NRA delegation visits to Moscow, most recently in December 2015. Through his NRA connections, Torshin sought to broker a meeting between candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2016, later meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. at May 2016 NRA convention.”
Remember from the initial Rolling Stone article that Steven Hall, chief of Russia operations for the CIA until 2015, stated the obvious:
“”The idea of private gun ownership is anathema to Putin.“ The entire effort was about building channels for Russian influence in the U.S.”
White House tough talk
On Friday a reporter asked White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders why Trump has not personally spoken out about the sanctions: White House: Trump Has Been Tough On Russia Because He Said So.
“The president has,” Sanders insisted, cutting off the Los Angeles Times’s Noah Bierman. “It’s ridiculous that you guys say that. Just earlier this week, the president stood on a stage in an open press room and talked about how he had been tough on Russia”.
We know Trump is tough on Russia because Trump said so:
“Well, I think we’ll be able to have great dialogue, I hope,” Trump answered. “And if we can’t, you’ll be the first to know about it. Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”
Trump says a lot of things, but it’s possible there is finally — finally — a demonstration that he is capable of taking a firm step in response to Putin and Russia.
Herding rats & weasels
Trump supporter, Blackwater founder and brother to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Erik Prince, is in more hot water over questions of his Congressional testimony regarding his meeting with a Russian financier in Seychelles. Meanwhile, Kushner is getting attention for a potential buy out of his partner for his building at 666 Fifth Avenue. The question is, where did the money come from? New loans for the family business are something Kushner has been busily working on while formulating — or at the expense of — U.S. foreign policy.
But the new Russia sanctions, as good as they may be, highlight a Trump problem: Former Obama Security Council Staffer Catches Sarah Sanders In A Lie About Trump’s New Russia Sanctions.
Even when potentially doing something right, there is still confusion with any explanation about any and all things Trump. The article cites an inconsistency between Sanders’ explanation of the sanctions as a response to election meddling. But that’s not true, the sanctions are stated as being in response to Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria (as stated at the beginning of this column).
Yeah, sure, it is yet another mole-hill-mountain, except the point is, people are finally calling Trump out as a liar. And Sanders as well: Scarborough Goes Off On ‘Lying’ Sarah Huckabee Sanders: ‘That Is a Lie … Full Stop’.
“MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough laid into White Hosue press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders Thursday morning for, according to him, picking up President Donald Trump’s “habit” of “lying.””
Go ahead, indulge yourself. It is a tart bit of video.
Again, anyone can sweep away the example – though it’s one of something like 3,000 Trump lies and counting? There may be an official number of lies, the Washington Post had it at over 2,000 after one year in office.
2,000 lies, 3,000 lies – even that is not the point. Once again we’ll turn to, and end with, a tweet from Garry Kasparov and his observation of authoritarianism – a real threat we face with Trump. (Karparov retweeting conservative writer Bill Kristol)
Garry Kasparov Retweeted Bill Kristol
Always. The Leader must simultaneously say he’s conquered every crisis and warn that there are unlimited crises that only he can solve. It’s why the crises must keep getting bigger.
Garry Kasparov added,
Bill KristolVerified account @BillKristol
Trump’s contradictory messages are not a bug but a feature of a demagogue in power. He wants to say both, “I’ve done great things for you–and only I could have gotten these things done,” and “Threats remain everywhere, and I’m the only one who’s willing to stand up to them.” https://twitter.com/jdawsey1/status/981873556303896576 …
8:07 AM – 5 Apr 2018
Another example of Trump’s ‘emperor’s new clothes’ … our wanna be authoritarian.
(Commoner Call cartoon by Mark L. Taylor, 2018. Open source and free non-derivative use with link to www.thecommonercall.org )