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Leaked emails show Anders Aslund, the Atlantic Council’s Russia-basher in chief, tried to solicit funds from Russian billionaires

Leaked emails show Anders Aslund, the Atlantic Council’s Russia-basher in chief, tried to solicit funds from Russian billionaires
Internal Atlantic Council emails reveal the NATO-connected ‘think tank’ aggressively schmoozed the obscenely wealthy owners of Russia’s Alfa Bank, in order to secure a slice of their vast riches.

The communications have been released publicly as a result of the ongoing defamation case brought against Fusion GPS and its founder and chief Glenn Simpson in a Washington, DC court, by Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan, the owners of Alfa Bank. The three allege false allegations against them in the ‘Trump-Russia dossier’,  produced for Fusion GPS by former MI6 operative Christopher Steele, damaged their reputation.

The now-notorious and utterly discredited dossier alleged they and the bank maintained a covert communications channel with Donald Trump, and moreover delivered “large amounts of illicit cash” to Vladimir Putin when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s.

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In July, the trio were awarded damages in a separate action brought against Orbis Intelligence, Steele’s private espionage firm, in London after Judge Mark Warby ruled the dossier’s allegations were “inaccurate or misleading” and the former spy had failed to take reasonable steps to verify the claims.

‘We got nothing’

In May 2016, coincidentally around the same time the Democratic National Committee hired Fusion GPS to investigate Trump, the Atlantic Council caught wind of the fact Alfa Bank’s owners wished to give away the entirety of their fortunes to charitable causes while alive, and saw a prime opportunity for grift.

Writing to the think tank’s top executives, Council ‘senior fellow’ Anders Aslund lustily noted their intention, and respective net worth of Fridman ($15 billion) and Aven ($5 billion).

“This could open an opportunity. To date Fridman has been extremely stingy,” Aslund stated rapaciously. “Rich Burt represents both Fridman and Aven quite intensely. I shall tentatively have dinner with Aven in Moscow Sunday night so I might be able to ask him what he wants. As you remember, we hosted him here in November and got nothing.”

That the November 2015 event left the Council empty-handed was undoubtedly a crushing disappointment for Aslund, given he went to great lengths to be highly accommodating to Aven, letting him pick the time and format of his Council talk, the number of attendees, and more.

“Our preference would be a lunch talk, but please indicate what time that suits you. Do you want a private off the-record meeting with 20-24 people or a bigger public meeting? The choice is yours,” he wrote to Aven.

Aslund added chummily that whenever the billionaire had spare time in Washington, he and his wife Anna were “always happy” to see him. However, there were some organizational problems.

In an email to Council higher-ups, Aslund's colleague Alison Perry suggests Aven wished to invite “former Russian propaganda minister” Mikhail Lesin to the meeting, to which Aslund initially agreed. However, the Council subsequently learned Lesin was under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for money laundering, and was forced to “find a polite way” of letting Aven know Lesin was no longer welcome.

The volte face was presumably begrudging in extremis, given Lesin’s purportedly immense wealth - five properties in California alone allegedly owned by companies affiliated with his family were worth a combined US$28 million. In a bizarre twist, the day after the Council event, he was found dead in a Washington, DC hotel room. Authorities concluded he died of blunt-force trauma to the head, induced by falling due to acute alcohol intoxication.

‘Nothing must be reported’

Fast forward to October 15, 2017, and Aslund’s gold-digging scheme was in full swing – he wrote to Council staff stating invitations for a “small, private, off-the-record breakfast” on October 26 with Fridman and Aven needed to be sent to a number of powerful individuals.

Proposed attendees included representatives of the US State Department, National Security Council, Treasury, Congress, Senate, and other influential government-funded think tanks, including the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings Institute, RAND Corporation, and others. The senior fellow was keen to stress no journalists should be invited.

Aslund’s long-running effort to curry favor with Alfa Bank’s owners is highly ironic given his vociferous promotion of the Steele dossier, which in June 2017 he dubbed “outstanding intelligence.

In February the next year, he wrote an essay for the Council stating the “reasons to believe Steele are multiple and overwhelming,” and slamming the refusal of the mainstream media to publicize the dossier during the 2016 presidential campaign due to the unverifiable nature of most of its contents.

Claiming news outlets had “confused the profession of journalism with that of prosecution,” Aslund also expressed contempt for the philosophy that “if not everything is proven correct, nothing must be reported” – a rather troubling indictment, given the Council’s ‘anti-fake news’ partnership with Facebook, and claims to be “on the front lines of disinformation.”

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“The US media missed the greatest scandal of the 2016 election campaign because they were so stuck in medieval liturgy it rendered them incapable of reporting the truth... The question is not whether the Kremlin helped Trump win the election but whether it can be proved in court and whether it is punishable according to all too arcane US law, which could not even sentence Al Capone for anything but tax evasion,” he fulminated.

Strikingly, the essay has since been “retracted and removed” from the organization’s website.

What claims in the dossier can be verified have since been proven to be total fiction, its contents drunken tittle-tattle provided to Steele by Brookings Institute staffer Igor Danchenko. In interviews with the FBI in February 2017, he expressed dismay this gossip had been used to secure surveillance warrants against individuals connected to the Trump campaign.

Nonetheless, Aslund still views the dossier as “largely credible,” and has even praised the “excellent” and “knowledgeable” Danchenko, who somewhat amazingly was a student of his at Georgetown University.

‘Corrupt politically exposed persons’

Aslund’s fundraising activities are doubly ironic given in 2019 he authored ‘Russia’s Crony Capitalism’, a book documenting the country’s alleged descent from a “market economy to kleptocracy.”

In March this year, he predicted this shift would contribute to Russia’s economic collapse in the very near future. It was at least the fourth occasion Aslund has foretold the country’s impending and unstoppable implosion, having previously – and incorrectly – done so in 1999, 2001, and 2014

All along, his willingness to personally profit from the very financial activities he condemns has endured untrammeled. In June 2018, Aslund was appointed to the supervisory board of Ukrainian state railway Ukrzaliznytsia – he resigned in September this year.

In explaining his decision, he claimed he was exposed to “excessive” legal risks by not being provided directors’ and officers’ liability insurance, and said many of the board’s decisions hadn’t been implemented by Ukrzaliznytsia’s management.

Principled enough, but there was also the small issue of directors not having been paid since April. Or, at least, not paid enough – earlier this year, President Volodymyr Zelensky capped salaries of public employees as well as members of management and supervisory boards of state-owned companies at 10 times the official minimum salary, about $1,700 a month, from April 1 to the end of quarantine.

In a statement to Interfax, Aslund moaned that while presented as a temporary emergency measure, “it might persist” even longer, an obviously horrifying and unacceptable prospect for the closeted kleptocrat.

“Members of parliament attack foreign members of supervisory boards of state-owned Ukrainian companies for being foreigners and having been paid too much, but we have been paid nothing since April,” he raged bitterly.

The month after his supervisory board appointment, BuzzFeed revealed Aslund was paid to write a paper alleging financial institutions in Latvia, long-lambasted as lairs of criminality and corruption, had made tremendous strides in enforcing anti-money laundering statutes – by the very banks involved. It was commissioned by Sally Painter, a lobbyist for Baltic banks and member of the Council’s board of directors.

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The organizations that lined Aslund’s pockets included a subsidiary of ABLV Bank, which at the time was attempting to secure permission to establish an office in the US. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, as the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network concluded ABLV was a bank of “primary money laundering concern.”

“ABLV executives, shareholders, and employees have institutionalized money laundering... Management permits the bank and its employees to orchestrate and engage in money laundering schemes; solicits high risk shell company activity that enables the bank and its customers to launder funds; maintains inadequate controls over high-risk shell company accounts; and seeks to obstruct enforcement of Latvian anti-money laundering rules in order to protect these business practices,” the Treasury ruled.

Some of this illicit activity, the Treasury alleged, involved transactions for parties involved in North Korea’s procurement and export of ballistic missiles, and money laundering for “corrupt politically exposed persons.” ABLV was accused of funneling billions of dollars “in public corruption and asset-stripping proceeds through shell company accounts,” and failing to mitigate risks stemming from these accounts, “which involved large-scale illicit activity connected to Azerbaijan, Russia, and Ukraine.”

Shortly after the Treasury’s findings were made public, ABLV was forced to close – but Aslund told BuzzFeed he stood by his report, as it was “factually correct.”

The paper was presented at a private Council event in October 2017, the same month he was arranging that “small, private, off-the-record breakfast” with Alfa Bank’s owners.

It was convened despite Aslund’s research not being an official Council publication, and the think tank claiming it was written and published without its input. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no reference to the report or the event can be found on the Council’s website.

Snouts in trough

The email tranche indicates Aslund wasn’t the only Council apparatchik determined to get the think tank’s proverbial mitts in the Alfa Bank till.

In July 2015, Council chief executive Fred Kempe emailed Petr Aven about a fully-fledged partnership between the Council and Letter One, an Alfa Bank affiliate, and suggested there was “a larger role” for him to personally play at the Council.

All the Council’s approaches to Alfa Bank were allegedly unsuccessful, but there’s no shortage of dubious institutions and individuals all too willing to lavishly bankroll the think tank. Its donors currently include the US embassies of UAE and Bahrain, Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, defense giant Raytheon, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), and the US State Department.

From 2006 - 2016, the Council’s annual revenue leaped tenfold, from $2 million to $21 million – a period in which, concurrently and not coincidentally, corporate and state budgets typically reserved for lobbying firms were increasingly directed to think tanks.

Its board of directors comprises well-connected US government veterans Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Michael Hayden, David Petraeus, and many others. The emails related to Alfa Bank also name Council officials Richard Burt, Daniel Fried, John Herbst and Richard Morningstar, all previously US ambassadors to European and/or Eurasian countries.

Such close ties to the US national security state unquestionably allow for very effective, well-targeted lobbying on behalf of its bankrollers indeed. Except Alfa Bank refused to bite.

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