Bank at Center of U.S. Inquiry Projects Russian ‘Soft Power’

2017-06-05 07:15:02

 

Bank at Center of U.S. Inquiry Projects Russian ‘Soft Power’

It has offices in a sleek Manhattan skyscraper. Its bonds are accessible to millions of American investors. And it holds ties to some of New York’s biggest banks.

Despite this presence on Wall Street, detailed in previously unreported financial records, Vnesheconombank, or VEB, is no normal bank. It is wholly owned by the Russian state. It is intertwined with Russian intelligence. And the Russian prime minister is, by law, the chairman of its supervisory board.

Now VEB is at the center of an international firestorm that threatens the Trump presidency because the bank’s chief — a prominent graduate of Russia’s spy school — met with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, during the presidential transition. That meeting is a focus of a federal counterintelligence investigation about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Three years ago, in response to Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on VEB that have effectively kept it from taking on most new business in the United States. Since then, however, VEB has quietly kept up appearances on Wall Street in the event that sanctions would be lifted, according to interviews with American bankers and former government officials.

That moment appeared to be nearing with Mr. Trump’s victory. And so the bank’s chief, Sergey N. Gorkov, traveled to New York in December for what he described as a “roadshow” promoting the bank that was largely hinged on the prospect of improved diplomatic and business relationships between the United States and Russia.

During that trip, The New York Times has found, Mr. Gorkov met with bankers at JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and another, unidentified American financial institution. Goldman Sachs bankers also tried to arrange a meeting but ultimately had a scheduling conflict. The meetings, which are not prohibited by sanctions, were confirmed by three people briefed on the discussions but unauthorized to speak publicly about them.

None of the American banks were new to VEB. Citi and JPMorgan had long, established relationships clearing financial transactions for VEB in the United States, activities not affected by the sanctions. And before the sanctions, securities filings show, Goldman and others had helped the Russian bank issue bonds, activity that was blocked by the sanctions and that VEB was eager to resume.

After a few painful years, continuing Western borrowing had become a pressing priority for Moscow. The Russian Finance Ministry has spent about $10 billion to prop up the bank over the past three years, according to banking analysts.

On that same trip, Mr. Gorkov met with Mr. Kushner. The nature of the meeting, which remains in dispute, followed a session between Mr. Kushner and the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, about opening a communications channel with Russian officials during the presidential transition, according to current and former American officials.

The F.B.I. and congressional investigators are now scrutinizing whether Mr. Kushner may have met with Mr. Gorkov to help establish a direct line to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, or for other reasons not cited by the White House.

The White House and VEB have issued contradictory statements about the purpose of the Gorkov meeting.

The White House has said that Mr. Kislyak requested the meeting and that “Mr. Kushner was acting in his capacity as a transition official.” But VEB said Mr. Gorkov had met with Mr. Kushner, who was still running his family’s real estate company, to discuss business. The statement said VEB’s management had met with “a number of representatives of the largest banks and business circles of the U.S.,” a claim supported by the Times’s reporting about Mr. Gorkov’s meetings with banks in New York.

VEB has not disclosed specifics of the conversation with Mr. Kushner, which is of keen interest to investigators.

Mr. Kushner’s hunt for overseas investors for his company’s financially troubled Manhattan office tower on Fifth Avenue has been documented by The Times. While such an investment would not fit the profile of VEB’s past lending, it would have been possible for Mr. Gorkov to relay such information to other Russian banks. It is not known, however, whether the subject was raised in the meeting.

The subject of sanctions was also freshly topical in December. The rolling back of sanctions was an essential part of Mr. Gorkov’s strategy in visiting New York, and was central to the health of his bank. The next month, during Mr. Trump’s first week in office, administration officials signaled they were considering lifting the sanctions that stemmed from the conflict in Ukraine.

Separately, Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, had several phone conversations late last year with Mr. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. In one, the two men discussed additional sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to the Russian government’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

The meeting with Mr. Kushner was not VEB’s only connection to Mr. Trump’s campaign or associates.

A banker who pleaded guilty last year to spying for Russia out of VEB’s office in New York was part of an unsuccessful Russian scheme to recruit Carter Page, an American businessman who later became a Trump campaign adviser, as a spy. VEB also obtained shares in a Ukrainian steel smelter when it was sold by a business partner of Mr. Trump’s who built a Trump hotel in Toronto, according to previously undisclosed documents from the vast leak known as the Panama Papers. The VEB involvement in the smelter deal was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

These interactions have stirred concerns over whether the bank, which few Americans have heard of despite its ties to Wall Street and big companies like Boeing, has been spreading Russian influence along with its financial footprint.

A representative for the bank would not comment.

VEB and Mr. Putin are inextricably linked.

The bank stepped up lending after 2008 when Mr. Putin, then prime minister, became chairman of the board. And during the oil boom, VEB was seen as embodying Russia’s new financial might.

Under a 2007 law, VEB’s mandate was to lend to important but underfinanced sectors of the Russian economy, including infrastructure and businesses that help diversify the economy beyond oil dependence.

There are other government-controlled banks in Russia, Sberbank and VTB, but they are primarily retail banks. VEB serves a very different role, lending mostly to large borrowers, many of them politically connected.

To that end, VEB over the last decade has lent freely in ways that dovetail with government priorities and make it a tool of Russian soft power. The purse strings opened for two influential groups in particular: oligarchs building Olympic sites in Sochi and companies in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

“This is not a bank,” said Karen Vartapetov, a public finance analyst at Standard & Poor’s. “We should rather treat this bank as a government agency. It is used by the government as a tool to invest in politically and socially important but not always financially viable projects.”

VEB’s role as a projector of state influence was on display in 2010 with a deal that potentially affected a Trump hotel in Toronto.

At the time, Alex Shnaider, a Russian-Canadian businessman developing the hotel, was looking to sell a steel plant in Ukraine. His Midland Resources Holding Ltd., which owned the Zaporizhstal steel factory, sold at least half its stake to a collection of five offshore companies that received funding from VEB, according to documents in the trove of files from the law firm Mossack Fonseca that were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The documents show that one year after acquiring the Zaporizhstal stake, the five companies — based in Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands — transferred it to Russian control.

In each case, the companies’ shares were “charged in favor of” VEB, meaning the bank effectively took ownership of them in exchange for financing the steel plant acquisition.

Court papers in Canada show that Mr. Shnaider’s deal to sell the steel plant coincided with his need to cover cost overruns in the Trump deal. His lawyer initially told The Wall Street Journal last month that about $15 million from the Ukraine sale went into the $500 million Toronto project, but he later backtracked.

Nothing in the Panama Papers linked VEB’s financing to the Trump project, which Mr. Trump did not own. Rather, the deal underscored VEB’s strategy to venture into Ukraine at the behest of the Russian government.

More broadly, the bank’s plan had been to tap capital markets in New York to help finance the Ukraine lending, but the plan collapsed with the imposition of sanctions in 2014.

The bank today, not unlike Mr. Putin’s government, expanded its sway abroad in a way that appears unsustainable. Weighed down by sanctions and the oil price collapse, the Russian economy has slipped to 12th in the world, below South Korea’s, according to a World Bank ranking.

At the time sanctions were imposed, the bank’s total debt ran about $20 billion. It has since been reduced to $17 billion, according to financial disclosures at the end of last year. But the Ukraine lending in particular is affecting the balance sheet, with outstanding Ukraine debt totaling $14.2 billion at the current exchange rate, banking analysts say.

Last week, the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti reported that about 40 percent of VEB’s loans were at risk of default.

Mr. Gorkov, who previously worked at the Yukos oil company and was a senior executive at Sberbank, became director of VEB in February 2016, partly with a mandate to find market solutions to the bank’s financial woes.

For Mr. Gorkov, fixing VEB would require a new focus, and that, according to the bank’s statement, became the reason for a meeting with Mr. Kushner.

The two met as Mr. Gorkov traveled to gather ideas for a new strategy for the bank, published a month after the meeting with Mr. Kushner in a document called “Strategy 2021.” It called for shifting some risks directly to the Russian budget, selling assets not considered central to the bank and trying to resume borrowing in places like the United States.

The document suggested that the bank was expecting some relief from sanctions. “The forecasts for the term of the strategy predict certain decrease of geopolitical risks and gradual weakening of the restricted access to global capital markets,” it said.

Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who has represented Mr. Gorkov’s former boss at Yukos, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, said it was essential that sanctions be lifted for the VEB turnaround to succeed.

“Putin doesn’t have to worry about what the voters think of him,” Mr. Amsterdam said. “Putin has to think about the top 100. And the top 100 are those who are sanctioned.”

Long before VEB became saddled with sanctions, it had deep ties to Washington and Wall Street.

In 2010, Mr. Gorkov’s predecessor appeared at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington to unveil a pact with the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the federal agency that supports American exports. Under the deal, the two institutions agreed “to cooperate in financing U.S. exports to Russia.”

The arrangement was followed by two little-noticed deals. In 2013, the Export-Import Bank guaranteed a loan of about $500 million so that, in effect, a VEB subsidiary could acquire a number of Boeing 777 aircraft — planes that VEB then leased to Aeroflot Russian Airlines. A year later, shortly before the sanctions hit, the American agency guaranteed another loan of about $700 million for a similar deal.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Export-Import Bank said, “These transactions all supported the sale of U.S. exports and thus supported American jobs.”

Since the sanctions took effect, the spokeswoman said, there have been no new VEB transactions, and deals involving any Russian entities have been placed on “administrative hold.”

The sanctions also limited VEB’s relationship with American banks. The sanctions prohibit United States banks and companies from “transacting in, providing financing for or otherwise dealing” in new long-term debt.

For years, issuing debt was a good business for both Wall Street and VEB. Between 2006 and 2013, Goldman, Citi and Morgan Stanley helped the Russian bank issue one bond deal after another, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Now, American banks can work for VEB only in more limited roles.

JPMorgan, Citi and BNY Mellon, for example, remain registered to clear VEB’s transactions through the United States, clearinghouse records show, though such transactions have waned since the sanctions were imposed. Many major American banks and investment firms also continue to include VEB debt in mutual funds, including those of Fidelity and Pimco, securities filings show.

It would not be out of the ordinary, then, for a VEB official to have brief courtesy meetings with New York bankers about continuing business, though they would not be allowed to discuss new bond deals, said Aaron Wolfson, a partner at Lewis Baach who previously worked at JPMorgan and prosecuted banks for skirting sanctions.

Still, Zachary K. Goldman, a former Treasury Department official who worked on financial sanctions issues, said the banks needed to be cautious.

“Just because limited interactions with VEB may be legally permissible doesn’t mean that there aren’t reputational and other kinds of risks involved,” said Mr. Goldman, now the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. “The concern for me with this particular entity would be its reported ties to the Russian security services.”

Mr. Gorkov, 48, graduated in 1994 from the university of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the K.G.B. — a school for spies. Like many in his generation of security agents in the early post-Soviet period, he ventured into banking and the oil business.

In fact, say businessmen who have worked in Russia, so many F.S.B. agents are in the upper management of state-owned companies that the roles of spy and executive blend almost seamlessly.

“In Putin’s Russia, they don’t draw a distinction,” said Mr. Amsterdam, the lawyer who represented Mr. Gorkov’s former employer.

Highly educated and often speaking foreign languages, former F.S.B. officers include Mr. Putin himself, senior officials throughout his government, and board members and top executives at state-run corporations.

Mr. Gorkov’s biography on VEB’s website does not suggest he ever served in the F.S.B. The bank did not respond to questions about whether he worked for the agency.

But the bank has been known to employ spies. In 2015, federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Washington announced charges against Evgeny Buryakov, an employee at VEB’s New York office, accusing him of acting as a covert agent of the S.V.R., the Russian foreign intelligence agency.

Mr. Buryakov, who was charged alongside two other Russian men accused of trying to recruit Mr. Page, later pleaded guilty, and VEB paid his legal bills.

At the time, the authorities suspected that some VEB managers were aware of Mr. Buryakov’s spy activities, according to a person briefed on the investigation. Federal authorities recorded a conversation between the two co-defendants discussing how an S.V.R. official told Mr. Buryakov’s supervisor at VEB that Mr. Buryakov was an “employee of the service.”

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