Category Archives: Russia

(EUobserver) EU states and Russia clash on truth of WW2 pact


  • Moscow military parade: Russian revanchism under president Vladimir Putin has reopened old wounds (Photo: Dmitriy Fomin)

Five EU states have issued a statement condemning a World War 2-era German-Russian treaty which divided Europe, but Russia has defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The treaty, signed between Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his Nazi German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, on 23 August 1939 “sparked World War 2 and doomed half of Europe to decades of misery” the foreign ministries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania said on Friday (23 August), the day of its 80th anniversary.

(EN) After 20 years in power, is Putin’s grip weakening?


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 28, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 28, 2019. -CopyrightSputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS

Friday marks 20 years since Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, back then a little known security services chief with not much experience in politics, as his prime minister.

Few would’ve guessed that 20 years later, the same man would still be in power and play such an important role in world affairs.

However, Putin’s 20th anniversary in power comes at a difficult time for the Kremlin’s top chief.

His approval ratings have taken a hit because of the stalling economy and worsening living standards.

A growing protest movement in Moscow, which has seen thousands arrested in recent weeks, is also posing a threat to Putin’s reign.

But despite the recent setbacks, Putin has undeniably built an empire on his own.

From friends to foes with the West

Early on in his tenure, Russia enjoyed strong economic growth, which Putin took credit for.

It was also a time when the leader appeared ready to work with the West. The Kremlin’s leader was one of the first to call then-president Bush and offer his sympathy after the September 11 attacks. He also helped the US fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and allowed the country to establish a military presence in Central Asia — a territory Russia sees as its own backyard, according to Reuters’ Russia correspondent Andrew Osborn.

But after the 2004 revolution in Ukraine, Putin’s attitude changed.

The Kremlin believed it was part of a foreign ploy to reduce Russia’s influence there and the West’s intervention in Iraq did not help the situation.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea helped ostracise it from the West but it strengthened Putin’s support at home and convinced many the Kremlin’s foreign policy was on the right track.

Questions over his leadership

Certain Russian liberals have questioned Putin’s command since the beginning, mainly because of his background in the KGB but also his crackdown on Chechen separatists as prime minister.

There are still doubts about a series of deadly bombings on an apartment complex attributed to separatists but some claim it was staged by the security services as a cover for further military intervention in Chechnya.

However, many still see Putin as the man who restored Russia’s dignity after the collapse of the USSR.

Economic woes mean trouble for Putin

Russia’s economic deterioration came as bad news for Putin who has seen his approval ratings slide.

In 2018, he won the presidential again but this time, political analysts were asking themselves whether his default win was because he had become Russia’s only choice.

According to political analyst Konstantin Kalachev, Putin’s ratings can be interpreted in different ways.

“Putin’s rating today is completely different from what it used to be. If it was a rating of adoration before, now it’s no alternative. For 20 years, Putin has been, let’s say, the loudest voice. But today people are looking for a different voice. And as soon as he appears, then the president’s rating may go down,” he said.

Last summer, after the elections, mass protests broke out across the country as dissatisfaction with living standards came to a head, leading some observers to talk about a different kind of breakdown in Russian society.

What will happen in the future?

Experts expect Putin and his team to find a way to stay in power even after his mandate is over in 2024.

Gregory Bovt, an analyst and commentator, told AFP this may happen through the creation of a new institution. “Some sort of collective body will be created to direct the country, and Putin will always remain the head,” he said.

“He will remain watching over the country… his task is to fulfil his historical mission,” Bovt said.

(BI) Russia is joining forces with Europe to rescue the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned


putin rouhani russia iran

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

  • The Financial Times reported that Russia has signaled it wants  join an EU payments channel designed to go around Trump’s sanctions on Iran and boost oil exports. 
  • The channel, known as Instex, would be a huge step in rescuing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which Trump abandoned last year. 
  • Iran has been been in breach of the deal recently by going past levels of uranium enrichment set by the 2015 deal. 
  • View Markets Insider for more stories.

Russia has signaled it wants to team up with the European Union in joining an EU payments channel, avoiding US sanctions banning trade with Iran and boost oil exports, the Financial Times reported. 

The payments channel, Instex, would be a massive step forward in attempts by the EU and Russia in rescuing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

Iran’s President Rouhani and President Trump have in the past year been at loggerheads over the nuclear deal, with Trump abandoning it last May. 

Read More: How the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water where ships transport $1.2 billion worth of oil every day, is at the heart of spiraling tensions with Iran

The move by Moscow to work with the EU is also surprising, given the little cooperation between the two parties since Russian annexed Crimea in 2014, attempted murder of a double agent in the UK, and alleged attempts to meddle in EU elections. 

However, it also marks a move by both the EU and Moscow to ignore Trump’s sanctions. Since he pulled out of the deal last May, France, Germany, China, the UK, and Russia all have been trying to maintain trade with Iran, but have been hindered by companies not wanting to risk problems with the White House.

Since then Iran has breached the deal by going above the agreed limit on uranium enrichment levels, out of retaliation for US sanctions on Iran. 

“Russia is interested in close co-ordination with the European Union on Instex,” the Russian foreign ministry told the Financial Times. It added that it would become more effective as more countries got involved. 

Iran has been expressing it’s frustration with the other parties who signed the 2015 deal at not helping Iran after the US imposed sanctions — namely on oil imports, which is Iran’s most valuable commodity. 

In a televised speech on Sunday, Iranian President Rouhani said “we are ready to hold talks with America today,” but wants to return to the Obama-era nuclear agreement and have the economic sanctions from President Donald Trump’s administration lifted before that happens.

(EUobserver) Russia approves China-Europe highway


The Russian government has approved the plans to construct a toll-highway between Kazakhstan and Belarus, connecting China and Europe. It is the missing part of the so-called ‘Meridian highway’. It would make transportation between China and Europe faster than three current rail corridors. Gazprom estimated the 2,000km highway project would cost around €10bn and would take between 12 to 14 years of construction.

M.P.O. V.V.I. (FT) Liberalism ‘has outlived its purpose’ — President Putin speaks exclusively to the Financial Times


Mr Putin is a dictator.

And of the worst kind.

He is the kind of person that gives sense to the word detest.

And he tells obvious lies.

And with such nerve…

However there are a few points in his interview that make sense to me.

I am sorry if this comes as a shock to some.

The obvious one is that to be tolerant to people that are intolerant by conviction and nature, is not possible and admissible any more.

Enough is enough.

And shame on all politician fouls that said otherwise for decades.

And to the Citizens of various Countries that trusted and voted for them, like sheep going to the slaughter house.

In some respects (not all) i have to say that i disagree with Mr Tusk.

In due respect.

Francisco (Abouaf) de Curiel Marques Pereira

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to FT editor Lionel Barber about foreign affairs and relations with the UK in an exclusive interview at the Kremlin

V.I. (Politico) How a Russian Reporter Beat the Kremlin


The arrest of Ivan Golunov on bogus drug charges sparked intense protests against the menace of the corrupt security state.

MOSCOW—The men who ordered the arrest of Ivan Golunov in early June on fabricated drugs charges can have had no idea how his name would be known to millions within just a few hours and overshadow the speeches of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum the same weekend.

The reaction was so strong—from street demonstrations in Moscow to three daily newspapers sharing the same front page to protest Golunov’s arrest—that the authorities actually backed down on June 11, just five days after taking him into custody. Charges against Golunov were dropped and the Ministry of Interior announced it was suspending the police officers involved.

Why the big fuss? After all, Golunov is not a celebrity, still less a political heavyweight. He’s a journalist, well-known, before last week, only to a small circle—amongst whom I am proud to include myself, as I have known him for 15 years. The police who seized him surely reckoned he was a nobody they could detain quite brazenly.

That was a big mistake on their part. In fact, it was Golunov’s unassuming modesty that propelled the kind of protests that Russia has not seen for years.

Golunov did his journalistic work with quiet professionalism and did not befriend Russia’s big shots. His work spoke for itself. That is precisely why so many ordinary Russians came out to support him. Seeing what happened to a professional doing his job, they understood with frightening clarity their own defenselessness vis-à-vis the Russian state’s security machine.

Golunov’s work touched on sensitive topics, to be sure. He had investigated state procurements and those dark corners of Russian government business where officials worked with criminals under the protection of the security services: the lucrative cemetery business, the commercial dealings of the Russian Orthodox Church, how the Moscow’s mayor offices procured building materials for street renovation.

Despite the grim information he uncovered, Golunov is not one of Russia’s classic “opposition journalists.” If one of the threads he was pulling at led to Putin, Golunov would name him for sure, but he is not in the business of unmasking the whole of Russia’s ruling regime, as some others are. I have known Golunov for 15 years but I don’t believe that we ever talked about the big topics: Putin, the regime or democracy. Instead we chatted about friends or talked about life in various of Russia’s far-flung regions which he has crossed and re-crossed for his work.

This is why his arrest for drug possession on June 6 sent a chill through many ordinary citizens. Not every Russian feels like fighting against the Putin regime. But literally every one of them feels defenseless against the police and intelligence services, knowing how they can use the trick of planting drugs on a person to make him lose his job or business or ruin his life in just a few minutes.

In 2004, 40,000 people were in jail in Russia on various drugs charges. Today that number stands at an immense 140,000, 80 percent of whom have confessed to possessing drugs, often in private and uncontested hearings. Amazingly, the accused always seem to possess just the right amount of narcotics to make them eligible for criminal prosecution.

Russia’s drug business has become a police extortion tool. Alleged drug possession is now a way that officials can extract a bribe, confiscate a business, force someone to emigrate or simply to keep silent. (This is not to say that drug addiction is not a serious problem in Russia—it is).

In other words, Ivan Golunov’s story—with what looks like a happy ending on June 11—should not be read as another tale of Russia’s Westernized liberals fighting the regime. The whole Russian media community rose up to defend him, including journalists from pro-government outlets such as RT. Golunov himself works for the Latvia-based website Meduza, which is no friend of RT, but he appeared in court wearing a T-shirt printed by RT with the inscription “The editors want blood.” Wearing an RT T-shirt was just a joke, as far as he was concerned, but not one a staunch opposition journalist would have partaken in.

So this issue is bigger than being for or against Putin. It has galvanized everyone, from the businessman to the journalist to the Central Asian guest worker who feels unprotected by the law in today’s Russia.

Now that Golunov is free and several senior policemen are being punished, it’s not just the editors who “want blood,” a large segment of society wants it too. They want to see the higher-ups who dreamed up this abominable episode held to account and arrested.

In Italy, the murder of anti-mafia investigator Giovanni Falcone in 1992 caused such public revulsion that it became a turning point in the fight against the Mafia. The protest against Golunov’s arrest has a similar feeling about it—Russians want to be rid of the mafia-like grip the security services have over their everyday lives. That is on their minds much more than a fight for true democracy. Although winning the battle for one might eventually pave the way to the other.

(Politico) Russian groups targeted EU election with fake news, says European Commission


Analysis finds ‘continued and sustained disinformation activity.’

Russian groups carried out a widespread disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the European Parliament election, according to an analysis by the European Commission and the European Union’s diplomatic service.

These digital tactics were aimed at undermining the EU’s democratic legitimacy and used hot-button topics to sow public anger, based on evidence collected by Brussels-based institutions in a report released today.

“The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the analysis said. “These covered a broad range of topics, ranging from challenging the Union’s democratic legitimacy to exploiting divisive public debates on issues such as of migration and sovereignty.”

The attribution to “Russian sources” is exceptional, as the EU is generally cautious to point fingers at foreign countries when commenting publicly on cybersecurity attacks.

But lately the Kremlin has come under increased attention for attempted digital assaults on international institutions in The Hague late last year, and suspicion has grown among Western officials that Russia was behind a hack that targeted the EU’s diplomatic mission in Moscow — an incident that became public last week.

“The disinformation campaigns were smart and subtle to focus on issues that mattered to the target audiences” — Chloe Colliver, Institute of Strategic Dialogue

As part of widespread “fake news” around the election, domestic political groups and politicians also borrowed heavily from tactics initially used by Russia-backed groups, including efforts to sway discussion on social media, the report said. The goal, according to the EU analysis, was to promote extreme views and polarize national political debates ahead of last month’s vote.

The analysis said it was too soon to conclude whether the online campaigns had influenced turnout or voters’ choice of party.

“Given the increasingly sophisticated nature of disinformation activities, and the difficulties of independent researchers to access relevant data from the platforms, a conclusive assessment of the scope and impact of disinformation campaigns will take time and require a concerted effort by civil society, academia, public actors and online platforms,” the report said.

The report matches similar research by other disinformation experts that saw domestic and Russian-backed groups borrow heavily from each other — both in terms of tactics and digital content — in their efforts to sway last month’s vote.

Because disinformation groups now interchange ideas and strategies, often without direct coordination, it is almost impossible to link their online campaigns to one sole actor, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint from where these tactics originate.

Some officials in Brussels are growing frustrated that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are not doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation and extremist content

“The disinformation campaigns were smart and subtle to focus on issues that mattered to the target audiences,” said Chloe Colliver, who heads the digital research unit at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that focuses on extreme speech, who was not involved in the EU report. “They are effective enough so that it’s impossible to attribute where the tactics came from.”

The EU’s analysis of disinformation during the recent electoral campaign follows concerted efforts by the Commission and some European countries to clamp down on how such messaging is spread and shared online. That includes a voluntary code for digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to combat the worst offenders, as well as coordination between officials from EU members states to share how best to address these problems.

While the U.S. tech companies continue to meet the Commission’s non-binding standards in terms of tackling fake news, many outside experts and some officials in Brussels are growing frustrated that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are not doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation and extremist content. They say that these companies do not share enough data with outside experts, and that their existing efforts do not go far enough to thwart disinformation campaigns online.

In response, the companies say that they have taken down millions of fake accounts and thwarted hundreds of disinformation campaigns in recent months. Facebook also set up an EU election “war room” in its European headquarters in Dublin to coordinate its response.

Time, though, may be running out.

As part of its analysis, the Commission said that it would review the voluntary code of practice for platforms at the end of the year to assess if it had had an impact on how false narratives were circulated online.

“Should the results of this assessment not be satisfactory, the Commission may propose further initiatives, including of a regulatory nature,” according to the report.

(JN) Trump ameaça sanções para travar gasoduto entre Rússia e Alemanha


Donald Trump quer travar o projeto Nord Stream 2 e ameaça avançar com sanções, embora não especifique contra quem. Moscovo acusa-o de “chantagem” e concorrência “injusta”.

Donald Trump continua a disparar ameaças a vários dos principais parceiros mundiais dos Estados Unidos. Desta vez, os alvos foram a Alemanha e a Rússia. Em causa está o projeto do gasoduto Nord Stream 2, que irá ligar os dois países europeus e que também tem merecido resistência por parte da Comissão Europeia. O projeto irá aumentar o fluxo de gás da Rússia para a Alemanha, uma meta que Trump pretende travar.

Não é a primeira vez que o presidente norte-americano faz críticas a este projeto, mas fica por esclarecer quem seriam as empresas ou governos alvo de sanções por parte dos Estados Unidos. Na mais recente investida, limitou-se a dizer que está a “proteger” a Alemanha.

“Estamos a proteger a Alemanha da Rússia. A Rússia está a receber milhões e milhões de dólares da Alemanha pelo seu gás”, afirmou o presidente dos Estados Unidos, na Casa Branca, após uma reunião com o presidente polaco, Andrzej Duda. Para Trump, “a Alemanha está a cometer um erro tremendo ao confiar tanto no gasoduto”, já que “é uma tremenda quantidade da sua energia que será fornecida” por esse projeto.

Mesmo sem detalhes, as afirmações de Trump já mereceram resposta por parte de Moscovo. Estas declarações, afirmou o porta-voz do Kremlin, “não são nada se não chantagem e uma forma injusta de concorrência”.

O presidente russo Vladimir Putin foi mais longe e, em declarações ao canal de televisão Mir TV, afirmou que as relações entre os Estados Unidos e a Rússia estão a “deteriorar-se e a ficar cada vez piores”.

O Nord Stream 2 é um empreendimento conjunto entre a energética russa Gazprom e outras cinco empresas europeias. O objetivo é fornecer 55 mil milhões de metros cúbicos de gás natural russo, anualmente, à Alemanha e a outros países europeus, através de um gasoduto duplo colocado no fundo do Mar Báltico.

A própria Comissão Europeia tece críticas a este projeto e tem procurado mesmo chegar a acordo com a Alemanha para estabelecer regras que lhe permitam ter uma palavra a dizer sobre a gestão do gasoduto, uma opção que tem sido rejeitada por Angela Merkel. Já da parte dos Estados Unidos, os receios são de que a Rússia utilize o fornecimento de gás natural como forma de pressão sobre os restantes países europeus dependentes da sua energia.

(EUobserver) EU to discuss cyber attack on Moscow embassy


EU ambassadors in Brussels on Tuesday are to discuss a cyber attack on the bloc’s embassy in Moscow in February, following a report by US news website Buzzfeed, which said the EU external action service knew about it, but did not tell fellow European institutions. “We have observed potential signs of compromised systems connected to our unclassified network,” an EU spokesperson told Buzzfeed, amid suspicion Russia was behind the hack.

(ZH) Huawei Signs Contract To Build 5G Network In Russia


In a sign that Huawei is increasingly reliant on adversaries of NATO and the West to bolster its grip om global 5G dominance as Washington conspires to run it out of the west, the Guardian reports that the Chinese telecoms giant has struck a deal with an unlikely ally, Russian Telecoms giant MTS, to develop a 5G network in Russia over the coming year.

According to the Guardian, the agreement was signed on the sidelines of a meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow, on the sidelines of a critical annual Russian economics forum.


The deal will see “the development of 5G technologies and the pilot launch of fifth-generation networks in 2019-2020.” MTS said in a statement on Wednesday.

In a statement, Huawei’s Chairman Guo Ping said he was “very happy” with the agreement “in an area of strategic importance like 5G.”

During the meeting in Moscow, Putin repeatedly praised Xi as a “close friend,” noting that they had met nearly 30 times over the past six years. The trip is Xi’s eighth to Russia since 2012.

In a statement on the issu, Huawei’s Guo Ping, one of the company’s chairmen on rotation, said he was “very happy” with the agreement “in an area of strategic importance like 5G.”

Huawei, the Chinese technology company considered a security threat by the US, has signed a deal with Russian telecoms giant MTS to develop a 5G network in the country over the next year. This even as dozens of telecoms companies in the US and Europe have preemptively cut ties with the Chinese internet giant, opening another front in the US-China trade conflict.

(BBG) The Meteoric Rise of Billionaire Len Blavatnik


Ukraine native’s bet on Warner Music has paid off handsomely. Vast holdings include property in London, France and New York.By Devon Pendleton26 de abril de 2019, 10:00 WEST

There are billionaires, multi-billionaires and then there’s Len Blavatnik—a man whose net worth is so big, his network so broad and business goals so ambitious that, these days, he’s seemingly everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by without news of a splashy purchase, major donation or black-tie appearance by the 61-year-old, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine.

Three weeks ago, he feted the honorees of the 2019 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in Israel at a lavish ceremony in Jerusalem. In February, donning a purple paisley jacket, he presided over Warner Music’s Pre-Grammy Party, rubbing shoulders with pop stars Rita Ora and Lizzo. In November, he gifted $200 million to Harvard Medical School, and in June he bought London’s historic Theatre Royal Haymarket for a reported $59 million.

Such largesse isn’t unheard of for a billionaire, nor is the frequent hobnobbing. What’s remarkable is the speed at which his wealth has swelled and how quickly he’s expanded his influence across finance, entertainment and society.

Also striking is how the components of his $25.7 billion fortune contrast with how and where he began to build it. Blavatnik, a citizen of the U.S. and U.K. (he has a knighthood and you can call him “Sir Leonard”), has pumped the billions he earned through privatized factories and oilfields into assets that are worlds removed from his early investments in post-Soviet Russia.

The boldest gambit in Blavatnik’s transformation, Warner Music, has paid off handsomely. The record label he bought in 2011 for $3.3 billion may be worth more than $6 billion today, thanks to a music-industry rebound.

Blavatnik’s purchase, seen as rich at the time, now looks downright canny.

Global recorded music sales were $15 billion when he made the deal, with just a tiny fraction of that coming from streaming. By 2018, total sales had jumped to $19.1 billion, and the share from streaming had soared more than 900 percent. That resurgence is boosting multiples in an industry that not long ago was struggling to convince investors of its viability.

Warner Music Pre-Grammy Party - Inside
Len Blavatnik with Lil Pump and guests at the Warner Music Pre-Grammy Party, on Feb. 7, 2019.Photographer: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images North America

Warner’s “revenue has grown the fastest in percentage terms for three years running,” said Mark Mulligan, managing director of London-based Midia Research. If that trend continues, it “could end up the second-biggest record label.”

Rival Universal, which is being shopped by owner Vivendi SA, has also seen its potential value jump. Universal, which controls 31 percent of the music market to Warner’s 18 percent, could be worth 29 billion euros ($32.3 billion), Deutsche Bank AG said in a January research note.

Blavatnik declined to be interviewed for this story, but he said through a spokeswoman that Warner is worth $3.3 billion. Equity compensation distributed to executives at the end of fiscal 2018 was based on a valuation of $3.2 billion, though it could easily be worth twice that much, said one industry analyst, who asked not to be identified discussing unpublished estimates. The spokeswoman wouldn’t elaborate on their valuation.

Warner’s resurgence is just one reason why Blavatnik’s fortune has soared 56 percent in the past five years, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world’s 500 richest people. He’s catapulted to No. 31, from 48, in that span.

Blavatnik’s property holdings, including a mansion on London’s Kensington Palace Gardens, the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat in the French Riviera and more than $275 million of Manhattan homes, have benefited from a decade-long surge in real estate prices that has only recently cooled. Through a New York-based holding company, he’s invested in designer Tory Burch, Dutch payments processor Adyen NVSpotify Technology Inc.Facebook Inc. and the Broadway hit Hamilton”.

Even his wildest bets have turned to gold. Take LyondellBasell Industries NV, a chemical giant Blavatnik engineered when he bought Dutch chemicals maker Basell NV in 2005 and hitched it to Houston-based ethylene producer Lyondell Chemical Co. two years later, with the help of $20 billion of debt. Shortly after he completed the deal in December 2007, a succession of calamities—hurricane-related plant closures, a fatal crane collapse, the financial crisis—almost destroyed the business.

It filed for bankruptcy in 2009, costing Blavatnik at least $1 billion and prompting a lawsuit from creditors that would drag on for almost a decade before he prevailed.

Read more: Blavatnik not to blame for LyondellBasell bankruptcy, judge says

Blavatnik teamed with private equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC to resurrect the company. He bought back the shares he’d lost during bankruptcy, and when the company returned to the market in mid-2010 his stake was about $900 million. Over the next three years, he picked up an additional $1.5 billion of shares. A steep drop in natural gas prices, fueled by the U.S. shale revolution, helped the stock more than quadruple since the company relisted. Blavatnik’s total investment of roughly $3 billion is now worth $6.8 billion. He’s also pocketed $3.8 billion from share sales and dividends.

“Len has a natural gift for zeroing in on complex problems, distilling them down to their essence and hammering out creative solutions,” said Apollo co-founder Josh Harris, who worked closely with Blavatnik through the restructuring. “What emerged was an exceptional investment for our investors, and a much stronger company.”

The brush with bankruptcy hasn’t dimmed Blavatnik’s appetite for big bets. He’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars building video streaming service DAZN into one of the world’s largest sports broadcasters. Last year, he hired former ESPN President John Skipper as chairman, signed a $1 billion, eight-year deal with promoter Matchroom Boxing and awarded Mexican pugilist Canelo Alvarez what was then the richest contract for an athlete in sports history: $365 million for 11 fights.

Shiny media companies are a far cry from where his money was minted.

The foundation of Blavatnik’s fortune was mostly laid in the “aluminum wars” in 1990s Russia. After attending Moscow State University, he emigrated to the U.S. shortly before his professor parents and received a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia University. He worked at Arthur Andersen and General Atlantic Partners and got an MBA from Harvard. But the opportunities for enrichment in post-Soviet Russia soon lured him back.

Chief executive of british petroleum (bp) lord john browne, ceo of the tyumen oil company (tnk) viktor vekselberg and president of access industries leonard blavatnik (l-r) take part in a press conference dedicated to the activities of the tnk-bp com
Former BP Chief Executive Officer John Browne (left), Viktor Vekselberg (center) and Len Blavatnik at a press conference on Sept. 12, 2003.Photographer: Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

After setting up a holding company in New York, Access Industries, he partnered with Viktor Vekselberg and began buying newly privatized aluminum plants. Competition was ferocious, with motley investors like Blavatnik and Vekselberg scrapping alongside criminal groups and contending with intimidation and violence. Years later, Roman Abramovich testified in court that he had to be persuaded to invest because “every three days someone was murdered in that business.”

Blavatnik and Vekselberg emerged victorious. Their company, Sual, was later combined to form United Co. Rusal, today the world’s second-largest aluminum producer.

Blavatnik bristles at being called an oligarch, as he often is in news reports. The “highly offensive” term doesn’t apply to him, said his spokeswoman, citing his absence from a list of designated oligarchs published by the U.S. Treasury Department in January 2018. A refusenik, he was stripped of his citizenship after leaving the Soviet Union in 1978, and he’s never been involved in Russian politics, she said.

In 1997, Blavatnik and Vekselberg teamed with Ukraine-born billionaire Mikhail Fridman to buy a 40 percent stake in TNK, a former state-owned oil company with interests in Siberian oilfields. Two years later, on the cheap, TNK acquired a productive subsidiary of a competitor, partly owned by BP Plc, that a local court had declared bankrupt. BP fought to block the purchase, failed and ultimately paid almost $7 billion for 50 percent of TNK, which was renamed TNK-BP. The partnership was contentious, and in 2013 the company was sold to state oil giant Rosneft in a record $55 billion deal heralded by President Vladimir Putin. Blavatnik, Vekselberg, and Fridman and his other partners reaped a total of $27.7 billion.

Flush with cash, Blavatnik turned his focus more fully on his budding media empire. The industry was high-profile and miles removed from post-Soviet industry.

Private Dinner Celebrating the New Building of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
Blavatnik (left) with Harvey Weinstein, June 11, 2015.Photographer: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

Keenly interested in the movie business, he strengthened his business ties with Harvey Weinstein, lending $45 million to Weinstein Co. in 2016. (Access later sued the company and Weinstein personally for breach of contract after allegations against the co-founder surfaced.) Blavatnik was also behind the taking private of Perform Group, a U.K. sports and entertainment rights company, and led an unsuccessful bid for Time Inc.

In April 2017, he bought a controlling stake in film finance company Ratpac-Dune Entertainment from Australian billionaire James Packer for an undisclosed sum. The deal briefly made Blavatnik a partner of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and producer Brett Ratner. Mnuchin divested his interest shortly thereafter to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Despite their importance in building his fortune, Russian assets make up just a sliver of Blavatnik’s current holdings. The biggest is a $400 million stake in Rusal, which he owns through a joint venture with Vekselberg. The value of the stake has climbed 6 percent since the U.S. lifted sanctions imposed on the company last year in response to Russia’s “malign activities.”

A political donor for years, Blavatnik has given $4.5 million to various U.S. candidates and committees from both parties, including $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, according to Federal Election Commission records dating back to 1996.

Blavatnik’s spokeswoman said his donations have been solely aimed at furthering “a pro-business, pro-Israel agenda.”

Even so, his name has been sucked into the media maelstrom that focused on Russian influence in the Trump campaign, highlighting his connection to Vekselberg, whose cousin Andrew Intrater also donated to the inaugural committee. Vekselberg was personally sanctioned by the U.S. last year and lost $2.2 billion in the wake of the penalty.

Read more: Putin’s use of tycoons as Trump emissaries exposed by Mueller

Around the time of his cash-out from TNK-BP, Blavatnik accelerated his philanthropic giving. Since 2009, he has donated more than $700 million through his Blavatnik Family Foundation, mainly to elite institutions supporting medical and scientific research.

Even that has exposed him to criticism. Charles Davidson, the director of the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, resigned in protest late last year after Blavatnik sponsored a table at its annual gala.

“Kleptocracy has entered the donor pool of Hudson Institute,” Davidson told the New York Post.

A spokesman for Blavatnik said the Hudson Institute specifically thanked his foundation for the gift and informed him in writing that Davidson’s departure was “planned and overdue” and that he had used the donation and gala as a “convenient way to create a spectacle.” Davidson and the Hudson Institute declined to comment.

Blavatnik School of government building, University of Oxford, England, UK architects Herzog and de Meuron 2015
The Blavatnik School of Government building at the University of Oxford in England.Photographer: Geography Photos/UIG/Getty Images

Blavatnik’s giving has also caused discomfort in his adoptive Britain. Two years ago, a professor of government and public policy at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, established through a 75 million pound gift ($115 million at the time), quit in protest of the patron’s support for Trump’s inaugural committee.

The controversies have stung Blavatnik and stymied attempts to distance himself from the political entanglements of old colleagues. He was bothered that lawmakers were probing Mnuchin’s decision to lift sanctions against Rusal and his connections to Blavatnik, according to a person who asked not to be identified sharing private information. Mnuchin has stated he didn’t sell his stake to Blavatnik or any of his firms. There’s no indication Blavatnik himself was investigated.

Blavatnik finds the insinuations hurtful and he’s proud of his heritage, the person said. He even named his super-yacht Odessa, after his place of birth.

(Reuters) Trump: Russia told U.S. ‘most of their people’ have left Venezuela


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday that Russia told the United States it had removed “most of their people” from Venezuela, where Moscow has maintained military and economic ties with socialist President Nicolas Maduro.U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump are seen at Westminster Abbey as part of their state visit in London, Britain June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Trump posted a message on Twitter about the alleged Russian drawdown while on a state visit to London but did not provide any further details.

The Trump administration, which backs opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate interim president, has insisted that Russian and Cuban support for Maduro has been essential to keeping him in power and has called for them to withdraw security personnel.

Moscow sent nearly a hundred Russian special forces and cybersecurity personnel to Caracas in March, U.S. officials have said. Private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in late January to beef up security for Maduro, according to people close to them.

“Russia has informed us that they have removed most of their people from Venezuela,” Trump tweeted.

It was unclear exactly who Trump was referring to or how this was communicated to him, and the White House did not provide any clarity. There was also no immediate word from Moscow.

However, if true, it could mark a significant setback for Maduro.

Trump’s tweet followed a Wall Street Journal article on Sunday that said Russia’s state defense contractor Rostec had cuts its staff in Venezuela to just a few dozen, citing a person close to the Russian defense ministry.

Most other Western countries also support Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Maduro has the backing of Russia, China and Cuba and continues to control most state institutions, including the military.

Trump, who had previously called for Russia to “get out” of Venezuela, said following a phone call with President Vladimir Putin last month that the Russian leader was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela.”

Trump’s comments appeared to contradict his aides’ harsher assessments of Russia’s role in the crisis-stricken South American country.

(ZH) Russian Central Bank Eyes Gold-Backed Crypto


First there was Tether; a controversial dollar-backed cryptocurrency by crypto exchange firm, Bitfinex. Then came Petro, the industry’s first oil-backed crypto issued by the Venezuelan government last year. And now we might be about to see the first gold-backed cryptocurrency—by a central bank, no less. According to Russian news agency, TASS, Russia’s central bank, the Bank of Russia will consider issuing gold-backed cryptocurrencies – a rather strange move considering how cryptocurrencies are generally anathema to central banks.

Shot in the arm

But before crypto bugs can start doing a round of high fives, the head of the Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabiullina, has revealed that the cryptocurrencies are not meant for retail use but rather for conducting big mutual settlements for entities with global jurisdictions.

In other words, only the heavyweights will get to lay their hands on them. Further, she says that she still believes that it’s better for countries to develop international settlement systems such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) framework that use their own national currencies noting the said framework has demonstrated good dynamics.

Finally, she admonishes that the latest twist should not be interpreted to mean that the bank supports a scenario where cryptocurrencies eventually replace fiat in the monetary system.

The Bank of Russia’s latest move is a belated concession that cryptocurrencies do have a place in the modern monetary system, whether banks and financial institutions like it or not. It’s a big shot in the arm for an industry that has endured so much unmerited criticism, animus and outright rejection.

Last month, the Bank of Russia released a policy brief outlining the potential benefits of CBDCs (central bank digital currencies) including being less risky than existing systems and a more liquid asset that can lower transaction costs.

It’s worth noting that the bank cited anonymity as the only major drawback of CBDCs (and possibly cryptos by extension).

Russia’s largest bank is not the only one to endorse cryptos–though it’s the only central bank to-date to expressly say it’s seriously considering launching one.

A couple of days ago, the European Central Bank (ECB) declared thatcryptocurrencies are not a threat to the region’s financial stability. Closer home, JPMorgan launched JPM Coin in February, a stablecoin meant for clients of its wholesale payments business. Each JPM Coin is pegged to a dollar.

Finally last year, a banking consortium launched We.Trade, a challenger to Ripple, the cryptocurrency that facilitates interbank transfers.

Commodity-backed cryptos survive

Recently, CoinTelegraph reported that Bank of Russia was discussing mutual settlements with Venezuela in Petro and the Russian Ruble. That will certainly mark a major milestone for Maduro’s infantile cryptocurrency.

When President Maduro’s beleaguered government launched Petro last year, we dismissed it arguing it was destined to fail due to lack of trust from the community with commodity-backed cryptos having their fair share of scandals. What we failed to anticipate was the brutal determination by the Venezuelan government in making sure it’s brainchild not only survives but thrives.

Since then, Maduro has elevated Petro to an alternate official currency while using underhand tactics such as converting pensioners’ payments to the cryptocurrency without their consent in a bid to make it go mainstream. Popular crypto blog CCN reported in January that Petro seems to be alive and well despite lack of evidence for the oil stockpiles that are supposed to back it up and also being user-unfriendly.

And now Venezuela’s Petro is about to get a new lease on life after teaming up with another renegade. Both countries eschew the dollar viewing it as being too dominant and hope the new cryptocurrency will help them ditch the American currency.

Yet another stablecoin—the dollar-backed Tether—seems to be doing well, too, despite its share of controversies. A month ago, New York AG charged Bitfinex with dipping into its Tether cash reserves to cover up internal losses.

The fact that many commodity-backed cryptos seem to be surviving major trust issues is almost a validation of the whole idea of having a physical commodity back-stopping a digital currency.  

The new ones by Russia’s central bank will have a much lower hurdle to clear.

(MoscowTimes) Putin Is Ready to Give Up Venezuela for the Right Price

(MoscowTimes) Sergei Lavrov and Mike Pompeo will soon meet in Helsinki to discuss Venezuela’s future.

Bruno KellyReuters

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are heading towards a contentious meeting in Finland (their first since the Helsinki summit last year) with the crisis in Venezuela crowding out almost all other items on the agenda.

Last week, Russia and Cuba may have thwarted a U.S. backed plot to engineer a peaceful transfer of power from Nicolas Maduro to a transitional government led by interim president Juan Guaido and Venezuela’s top officials, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno.

Secretary Pompeo accused Moscow of dissuading Maduro from leaving the country (allegedly he was assured of safe passage to Guatemala) when his plane was already on the tarmac. Moscow furiously denied the charges when Pompeo phoned Lavrov on May 1 to protest.

On May 3, U.S. President Donald Trump called Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to flag American concerns over Russia’s “disruptive role” in Venezuela and stress his country’s determination to ensure Venezuela’s return to democratic rule.

But, as common in his personal interactions with Putin, Trump quickly lost the initiative, allowing the discussion on Venezuela to drift towards the softer subject of humanitarian aid.

Putin expressed Russia’s displeasure with U.S interference in Venezuela while convincing Trump that he “was not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela”.

Despite Trump’s going “full Helsinki” on his phone chat with Putin, the U.S.-Russia geopolitical stand-off in Venezuela now threatens to derail the few remaining cooperative lanes in the relationship. White House national security advisor John Bolton made it clear on May 1: “This is our hemisphere — it’s not where the Russians ought to be interfering”.

Three weeks ago, the same point, in even more forceful terms, was privately made by Fiona Hill, NSC Senior Director for Europe, Russia and Eurasia during her visit to Moscow.

The Kremlin was struck by Hill’s prioritization of Venezuela as the most important issue in the relationship due to its direct impact on U.S. politics and the 2020 presidential race in Florida. Moscow concluded then it found an issue it could use to force the U.S. to grant concession elsewhere, most notably in Ukraine.

Russia believes that the risk of a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela is low (despite secret meetings at the Pentagon), since Trump does not want to get stuck in another unpopular war. But politically Trump is so heavily invested in a “win” in Venezuela that he has all but drawn himself an untenable red line with prospects of a major loss of face, while his strategy there is just “winging it”. Moscow may be undervaluing Trump’s ability to turn on a dime, but still thinks it finally has leverage.

Russia’s support for Maduro is driven by financial and energy interests, as well as by the Kremlin’s vision of a multi-polar world order, where Russia should block U.S. attempts at regime change in sovereign states friendly to Moscow. But the Russian leadership practices a transactional approach to international affairs in line with Russia’s hierarchy, where core Russian interests trump goals of less importance.

Bolton’s invocation of the Monroe Doctrine and his “spheres of influence framing” makes Moscow believe that, if done on an equal basis, a similar right should be recognized for Russia in Ukraine and other parts of the “near abroad”.

For Moscow, a deal of equals on Venezuela where Russia helps the U.S. diffuse the crisis by engineering a constitutional transition, should involve an equally significant concession by the U.S. (on a par with JFK-Khrushchev deal to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba and Turkey) to pressure Kiev into fully implementing the Minsk-2 agreements that would truncate Ukraine’s sovereignty and allow Moscow to retain some degree of control over Kiev’s security policies.

Putin specifically mentioned that during his call with Trump. Withdrawing Russian military support for Maduro should also be matched by the withdrawal of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.

So far Moscow has been frustrated by American refusal to engage in such bargaining of equals through the U.S. initiated bilateral high-level channel of communication on Venezuela (which Moscow assumed it was intended for). The first meeting between Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov and U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliot Abrams in mid-March ended in the U.S. presenting no bargains and simply repeating its demands Russia ends its support for Maduro.

Sending two Russian military planes to Caracas days after the meeting in Rome was Moscow signaling its position if America wasn’t ready to take them seriously going forward.

Trust between Moscow and Washington is currently non-existent. No side could be sure that even if a deal was reached, the other side would implement its end of the bargain. The meeting between Lavrov and Pompeo may prove to be as bitter as the one held by Hill if neither side signals their willingness to negotiate. Or it might be the wrong format altogether, actual deals might require a secret channel or a one-on-one presidential sit-down.

Moscow, however, knows that the events of last week do not augur well for Maduro’s long-term rule. The Venezuelan military is sitting on the fence and its leaders are mulling their options.

The deal offered to them by the opposition (not just amnesty, but a retention of their power in the transitional government) is more serious than anything discussed before. Moscow does not have control over Venezuela’s military the way it had in Syria, where pro-Assad officers knew they and their families would be slaughtered if they lost the war. Nor are there foreign expeditionary forces of non-Russian provenance supplied and funded by an allied power (Iran) to do the heaviest fighting.

Moscow is ready to sell its stake in Maduro, but it is still unclear whether Washington is ready to offer the right price.

(GUA) Deutsche Bank faces action over $20bn Russian money-laundering scheme


Exclusive: in confidential internal report seen by the Guardian, bank says scandal has hurt global brand

Water spills out of a small dragon sculpture on a fountain with the headquarters of the Deutsche Bank in background in Frankfurt, Germany.
 Deutsche Bank says it has ‘reduced its footprint’ across the post-Soviet region. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP

Germany’s troubled Deutsche Bank faces fines, legal action and the possible prosecution of “senior management” because of its role in a $20bn Russian money-laundering scheme, a confidential internal report seen by the Guardian says.

The bank admits there is a high risk that regulators in the US and UK will take “significant disciplinary action” against it. Deutsche concedes that the scandal has hurt its “global brand” – and is likely to cause “client attrition”, loss of investor confidence and a decline in its market value.

Deutsche Bank was embroiled in a vast money-laundering operation, dubbed the Global Laundromat. Russian criminals with links to the Kremlin, the old KGB and its main successor, the FSB, used the scheme between 2010 and 2014 to move money into the western financial system. The cash involved could total $80bn, detectives believe.

Shell companies typically based in the UK “loaned” money to each other. Companies then defaulted on this large fictitious debt. Corrupt judges in Moldova authenticated the debt – with billions transferred to Moldova and the Baltics via a bank in Latvia.

Deutsche Bank was used to launder the money via its corresponding banking network – effectively allowing illegal Russian payments to be funnelled to the US, the European Union and Asia.

The bank was entirely unaware of the scam until the Guardian and Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) broke the story in March 2017, the report says. The first it knew was an email from the Guardian and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaperasking for comment.

“Only with this intelligence received is it now possible for Deutsche Bank to start global investigations,” it notes.

In the embarrassing aftermath, the bank asked two in-house financial crime investigators – Philippe Vollot and Hinrich Völcker – to find out what had gone wrong. Their nine-page presentation was shared last year with the audit committee of the bank’s supervisory board and is marked “strictly confidential”.

The pair identified numerous “high-risk entities”. They included 1,244 in the US, 329 in the UK and 950 in Germany. These entities were responsible for nearly 700,000 transactions, the report says, involving at least £62m in the UK, $47m in the US, and €55m in Germany.

As part of its investigation, Deutsche Bank sent 149 “suspicious activity reports” to the National Crime Agency in London. Similar disclosures of potential money-laundering transactions were made to authorities in the US and elsewhere – with 30 private and corporate Deutsche Bank clients reported. Some may have been “unknowingly used”, the report says.

The affair is a further blow to Deutsche Banks’s ailing reputation. It comes amid police raids on its Frankfurt HQ over the Panama Papers, a plunging share price and talks over a possible merger with Germany’s Commerzbank. The raid last November came after German prosecutors alleged two bank employees helped clients launder money via offshore firms.

Deutsche is also under scrutiny in Washington over its financial dealings with Donald Trump. On 15 April, Democrats from the House intelligence and financial services committees issued a subpoena, demanding the bank provide documents about its lending to the president.

Over two decades, Trump borrowed more than $2bn from Deutsche. In 2008, he defaulted on a $45m loan repayment and sued the bank. Its private wealth division in New York subsequently loaned Trump a further $300m – a move that bemused insiders and which has yet to be fully explained.

In recent years, the bank has had a series of bruising encounters with international regulators. Between 2011 and 2018, it paid $14.5bn in fines, with exposure to dubious Russian money a regular theme.

In 2017, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority imposed its largest fine – £163m – after Deutsche carried out a $10bn “mirror trade” scheme run out of its branch in Moscow. The New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) fined the bank $425m over the same case, in which roubles were converted into dollars via fake trades on behalf of VIP Russian clients.

Deutsche carried out an internal investigation into the “mirror trades” affair, “Project Square”. The leaked Global Laundromat report says there is “no systematic link” between the two Russian money-laundering schemes. However, it suggests some overlap. Two unnamed entities feature in both and 46 “mirror trade” entities “directly transacted” with 233 laundromat ones.

The leaked report says Deutsche has cleaned up its act. It says it has stopped doing business with the two banks at the centre of the Laundromat scandal – Moldova’s Moldindconbank and Latvia’s Trasta Komercbanka. Regulators in Latvia closed down Trasta in 2016 because of serial money-laundering violations.

Deutsche Bank says it has “reduced its footprint” across the post-Soviet region. It no longer has relationships with any banks in Moldova, Latvia, Estonia and Cyprus, the report says. All are favourite destinations for illicit Moscow money. The bank has scaled down its business activities in Russia and Ukraine, it says.

The bank is under investigation for its role in Europe’s biggest banking scandal, involving Denmark’s Danske Bank. Danske laundered €200bn (£178bn) of Russian money via its branch in Estonia. Deutsche provided correspondent banking services via its US subsidiary.

Deutsche Bank said it could not comment on “potential or ongoing investigations”, or on “any matters regarding our regulators”. It said it was committed to providing “appropriate information to all authorised investigations”.

The bank said: “We have considerably increased staff numbers in anti-financial crime and more than tripled our staff since 2015. Since 2016 we have invested €700m in upgrading our key control functions there.”