Kremlin’s Quid Pro Quo Deal With Trump Camp Comes Into Focus

Pact Appears to Implicate an Unlikely Alliance Involving the Russian Arms Business, a Hollywood Actor and the NRA

It’s a good bet most people haven’t heard of Russian billionaire Igor Kesaev, even though he is on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people.

His business holdings include real estate; a major Russian retail chain; an extensive cigarette-distribution empire that involves a partnership with the U.S. cigarette-manufacturer Philip Morris; and the V.A. Degtyarev Plant weapons factory, which produces, among other deadly weapons, anti-tank missiles, portable air-defense systems, machine guns and Kalashnikov automatic rifles.

Kesaev, who supports a foundation called the Monolit fund, which benefits veteran Russian intelligence agents and military officers, also has been targeted for U.S. Magnitsky Act sanctions for his alleged complicity in conspiring with Russian government officials to violate the human rights of Russian business owners via extortion, incarceration and other intimidation in order to appropriate their business assets and perpetrate tax fraud. Kesaev, of course, bills himself as a legitimate Russian businessman and patriot.

He is precisely the type of individual Russian attorney and suspected Kremlin intelligence asset Natalia Veselnitskaya was seeking to protect when she met at Trump Tower with a team of the U.S. president’s top advisors — including Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner — on June 9, 2016.

The purpose of that meeting, based on an assessment of press reports to date, was likely to lobby the Trump team to support freezing and, in time, sunsetting the Magnitsky Act sanctions, which target Russian officials accused of human rights violations. In return, the Kremlin would assist in dirtying up presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. As president, Donald Trump now has the power, via the State and Treasury departments, to add names to or withhold names from the Magnitsky sanctions list, although it would take an act of Congress and the president’s signature to undo the Magnitsky Act itself.

The Magnitsky Act stems from events that played out in Russia more than a decade ago, and the law has been a thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s despotic paw ever since it was enacted. From the mid-1990s until 2005, businessman William Browder 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.

Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s Russian attorney, began to dig into the suspected conspiracy and was later arrested by the same authorities his investigation had implicated in the alleged tax fraud against Hermitage. Magnitsky died in jail in late 2009 after months of brutal torture.

Magnitsky’s fate sparked international outrage, leading to President Barack Obama in 2012 signing into law the Magnitsky Act, which places visa sanctions and asset freezes on all those believed to be involved in the mistreatment and ultimate death of Magnitsky.

So, winding up on the Magnitsky sanctions list for Kesaev, and others who are part of Putin’s inner circle, would be a major business disruptor. In the case of Kesaev, those business interests include a $1.5 billion partnership with cigarette maker Philip Morris and co-investor Japan Tobacco. They also include plans to expand arms sales from his Moscow weapons factory by exploiting the U.S. gun-rights market — an effort being enabled by some interesting U.S.-based bedfellows, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Hollywood actor Steven Seagal.

Manafort in the Middle

Trump confidante Manafort’s presence at the June 9, 2016, meeting with the Russian attorney Veselnitskaya is of particular interest, given his past relationships with Kremlin-based actors.

In the mid-2000s Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair who remains a close advisor to the president, was working deals in Ukraine that involved Russian interests. Manafort worked as a close advisor to former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, whose regime was supported clandestinely by Russian President Putin. Manafort helped to get Yanukovych elected as president of Ukraine in 2010. Yanukovych abandoned his presidency and fled to Russia four years later, after his government was toppled in the wake of mass protests over his corruption and ties to the Kremlin.

Yanukovych also is allegedly linked to Russia’s FSB intelligence service (which replaced the KGB) through the billionaire Kesaev, who controls the Russian conglomerate the Mercury Group, which operates a subsidiary called Megapolis that dominates the cigarette-distribution market in Russia and Ukraine.

Sergiy Vysotskiy, a member of the Ukrainian parliament (or Verkhovna Rada), alleged in a past interview with Narco News that Kesaev has close ties to the Russian FSB. Neither Keaseav nor officials from his company replied to a request for comment from Narco News.

A past investigation by the Center for Public Integrity explored Kesaev’s links to the Russian deep state in-depth — including Kesaev’s role as the head of a fund that provides financial assistance to former Russian security-service officers (including veteran FSB and Russian military officers) and his partnership in the weapons business with former high-ranking Russian military officials.

In addition, Vysotskiy, a member of Ukraine’s People’s Front political party, contends that Yanukovych and various of his cronies are in business with Kesaev through the Russian magnate’s cigarette-distribution operations in Ukraine. That business partnership, by extension, raises questions about the extent of Manafort’s relationship with Kesaev, given Manafort was intimate with former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s world as his longtime political advisor and strategist.

“The heads of Ukraine intelligence and security services during the time of Yanukovych were all FSB-connected persons,” Vysotskiy said. “So, is he [Manafort] an idiot and didn't see what's was happening around him? Or he just didn't care that he is building a PR and foreign-relations strategy for criminal, corrupted government that was ready to sell out my country to Kremlin like it was a garage sale?”

Since Yanukovych’s ouster from power, Ukrainian anticorruption officials have uncovered logbooks showing Yanukovych paid some $2 billion in bribes while in office. Some $12.7 million worth of the bribes entered in the ledgers, according to recent media reports, were earmarked for Manafort between 2007-12. Manafort contends, however, that he never received any such payments.

The NRA ‘Tour’

So how would the Russian attorney Veselnitskaya’s play to enlist Trump’s top advisors, including Manafort, in an effort to neutralize the Magnitsky sanctions help Kesaev?

Well, should Kesaev be placed on the U.S. sanctions list, his billion-dollar partnership with U.S. based Philip Morris almost certainly would be in jeopardy, as would another project: Kesaev’s plan to expand arms sales from his V.A. Degtyarev weapons-manufacturing plant. That plan entails undertaking a lobbying effort in the U.S that is focused on getting the U.S. government to lift restrictions on the sales of Russian weapons in the United States.

The Moscow Times reported in 2013 that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is on a U.S. sanctions list related to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea in 2014, is leading the arms-sales charge that would benefit Kesaev’s weapons plant and has even enlisted U.S. actor Steven Seagal “to lobby for easing restrictions on the sale of Russian sporting rifles to the United States.”

More form the Moscow Times story:

Seagal, a long-time acquaintance of President Vladimir Putin, met with Rogozin on Tuesday [March 19, 2013] in the Cabinet building. The official asked the movie star to lobby U.S. hunting and rifle associations [such as the NRA]. 

"Your connections within the American establishment could help resolve this issue," Rogozin said while addressing Seagal, who wore black clothes and a big sports watch.

Rogozin even tweeted about the relationship with Seagal a year later, on May 11, 2014:

@DRogozin

Btw I also publish Steven Seagal photo who got engaged in promoting Russian weapons and supported us in crisis days.

Seagal’s relationship with the Russian arms industry was exposed further by England’s Guardian newspaper:

The actor Steven Seagal has become an unlikely business envoy for a pre-Russian revolutionary arms factory [Kesaev’s V.A.Degtyarev weapons plant]after agreeing to feature in adverts marketing its weapons in the US.

"… My friend Igor Kesayev [alternate spelling of Kesaev]invited me here. On his request, I will feature in adverts for Kovrov weapons for the US," the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda reported Seagal as saying. "I trust Kesayev. Whatever's put in my hands, I will advertise."

So, it would appear Kesaev and Seagal are business buddies in the arms trade. And, based on a Seagal tweet in reaction to Trump’s inauguration speech, he also is a fan of President Trump.

@sseagaloffical

Congratulations to President Donald Trump! Wonderful speech! So grateful & proud to finally have a president 4 the People!

Seagal also appears to be tight with another Russian billionaire family, Emin Agalarov and his father, Aras. The father-and-son team last year attended a coming-out party for a new watch collection being marketed by Seagal. In addition, Emin Agalarov and Seagal, an aspiring blues guitarist, have worked on entertainment-related projects together, including a music video, according to media reports.

Emin Agalarov, besides his role as an executive with his father’s real estate development company, the Crocus Group, also is a Russian pop music star and business acquaintance of Donald Trump Jr. The Agalarovs partnered with the senior Donald Trump to stage the Miss Universe pageant in Russia in 2013 and have had continuing access to the Trump family, according to media reports.

It was Emin Agalarov who helped to coordinate the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between Russian attorney Veselnitskaya and Trump Jr. — and fellow presidential advisors Manafort and Kushner.

The weapons connection doesn’t end with Seagal, however. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and by extension Kesaev and his arms factory, also have courted the National Rifle Association (NRA), which was among President Trump’s biggest campaign backers.

In late 2015, Russia hosted a delegation from the NRA, including some of its top leadership. While in Russia, the NRA delegation met with Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, even though he is the target of U.S. sanctions, according to the Daily Beast:

The NRA had previously objected to the parts of the U.S. sanctions regime that blocked Russian-made guns from import into the United States. But curiously, David Keene, the former NRA president and current board member who was on the Moscow trip, insisted the meeting with the high-ranking member of the Kremlin government had nothing whatsoever to do with geopolitics.

“Rogozin is chairman of the Russian Shooting Federation and his Board hosted a tour of Federation HQ for us while we were there,” Keene told The Daily Beast. “It was non-political. There were at least 30 in attendance and our interaction consisted of thanking him and his Board for the tour.”

Also part of the NRA delegation to Russia was vocal Trump backer and hardline gun advocate Milwaukee Country Sheriff David Clarke, who was until recently in line for a major Department of Homeland Security post with the Trump administration, which Clarke ultimately decided to turn down. The same week as NRA leaders were gathering in Russia in December 2015, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, was having dinner with Putin at a Moscow gala sponsored by Russia Today, a state-backed media outlet, the Daily Beast reported.

The Red Dragon

The assurances from the NRA’s Keene that the gun-lobbying organization’s involvement with a member of Putin’s inner circle was solely about an office “tour” now seem to ring hollow, and likely merit further scrutiny in light of Rogozinand Kesaev’s efforts to expand Russian arms sales in the U.S. — which are focused on consumer sales of sporting rifles.

And add to that Putin-backed gun-lobbying effort the recent revelations about the Kremlin-linked lawyer’s efforts to strike a quid pro quo deal with the Trump administration — which appears to have called on Trump to support a freeze and eventually roll back of Magintsky Act sanctions in exchange for help in dirtying up presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

But don’t expect the truth to be easy to get at in this case. Kesaev’s alleged links to the state-sponsored company raids and related tax-fraud schemes that led to the murder of Russian attorney Magnitsky were first advanced in 2010 by Russian attorney Alexander Dobrovinsky. At the time, he represented a Russian businessman jailed as part of an alleged effort to seize his company assets.

Dobrovinsky voiced his concerns about Kesaev’s ties to his client’s plight in a letter to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission.

Russia! Magazine reported on the allegations at the time:

Dobrovinsky's letter [to the Helsinki Commission], a copy of which was obtained by Russia! Magazine, recounted how his client, Moscow entrepreneur Armen Yeganyan, was allegedly blackmailed by corrupt Russian officials attempting to seize his $120 million wine and cognac business. Many of the officials involved in the attempted takeover, Dobrovinsky wrote, were also implicated in the tragic 2009 case of Sergei Magnitsky.

"The information available to us indicates a possible link between the ... criminal case against Armen Yeganyan [and] an attempt to establish control over KiN Moscow Wine and Cognac Plant's activity on the part of the structures controlled by [Russian businessman] Igor Kesayev, one of the major Philip Morris distributors in this country, and the actions of law enforcement agencies subsequent to this conflict with respect to Mr. Yeganyan," Dobrovinsky wrote.  [Emphasis added.]

Dobrovinsky’s letter to the Helsinki Commission, chaired at the time by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, can be found at this link.

Narco News contacted Dobrovinsky via email about the KiN case and his allegations of Kesaev’s complicity with the parties involved in the Magnitsky-related corruption, and he indicated that he has since reconsidered his position on Kesaev’s involvement.

From Dobrovinsky’s email to Narco News:

Everything that I said [at] that time was true. But during the litigation I didn't feel it anymore. For my biggest surprise.

… The two parties find solution, and if I remember correctly, my client [Yeganyan] sold his shares [in his company] for much more that he expected.

His lawyer [Dobrovinsky] was very happy :))))

Hermitage Capital Management co-founder Browder, who alleges his life has been threatened by the Putin regime since he and Magnitsky helped to expose its corruption, was not convinced of Dobrovinsky’s sudden change of heart when contacted by Narco News.

“Dobrovinsky could easily have changed his story out of money or fear,” Browder said.

Dobrovinsky’s recanting of the allegations against Kesaev — Browder’s speculation aside — might well have been the end of the matter, if Narco News had not been provided a dossier on Kesaev by a former CIA officer, who claimed to have been retained by a client seeking to prevent Kesaev from obtaining a U.S. visa. The former intelligence officer declined to reveal the name of that client.

The dossier reveals that the former CIA officer’s client also was focused on linking Kesaev to the Magnitsky case, setting him up for sanctions, an effort that appears to have been unsuccessful so far.

From the “Red Dragon” dossier:

Our interest in Mr. Igor Kesaev (aka Red Dragon) is his likely link to the death of Mr. Sergie Magnitsky and likely use of his vast network of companies, ranging from food, weapons to tobacco, drinks, automotive parts, etc., to avoid personal visibility, tax payments and … commodity regulations.”

… Mr. Kesaev, a Russian oligarch, is considered untouchable; listed on Forbes list of billionaires; Mercury Group of Companies president, linked to KGB (a former member); [and] the FSB. …”

The threat of being sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act should be of great concern to a billionaire businessman like Kesaev and those involved with him in promoting Russian arms sales around the globe. The question that confronts U.S. investigators now is whether that concern played some role in what appears to be the Kremlin’s attempt to cut a quid pro quo deal with the Trump camp, and potentially the NRA as well — a pact designed to thwart the Magnitsky Act sanctions in exchange for assisting Trump win the presidency. 

Stay tuned…

Prior Stories in the Series

Trump’s Business Venture in the Dominican Republic Could Become a Strangling Alliance

• Vice President Pence Has Cause to Support Trump’s Kremlin-Friendly Agenda

• Casino Owned by Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Violated US Anti-Money Laundering Laws Repeatedly 

• The Donald and the Snitch

 Trump Campaign Is Still Playing Russian Roulette With Foreign Policy

• Lawsuit Threatens to Expose Trump Campaign’s White Supremacist Links

 Donald Trump’s Past Lobbying Exploits Paint a Picture of a Deft Washington Insider

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