Russian Interference in US Elections Makes More Sense When You Follow the Money
Cyberattack on Democrats Coincided With Putin-Controlled Banks’ Lobbying Campaign to Roll Back Obama Sanctions
Russian intelligence-agency operatives as early as mid-2015 had taken the initial steps in penetrating the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.
By the summer of 2016, those Russian operatives had made public through a network of media shills, including the now-disgraced WikiLeaks website, a stream of hacked email correspondence designed to damage Clinton’s campaign — and to bolster Donald Trump’s chances of claiming the presidency. The fact that Russia was behind the cyberattack is a point of agreement among the U.S. intelligence community, the White House and members of Congress who are in a position to know the details.
President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters, however, continue to claim that there is no conclusive evidence Russia launched a cyberattack on the U.S. — but then they have self-serving motivations to do so, given Trump’s election would be delegitimized to a major degree should they embrace the reality that the Russian cyberattack played a role in his victory.
Their false narrative, however, takes us down a path that is a waste of time politically — and given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past military aggressions, it also could represent a danger to world security. For that reason, Trump and his backers deceive themselves if they think Putin can be trusted as a “friend,” or that he intends to do anything other than subvert US interests in order to advantage his own agenda.
Putin’s goals are not linked to the battle of ideologies that characterized the Cold War era of the past century — capitalism vs. communism. That battle ended and capitalism prevailed — which has led us to our present international condition. Russia is now a corrupt state wedded to predatory capitalism and run by an autocrat, Putin, who masquerades as an elected leader, and we have just elected a president who doesn’t seem to see through that charade, or may even be part of it.
Putin, a former Cold War Russian intelligence agent, is a ruthless and cunning kleptocrat — literally a leader who uses state power to pillage and plunder a nation’s resources. He runs Russia with an iron fist, silencing critics with impunity. So if he directed a cyberattack on the U.S. government, which White House officials contend is the case, then it was likely for a goal that would advance his power and wealth.
To that end, U.S. lobbying and foreign-agent registration filings involving Russia’s two largest banks — both state-owned lenders that are ultimately controlled by Putin — seem to shed some light on Putin’s bigger goals. An affiliate of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, as well as an affiliate of the country’s second-largest lender, VTB Group, each hired U.S. lobbyists — Sberbank in the spring of 2016 and VTB in the spring of 2015, federal filings show [here and here].
The lobbying objective of Russian lender VTB, federal documents show, is to convince the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch to reconsider “the imposition of US sanctions on Russian-affiliated banks.” A federal disclosure form filed by the lobbying firm for the Sberbank affiliate states similarly that its goal is to help the bank find ways to achieve “sanctions relief.”
Following the Timeline
Russian forces seized Crimea in southern Ukraine in March 2014, a move that, along with Russia’s other aggressions in Ukraine, led President Barack Obama to impose sanctions, via executive orders, against various Russian banks and other economic sectors.
The U.S. sanctions targeting Sberbank and VTB — which control the bulk of Russia’s bank assets — are designed to make it very difficult for those lenders to raise money in international markets, which inhibits their ability to fuel the Russian economy and Putin’s expansionist interests. An unstable Russian economy ultimately is a threat to Putin’s ultimate interest as well — his grip on power.
Trump announced his bid for the US presidency in June 2015, only two months after the Putin-controlled VTB affiliate initiated its U.S. lobbying push to roll back Obama’s sanctions.
By September 2015, the FBI had discovered that the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC’s) computer network was under attack by Russian-government hackers. About a year later, in July 2016 — and only a few days in advance of the Democratic National Convention — WikiLeaks began publishing hacked emails snatched from the DNC servers.
The Sberbank affiliate retained a US lobbying firm in March 2016, federal filings show. Some seven months later, in October 2016 — about a month prior to the presidential vote — Clinton Campaign Chairman Podesta’s hacked emails started appearing on WikiLeaks.
The hacked DNC and Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks — with help from two smaller websites suspected of being loyal to Putin — were picked up by media outlets across the globe and led to a steady drumbeat of negative news about Clinton and her presidential campaign.
It seems, then, based on the public-record trail, that Putin’s intelligence assets were attempting to penetrate the computer networks of the DNC and Podesta at the same time Putin-controlled lenders were under contract and in communications with US lobbyists hired to convince Congress and the White House to roll back sanctions against the banks. Those sanctions are arguably strangling Russia’s cash flow — and consequently Putin’s access to the money he needs to feed his greed and expansionist ambitions.
VTB, for example, has been in the spotlight over its role in facilitating suspicious financial transactions that are linked to Putin and his close associates. This past August, the Financial Times published the following:
In April , the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported that leaked documents known as the Panama Papers showed Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and long-time friend of Mr Putin, presiding over a $2 billion offshore network, much of which went through VTB. Mr. Putin acknowledged that the reports were true but said Mr. Roldugin used the money to buy antique musical instruments and ship them to Russia.
… VTB’s critics say the Panama Papers revelations fit into a pattern of corporate governance scandals dating back years….”
Sberbank also has been accused of helping to finance Putin’s covert adventures. The Ukrainian government in 2014 alleged that the state-owned bank was among a group of Russian lenders who were helping to fund pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. The bank denies the charges, however.
In what might seem like an odd twist (but in reality makes perfect sense), the US lobbyists hired by Russia’s two largest banks happened to have deep ties to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated presidential campaign.
Sberbank, via its US affiliate, hired the Podesta Group Inc., a lobbying firm that was co-founded by Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, and his brother, Tony. John Podesta no longer has an active role in the lobbying firm, but he obviously still has ties to his brother, who is the chairman of the Podesta Group and is very plugged into Democratic power circles.
The affiliate of Russian lender VTB Group retained as its lobbyist Emanuel “Mike” Manatos, who was a rainmaker — a so-called bundler — for Clinton’s presidential bid, helping to raise some $40,000 for her campaign, as reported in the Daily Beast. As a big fundraiser, Manatos would have been in contact with a number of people key to the Clinton campaign, and his email traffic, as well as those he contacted, would have been vulnerable to attack by a Russian cyber-incursion, sources familiar with Democratic fundraising efforts tell Narco News.
If Russian operatives gained access to the computer networks of those two lobbying firms, it would be like opening a back door into the inner workings of the Democratic Party. Planting surveillance equipment in the lobbying firms’ offices would have added yet another layer of granularity to the espionage mission, making it even easier to obtain access to confidential information, computers and email servers for subsequent cyberattacks.
A report issued jointly this past December by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security lends credence to the concern that political organizations and private companies, such as lobbying firms, could well be targets of Russian espionage operations.
From the report:
This document provides technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. Government, political, and private sector entities. The U.S. Government is referring to this malicious cyber activity by RIS as GRIZZLY STEPPE.
… This activity by RIS is part of an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens. These cyber operations have included … campaigns targeting government organizations, critical infrastructure entities, think tanks, universities, political organizations, and corporations leading to the theft of information.
Although the Russian cyberattack targeting the DNC and Podesta likely played out across multiple fronts and platforms, it would be hard for a competent intelligence agency to miss the opportunity presented by the Russian banks’ relationship with the US lobbying firms. And, if done right, according to one former intelligence officer who spoke with Narco News, such a far-ranging espionage operation — and its many tentacles — likely would not have been detected in full until it was too late, if at all.
“When you do intelligence work well, it’s hard by design to get to the ultimate truth,” the former intelligence officer said. “If Russian intelligence is behind this, [as the evidence to date shows], there will still likely be some doors closed that we [US investigators] will not be able to see beyond.”
As the Sanctions Turn
Of course, the fact that two Putin-controlled big banks were working with lobbying firms that had close ties to Hillary Clinton at the same time Russian intelligence agencies overseen by Putin were attempting to hack into the computers of the DNC and key Democratic Party leaders to derail Clinton’s campaign could simply all be a coincidence. But that notion seems as equally unlikely to be true as are claims that the cyberattacks were arbitrary or the work of “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as Trump has suggested previously. What is clear is that the cyberattacks hurt Clinton’s bid for the presidency and Obama’s prospects for preserving his legacy while bolstering Trump’s chances to secure the presidency.
Trump, for his part, has said previously that he will consider recognizing Putin’s seizure of Crimea if elected president. In fact, Trump’s designee for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson, opposes the sanctions against Russia. Tillerson’s former company, which stands to benefit from expanded oil-exploration contracts in Russia absent the US sanctions, also recently helped to defeat legislation that would have made it more difficult for Trump to lift the sanctions against Russia once he becomes president.
Some contend Trump’s pro-Russian tilt is evidence of a quid pro quo deal he has in place with Putin. John Podesta has gone as far as to claim some of Trump’s staff may have colluded with the Russians.
Bill Browder understands well the world of Putin and the Russian business and banking class. From the mid-1990s until 2005, he operated Hermitage Capital Management, which oversaw the largest foreign-investment fund in Russia at the time. He had a falling out with the Kremlin, however, and was expelled from Russia in 2005, after being declared a national security threat — and his company’s assets were seized as part of what Browder alleges was an elaborate tax-fraud scheme perpetrated by Russian authorities.
“Trump is a dealmaker, and I can’t imagine that he would be doing this [promoting policies favorable to Russia] unless there was something in it for him,” Browder said a prior interview with Narco News. “He doesn’t think of it as high treason. He thinks of it as a deal. What that deal is we don’t know.”
Browder recently told Narco News that it is still too early to say “what Trump is going to trade for what with Putin.”
“All we know at this stage is that he's putting a like-minded person at [Secretary of] State [with Tillerson], so whatever deal he cuts won't be sabotaged by his administration,” Browder alleged.
Of course, if you don’t believe Trump is complicit in some deal with Putin, and that is not a certainty at this point, equally troubling would be ignorance on his part of Putin’s larger agenda. That kind of feckless approach to dealing with Russia could set Trump up as an easy mark for Putin — at the expense of the American people.
Regardless of Trump’s motives, his pro-Russian propaganda to date is a bit disconcerting considering the stakes in this game. If the sanctions for Putin’s exploits in Ukraine are lifted, and the Russian banks, and consequently Putin, once again find themselves flush with cash, the potential for future world strife escalates — given Putin’s already proven taste for invading or otherwise subverting democracy in other countries.
For now, it appears Obama’s sanctions are having the intended effect of tightening the financial reigns on Putin and inhibiting his militarism to some degree. The Russian banks’ lobbying efforts are evidence of that pain. Consequently, if we are looking for a goal, at least in part, of Russia’s recent cyber-aggressions in the U.S. elections, it seems ending Obama’s sanctions fits that bill.
That goal, unfortunately for the US, could well be achieved if Trump decides to terminate the sanctions upon taking office in the wake of his Putin-assisted election victory.
The test of Trump’s true allegiances on that front will come soon enough, and for all to see.
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