many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.
.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)
As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.
.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.
.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.
What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.
The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”
The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.
When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”
When members of the American media cover the story of Russian meddling, they implicitly portray Russia as a normal state, and the influence operation as an undertaking of the state aimed at furthering Russia’s national interests. This strikes Russians as absurd. By the measure of national interest, the Trump Presidency has been disappointing for Russia. Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction:
- he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine;
- he has failed to support nato; and
- he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total.
At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.
By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.
The hedge-fund manager has offered a fable for why the West should confront Putin... Since the Magnitsky Act passed, the Russian government has charged Browder with myriad crimes, and has periodically tried to lodge warrants for his arrest via Interpol. “Their main objective is to get me back to Russia,” Browder has said. “And they only have to get lucky once. I have to be lucky every time.”.. In 2012, in Surrey, England, Alexander Perepilichny, one of Browder’s chief sources of information on the movement of the stolen funds, collapsed while jogging near his home and died. The case is still under investigation. Browder, who has taken to relating to as large an audience as possible the danger he faces, has called this “a perfect example of why you don’t want to be an anonymous guy who drops dead.”.. Browder, who is fifty-four, with a dusting of silver hair and rimless eyeglasses, has a forceful yet understated authority and a talent for telling a coolly suspenseful tale... As an anti-corruption activist, Browder has spoken out against the exploitation of offshore tax havens—for example, the ones detailed in the documents that were leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, in 2016. Many companies listed in the so-called Panama Papers were entirely legal. Still, Browder tends not to mention that Mossack Fonseca set up at least three firms for him and Hermitage... His singling out of Browder in Helsinki, McFaul told me, “only gives Bill a bigger global platform—it was a huge public-relations coup, which of course Bill will use.”.. His grandfather Earl Browder became active in socialist politics during the First World War and lived in the Soviet Union for five years before becoming the secretary-general of the Communist Party of America. Earl’s son Felix was a noted mathematician. William Browder took an interest in business while in boarding school in the seventies. “I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss my family off more than that,” he writes in “Red Notice.”.. This was the peak of the chaotic post-Soviet “Wild East,” a time of lawlessness and speculation. Over the next two years, Hermitage’s portfolio grew to more than a billion dollars, but it was nearly wiped out in August, 1998, when Russia defaulted on its sovereign debt, causing widespread panic. Browder was one of the few Western financiers who chose to remain in the country. Between 1998 and 2005, the price of oil quadrupled and the Russian stock index went up by nearly three thousand per cent... Browder gained attention for publicly criticizing the management of companies in which his fund had invested as a minority shareholder, in an effort to goad them into being more efficient and transparent. He held combative press conferences outlining Russian corporate malpractice and passed along to journalists dossiers that described the way venal oligarchs engaged in asset stripping, wasteful spending, and share dilutions.
.. “I don’t think Bill started out with a passion for corporate governance. He found it to be an instrument that helped him and his investors make a lot of money. Ultimately, it became a sincere crusade.”
.. Steven Dashevsky, then the head of research at a Russian investment bank, Browder’s anti-corruption stance was a kind of “free marketing” for Hermitage.
.. Regulators had instituted a dual price structure for the company’s shares: one class of shares, priced relatively cheaply, could be held only by Russian citizens and firms; the second class, priced much higher, could be purchased by anyone. Hermitage got the cheaper price by buying Gazprom stock through companies it registered in Russia. It was a work-around used by a number of Moscow-based investment funds that, as Dashevsky put it to me, “fell into a gray zone: it was clearly against the spirit of the law, but never prosecuted or pursued.”
.. Browder also minimized how much Hermitage paid in Russian taxes. The government, in an effort to stimulate regional investment, had established a special zone in Kalmykia, a republic north of the Caucasus, that offered a lower tax rate. The rate went down even more if disabled workers made up a majority of a company’s employees. To take advantage of this, Hermitage hired disabled people for its companies in Kalmykia. A banker who managed a number of Russian funds said, “We’re not generally disciples of Mother Teresa, but Bill was singularly bottom-line focussed.” Other investors, the banker said, considered tax-avoidance measures like Hermitage’s hiring of disabled people “too risky, and borderline illegal, with the possibility of too much danger if revealed.”
.. Browder received a British passport in 1998 and, rather than become a dual citizen, renounced his U.S. citizenship. He has explained that he had been motivated by the discrimination that his grandparents faced in America during the McCarthy era as a result of their political activism for the Communist Party: his grandfather was forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his grandmother was threatened with deportation to Russia. “This type of thing could never happen in Britain, and that was the basis of my decision to become British,” he recently told an audience in Colorado. But those I talked to who knew Browder in the nineties assumed that the reasons were financial
.. “If there has been a consistent passion in Bill’s life over the last twenty or thirty years, it is not wanting to pay taxes.”
.. Vladimir Putin assumed the Presidency in 2000, and at first Browder was an ardent supporter
.. In 2003, when the billionaire head of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested and charged for fraud and tax evasion, many saw it as evidence that Putin was becoming uncompromisingly authoritarian. But Browder welcomed the prosecution of Khodorkovsky, with whom he had clashed in the past. In 2004, he told the Times, “We want an authoritarian—one who is exercising authority over mafia and oligarchs.” He added that Putin “has turned out to be my biggest ally in Russia.”
.. He was told that his Russian visa had been annulled on national-security grounds.
.. “Logic dictates that it’s not in the national interest to ban the biggest investor in Russia and one of the biggest supporters of the government’s policy.”
.. In July, 2006, Putin was asked at a press conference about Browder. Putin said that he didn’t know the particulars of the case, but added, “I can imagine this person has broken the laws of our country, and if others do the same we’ll refuse them entry, too.” Browder instructed his Hermitage colleagues to sell off the firm’s Russian assets and moved key staff to London.
.. Actually, Magnitsky, then thirty-five, was a tax adviser who worked for the firm that had advised Hermitage for a decade.
.. police had used the impounded seals and stamps to reregister Hermitage’s companies in the name of low-level criminals, and those companies then applied for tax refunds totalling two hundred and thirty million dollars, the amount that Hermitage had paid in capital-gains tax. Two state tax offices in Moscow appeared to have approved the refunds the next day.
.. Magnitsky testified to Russian state investigators in June, 2008, after which his lawyer advised him to leave the country. He refused, and gave further testimony that October. Several weeks later, he was arrested on charges of abetting tax evasion through Hermitage, and held in pretrial detention.
.. In 2010, Browder went to Washington with a list of Russian officials he said were to blame. The Obama Administration placed sanctions on some of them, a routine procedure that barred them from entering the United States. McFaul, then in charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council, recalls, “Bill, to his credit, said, ‘That’s not enough. You didn’t make it public. You didn’t seize any assets.’ ” In “Red Notice,” Browder calls the Russia policy of the Obama Administration at the time “appeasement.”
.. “But what was unique here was Bill Browder,” he said—in particular, Browder’s ability to tell the story of Magnitsky’s suffering. “We were as outraged as he was,”
.. Browder gave testimony, said, “I think it boils down to one phrase I heard him use numerous times: ‘They killed my guy.’ He feels a responsibility and obligation to make sure Sergei didn’t die in vain, and it’s hard to argue with that.”
.. Even so, the Magnitsky Act might have languished had it not been for the fact that, in 2012, Russia was about to become a member of the World Trade Organization. In order to grant Russia what the group calls “permanent normal trade relations” status, Congress would have to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1975 measure aimed at the Soviet Union that penalized trade with countries that had restrictive emigration policies. Legislators did not want to rescind the law without sending the Kremlin a message about American toughness on human rights.
.. “the real question was whether Congress and the White House could find any substitute for Jackson-Vanik other than Magnitsky. The answer turned out to be no, they couldn’t.”
.. “It means his krysha doesn’t work,” Celeste Wallander explained. Krysha is Russian for “roof,” and in criminal jargon means the protection that a powerful figure can offer others. “It screws up his social contract with those inside the system,” she said.
.. But Canada, the Baltic states, and the U.K. have passed their own Magnitsky-style bills, and, last year, Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act, which targets human-rights abusers worldwide. McFaul told me it had long struck him that “the spectre of the Magnitsky law and the noise around it are much more important than the law itself.”
.. The main evidence that the law is having an effect is how obsessed Putin is with it. I don’t get why he’s so obsessed, but the fact remains that he is, and that suggests it’s had a tremendous impact.
.. I met Veselnitskaya last fall in Moscow, at a café in the center of town; she is an imposing, glamorous woman with an exhaustive memory for dates and facts. She doesn’t speak English, is not licensed to practice law in New York, and, at the time the charges were filed, had never been to the United States.
.. She and the Baker Hostetler lawyers wanted Browder deposed as part of pretrial discovery. This would require a court subpoena; Browder had not voluntarily agreed to testify and, having given up his U.S. citizenship, was not immediately liable to the jurisdiction of a U.S. court.
.. According to multiple sources familiar with the Katsyv family’s legal strategy, the legal work on the Prevezon case and Veselnitskaya’s related lobbying carried costs of up to forty million dollars—a vast sum, considering that the U.S. government was trying to seize, at most, fourteen million dollars’ worth of property.
.. Veselnitskaya downplayed any ties she had to Yuri Chaika, Russia’s general prosecutor, but a researcher on the Prevezon case told me that she often took his calls.
at least six members of Trump’s broader team knew about offers of dirt from Russians during that campaign — and, depending on how that information was shared, as many as 10 may have, including Trump.
.. Torshin-Trump Jr. In May, a former member of the Russian parliament named Aleksandr Torshin made repeated efforts to contact Donald Trump Jr., the candidate’s son. He sent multiple emails hoping to set up a meeting with Trump Jr. when both were at a National Rifle Association convention in Kentucky. The two met briefly at a dinner associated with that event. It is not clear whether Torshin had any information to offer Trump Jr.
.. Agalarov-Veselnitskaya-Trump Jr.-Manafort-Kushner.
.. It is apparent that Agalarov and Trump Jr. almost certainly spoke on the phone multiple times before that meeting and that Trump Jr. informed both Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort of what was being offered.
.. The question is whether any of those three also informed Trump. There is good reason to think he knew. The night that the meeting time was set up, following calls between Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner — and the day after Trump Jr. had a call with a blocked number before agreeing to the meeting — Trump told reporters, “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.”
When that dirt did not materialize, the speech about Clinton the following Monday did not either.
.. This is noteworthy not only because of the connection between Page and a senior government official but because of what other reports suggest about Page’s time in Russia. Specifically, the controversial dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele includes a report from mid-July alleging that Page met with a Russian official who “rais[ed] a dossier of ‘kompromat’ ” — compromising material — “the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.”
.. WikiLeaks-Trump Jr. The following month, Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks exchanged private messages on Twitter. None of those messages suggest Trump Jr. and the organization coordinated the released of information damaging to Clinton. But the exchange occurred shortly before WikiLeaks began releasing the emails stolen from Podesta in early October.
.. So we are confident the following people were offered or told about information allegedly incriminating Clinton:
- George Papadopoulos
- Roger Stone
- Michael Caputo
- Donald Trump Jr.
- Jared Kushner
- Paul Manafort
It is possible that the following other people knew about or received similar offers, too:
- Stephen Miller
- Carter Page
- J.D. Gordon (if Page was offered dirt)
- Donald Trump
Trump’s argument has long been that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russian government. That claim increasingly depends on how one defines “collusion.”
But he’s not the first president to foolishly place his trust in the Russian despot.
President Trump did get one thing right on Monday in Helsinki: Vladimir Putin did make an “incredible offer.”
.. But he’s not the first president to foolishly place his trust in the Russian despot.
President Trump did get one thing right on Monday in Helsinki: Vladimir Putin did make an “incredible offer.”
.. having the indictment, they must have calculated, would strengthen Trump’s hand in the confrontation.
.. Of all the president’s mind-boggling utterances at the press conference, I found this the most stunning.
.. One hoped that Trump’s election would end Obama’s hallmark depictions of moral equivalence between America and thug countries. Yet here’s how the president, at the start of his term, defended Putin when Bill O’Reilly called him a “killer”: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
.. when has this president ever been restrained by a presidential norm?
.. the most alarming part of the presser was the palpable satisfaction the president took in describing Putin’s “incredible” proposal. Trump is desperate to show that his entreaties to the Russian despot — amid the “collusion” controversy and against the better judgment of his skeptical advisers and supporters — could bear real fruit. It made him ripe to get rolled.
.. The proposal to invite Mueller to Moscow brought to mind others who’ve tried to investigate Putin’s regime on Russian soil. There is, of course, Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed the regime’s $230 million fraud only to be clubbed to death with rubber batons in a Russian prison — Putin said he must have had a heart attack.
.. Then there is Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer for the Magnitsky family who has been investigating regime involvement in the fraud. He was slated to testify in a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Prevezon, a company controlled by Putin cronies that is implicated in the fraud. But then, somehow, Gorokhov “accidentally” fell from the fourth-floor balcony of a Moscow apartment building.
.. Truth be told, the prospect of hosting Mueller’s investigators in his accident-prone country interests Putin less than the “reciprocity” he has in mind.
.. This is classic Putin. The former KGB agent takes every Western misstep as a precedent, to be contorted and pushed to maximum advantage. As we’ve observed over the years, for example, the Kremlin has rationalized its territorial aggression against former Soviet satellites by relying on U.S. spearheading — over Russian objections — of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia.
.. While positing lip-service denials that he meddled in our 2016 election, Putin implies that we had it coming after what he claims was Obama-administration interference in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections
.. if our government does not see how Russia (like other rogue nations) is certain to exploit the precedent the Justice Department has set by indicting foreign officials for actions taken on their government’s behalf, we are in for a rude awakening
.. Naturally, Putin expects us to help him investigate Bill Browder. If you think the word “collusion” makes Trump crazy, try uttering the word “Browder” around Putin
.. the Russian dictator repeated his standing allegation that Browder and his associates have evaded taxes on over a billion dollars in Russian income. He further claimed that “they sent a huge amount — $400 million — as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” While this is outlandish, it reminds us of the purported dirt on Mrs. Clinton that Putin’s operatives sought to peddle to the Trump campaign in June 2016.
.. Natalia Veselnitskaya reportedly told Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort that Browder was involved in a tax-evasion scheme that implicated Clinton donors. This, she urged, was information that could be used to damage the Clinton campaign. Ms. Veselnitskaya also rehearsed the Kremlin’s rant against the Magnitsky legislation.
.. at least as far as what is publicly known, the Trump Tower meeting remains the closest brush that Trump has had with “collusion” — the narrative (indeed, the investigation) that has dogged his presidency. It is astonishing that the president would allow Putin to manipulate him into reviving that storyline.
.. Memo to DOJ: Expect Russia to issue indictments and international arrest warrants soon — as Putin said, it’s all about “reciprocity.”.. The “incredible offer” that Putin hit Trump with — and that Trump was palpably thrown by — was not woven out of whole cloth. Did you know that the United States and the Russian Federation have a bilateral mutual-legal-assistance treaty? Yeah, it was negotiated by the Clinton administration and ratified by the Bush administration. The MLAT calls for us to cooperate when the Putin regime seeks to obtain testimony, interview subjects of investigations, locate and identify suspects, transfer persons held in custody, freeze assets — you name it... It’s part of our government’s commitment to the notion that the law-enforcement processes of a constitutional, representative republic dedicated to the rule of law can seamlessly mesh with those of a gangster dictatorship whose idea of due process is deciding which nerve agent — polonium or novichok — is the punishment that fits the “crime.”
.. It enables Putin to pose as the leader of a normal, law-abiding regime that just wants to help Bob Mueller out and maybe ask Bill Browder a couple of questions — preferably out on the balcony.
- Clinton joined with Russia in an agreement to . . . wait for it . . . protect Ukraine.
- Bush looked Putin in the eye, got a “sense of his soul,” and found him “straightforward and trustworthy” — so much so that
- his State Department regarded Russia as a “strategic partner” that was going to help us with Iran (by helping it develop nuclear power!) .
- . . while Russia annexed parts of Georgia.
- Then came Obama’s “Russia Reset” — more “partnering” on Iran,
- ushering Moscow into the World Trade Organization,
- signing off on the Uranium One deal (and let’s not forget that cool $500,000 Russian payday for Bill Clinton and all those millions flowing into the Clinton Foundation) . . .
- while Russia backed Assad and the Iranian mullahs,
- annexed Crimea,
- stoked civil war in eastern Ukraine, and
- conducted cyber attacks on our election system.