Presidential Campaign

Exploring Russian ties to the men lurking behind Trump

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin
Getty Images/Russia Today

Imagine the uproar talk-radio show hosts Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh would be whipping up now, if Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign manager had been for years a trusted adviser to Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, as Donald Trump’s Paul Manafort was. 

The Vladimir Putin satrap leveraged his Donbas mobster background to defeat, with Kremlin backing, the pro-democracy Orange Revolution and went on to build a kleptocracy underpinned by Russia’s security services, which is believed to have trained the Ukrainian snipers who slaughtered more than 50 Maidan protesters in 2014. 

{mosads}Imagine, too, that it was the Democrat’s presumptive White House nominee who considered appointing as her running mate a retired three-star general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who last December bizarrely — and certainly ill-advisedly — chose to be a feted guest at a 10th anniversary gala in Moscow for Russia Today, the virulently anti-American Kremlin propaganda outlet and cheerleader for the Crimea land-grab of Crimea and Putin’s bombing of U.S.-supported Syrian rebels. 

What on earth would the talk-radio hosts be saying, if another one of Clinton’s main foreign-policy advisers, like Trump’s Carter Page, was a onetime consigliere for Gazprom, the vast Kremlin-run natural-gas monopoly that Putin has used as a major tool in geopolitical energy politics in Europe rewarding countries favorably disposed to Moscow like Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, punishing and threatening obdurate ones? 

That’s the same Gazprom that in 2001 mounted a hostile takeover of the last remaining independent Russian television network, NTV — a takeover characterized by Mikhail Gorbachev as a Putin-directed campaign to establish Kremlin monopoly control of the country’s broadcasters.

Throw in as another foreign policy adviser, say, a former State Department aide sitting on the board of Russia’s Alfa Bank, which was accused of violating the UN sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. 

Add a few other elements into the mix. Say Hillary Clinton had for years relentlessly been pursuing multi-million-dollar business deals with the Russians and had courted the country’s oligarchs and the super-wealthy, whose fortunes depend on Putin and the siloviki (Russia’s military-security establishment members} who police the country’s crony capitalism.

It isn’t hard to guess the scale of the hue-and-cry the talk-show hosts would have raised if Hillary Clinton after all of this announced, as Trump did last week, that she wouldn’t necessarily defend the Baltic states from Russian aggression and live up to America’s NATO collective-defense commitments, the ultimate raison d’être of the bedrock Western alliance. 

Trump’s claims last week — both to the New York Times and in his convention speech — that NATO is obsolete must have been music to the ears to a Kremlin that has done everything it can to weaken Atlanticist ties, disrupt Western alliances and set allies to squabbling. 

For many Central European politicians Trump’s comments amounted to a Neville Chamberlain moment. And their mood wasn’t helped by supporting comments from Newt Gingrich, once in favor of NATO enlargement, who dismissed Estonia as basically a suburb of former KGB agent Putin’s home town, St. Petersburg. 

Central European allies worry about the machinations of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has also been in business with two highly controversial and Kremlin-connected oligarchs, Russia’s Oleg Deripaska and Ukraine’s Dmytro Firtash, a conduit for Gazprom funding of Yanukovych. 

And they see a parallel to what has been happening in Europe to what is unfolding with this year’s U.S. election cycle. 

In Soviet times, Moscow Gold flowed exclusively to far-left parties and nuclear-disarmament groups — part of a KGB “active measures” campaign to sponsor pro-Communist front organizations. Now the Kremlin and the KGB’s successor agencies have adapted. Money flows now also to populist far-right parties, an investment in the disruption of Western politics and a weakening of European solidarity. The Kremlin didn’t create the angst over immigration and popular anger at post-2008 austerity but it is fanning the fury — as can be seen with the output from Russia Today and other Kremlin-directed media outlets.

France’s National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, expresses deep admiration for Putin, has received multi-million euro loans from the First Czech Russian Bank, which enjoys cosy Kremlin ties. That money will help fund her presidential bid later this year. There have been rumors of other money flows to Europe’s far-right politicians but the opaque financial arrangements of many of the new breed of populist parties makes it hard to prove. Some of the hedge-fund and offshore financiers backing the populist parties also have Russian ties and following the money where they are concerned is even more challenging. 

The Budapest-based think tank Political Capital was among the first to note that the Kremlin was clearly courting and assisting far-right parties and personalties in western Europe as well as those in countries Russian politicians like to term the “near abroad”, the former Soviet Union’s satellite states. Among the aims, the think tank suspects is to keep Europe dependent on Russian natural gas, a useful economic weapon to wield, especially during harsh winters, against the Europeans when needs be.

But influence-peddling and mischief-making has become more sophisticated and now consists not only of funding far-right parties as well as far-left ones or honey-trapping, and subsequently blackmailing, a transgressing politician or two. And it has gone beyond just using longterm sleeper agents, like Anna Chapman, to infiltrate strategic sectors, whether it be U.S. government Beltway sub-contractors, Microsoft or marketing agencies in New York. 

As the Economist’s Edward Lucas, the first Western reporter to focus in earnest on Russia’s hybrid and myriad subversion techniques designed for a globalized, free market world the Kremlin has discovered the West above all likes cash —and  that influence, if not loyalty, can be bought, that politics and policy can be shaped and tweaked even more effectively by a company directorship here; a business deal there. 

The indelicacy of recruitment — except when it comes to penetrating Western intelligence agencies — is not needed; politics, business and intelligence objectives can be enmeshed subversively to guide and mold.

In his book “Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West”, Lucas painstakingly lays out the modus operandi of Russia’s new masters fusing “organized crime, big business, conventional diplomacy — and intelligence…using not only old tools against us, but also new ones of which their Soviet-era predecessors could only have dreamed.”

I have seen that myself in a small way encapsulated in the rise and activities of one senior operational Russian foreign espionage officer, who after his tour of duty under diplomatic cover had concluded in Washington D.C., has cropped up in ‘diplomatic’, government and business roles, effortlessly crossing back and forth between the three in what for his bosses is one complex playing field.

After leaving Washington, he has been among other things: a senior diplomat in Minsk, an ‘adviser’ to a Kremlin-appointed regional governor at a time Putin had a big push on to curtail the semi-independence of regional government, and then an energy company executive. He traveled at one time regularly to Kyiv.   

Is Russia playing in the U.S. like it has been in Europe? Russian investment has been a major target of the Trump organization. The Republican nominee’s son, Donald Jr, told a 2008 real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” According to the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication, he added: “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” 

Investors have included Alexander Mashkevich, a Kazakh who in 2011 was investigated by Turkish prosecutors for organizing a sex party on a luxurious yacht involving underage girls. Mashkevich denied any wrongdoing. He was also at the heart of one of the longest-running cases in Belgian history involving allegations of money-laundering. The case was eventually settled after he and two associates agreed to pay an undisclosed fine in return for the dropping of the case. Another investor is former Soviet official Tevik Arif, who has been investigated off-and-on for organized-crime links.

Has the Russian money and Moscow ties had consequences and does it shape candidate Trump’s foreign-policy thinking or that of the advice he receives from his aides? It is certainly a question that would be asked — and rightly so — of Hillary Clinton, if the shoe was on the other foot. Saudi donations to the Clinton Global Initiative have come under scrutiny, as well they should. 

Other pressing questions present themselves. Has the U.S. election cycle been targeted by the Russians for ‘active measures? The hacking in mid-June of Democrat National Committee computers and the stealing of opposition research on Donald Trump by, according to some experts, Russian intelligence-linked groups is a clear sign for some analysts such as Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council that Putin is engaged in “active measures in [the] U.S. presidential campaign.” 

The whole swirl bears a chilling resemblance to TV fictions such as The Last Panthers, a dark series that explores a money-making conspiracy involving murderous Central European gangsters and intelligence services, rapacious Western European property developers and venal global ‘banksters’ with politicians turning a blind eye — if not financially profiting — from the scheming.

In the final episode British actor John Hurt, playing a once loyal former MI6 officer who betrays country and friends for cold hard cash, says in a gravelly, world-weary voice:  “We used to think the barbarians lived in a land far, far away, and we ignored them. And then the barbarians were at the gates. And we were scared, but we ignored them again. And now we are all barbarians, aren’t we? “  We need to know exactly who the barbarians are in the real-life political drama playing out.

Dettmer is an international journalist and broadcaster with Voice of America. He has reported from Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Russia and has covered U.S. politics. 


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign D.C. DNC email hack Donald Trump Gazprom Hillary Clinton KGB Moscow NATO Russia United States Washington

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video