Meet the Russian Oligarch Who Helped Drive Russiagate

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Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky attends a photocall for the film “Citizen K” on August 31, 2019 presented out of competition during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Since 2016, the specter of “Russian interference” has been an idée fixe of the Washington political establishment and its media allies. Between the Mueller investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee report, and the House impeachment saga, the long procession of Kremlin-related scandals collectively known as “Russiagate” have occupied a vast chunk of American political life.

For years, we were told by our politicians and journalists that American society is infested by swarms of Russian intelligence assets working tirelessly to corrupt our institutions, poison us against one another, and destroy our way of life. These same politicians and journalists insisted that only they, in their great wisdom and foresight, could save us from the invisible Russian menace. From calling Senator Mitchell McConnell a “Russian asset” to cynically promoting the unverified, and now debunked, Steele Dossier, our intrepid investigators have left no stone unturned in their relentless campaign to expose the Kremlin’s malign influence.

The many failures and embarrassments of Russiagate are well-catalogued. There is, however, a particular dimension of the Russiagate saga that has long been overlooked—namely, the shocking extent to which these narratives have been propelled and amplified with the help of powerful Russians who have been permitted, if not invited, to meddle in American politics.

Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky was a Communist Party functionary-turned-businessman who amassed a fortune during Russia’s haphazard privatization drive in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Through an elaborate banking scheme that involved loaning the bankrupt Russian government money that he knew it could never repay, Khodorkovsky seized a controlling share in oil and gas producer Yukos and became one of Russia’s most powerful new oligarchs. Questions abound concerning the legality and morality of Khodorkovsky’s business dealings, some of which have been characterized by Russia experts as, at the very least, obscenely unethical. Described in a New York Timesprofile as radiating “the unlikely allure of a muscular technocrat,” Khodorkovsky developed a growing appetite for politics that placed him on a collision course with Vladimir Putin’s early 2000s efforts to curb the influence of Russia’s new oligarch class.

The two clashed in a 2003 power struggle over Russia’s political direction, and Khodorkovsky lost. He was subsequently arrested, charged with a bouquet of corporate white-collar crimes as part of a 662-page guilty verdict, and imprisoned for several years. His sentence was later extended through 2017, but, following an international pressure campaign that included personal appeals from former president Barack Obama, the Kremlin pardoned and released him in December 2013. From his exile in London, the Russian businessman wasted little time tapping into his considerable financial resources to begin financing opposition movements within Russia and across the Russian diaspora. The Kremlin responded in 2015 by reopening a 1998 murder probe, formally charging Khodorkovsky with facilitating the killing of Siberian mayor Vladimir Petukhov.

There is no need to dwell further on Khodorkovsky’s biography, except to underscore exactly who he is: an exiled Russian oligarch with an active stake in Russian politics. Khodorkovsky is, today, arguably the world’s leading benefactor of anti-Kremlin efforts. But his operations extend far beyond Russia’s borders—in fact, he is deeply invested in lobbying foreign governments to adopt a hardline stance against the Kremlin. Beginning with his Open Russia Foundation, Khodorkovsky established a growing list of proxy groups—among them, think tanks, news outlets, and NGO’s—to marshal Western support for regime change in Russia.

Then came the 2016 election. In the months following Donald Trump’s blowout November victory, the contours of the Russiagate narrative began to take shape. Trump, posited the shellshocked Democrats and their media allies, had wittingly or unwittingly colluded with Putin’s Russia to rig the election in his favor. For the first time since the Soviet collapse, “Russia” surged to the forefront of American political discourse; “Russian meddling” became a household term in U.S. politics. Special Counsel Robert Mueller was handed a wide mandate to investigate Trump and the Trump campaign for Russian collusion and any other crimes that might be discovered along the way. Prominent publications raced to indulge in Manchurian Candidate-inspired fantasies. Donald Trump did not merely accept Russian help, claimed a sizable subset of activist journalists, Moscow had been grooming him since the 1980s as an intelligence asset who would one day run for president.

In the years of chaos and confusion that followed, Khodorkovsky saw a golden opportunity: more than ever, the American political landscape was ripe to be shaped in an anti-Kremlin direction. Without delay, he mobilized his vast network of assets to propagate and amplify Russiagate. Khodorkovsky founded the Dossier Center, a project devoted to tracking “the criminal activity of various people associated with the Kremlin.” Just as the Trump Tower meeting scandal was roiling the news cycle, the Dossier Center published a batch of emails claiming to show that Natalia Veselnitskaya—the Moscow lawyer who secured a meeting with Trump Jr. in 2016 on the pretense of having presidential campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton—was more closely tied to the Kremlin than she previously let on. Eager to add fuel to media speculation that Trump is somehow compromised by Russian oligarchs, the Dossier Center reached out to NBC News with emails allegedly showing that a top Trump donor offered to brief a Russian businessman on the Trump campaign. In the following year, the Center published documents repeating the popular Russiagate talking point that Russian intelligence services are plotting to stoke racial violence on American streets.

The Dossier Center is only the tip of a sophisticated influence operation, helmed by an interconnected web of think tanks working to shape U.S. foreign policy. There is the previously-mentioned Open Russia Foundation, the umbrella organization used by Khodorkovsky to funnel money toward his numerous media, education, and activism projects. The Institute of Modern Russia (IMR), nominally headed by Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel, comprises one part of his reach in the Washington D.C. think tank orbit. Open Russia is also associated with the D.C.-based think tank Free Russia Foundation, through their shared work with Russian opposition movement “Living Politics” (Zhivaya Politika) and close professional cooperation.

These groups are linked by a revolving door of staffers who are regularly shuffled between the three and often occupy multiple roles. Take, for instance, Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure and Khodorkovsky associate who serves as vice-chairman of Open Russia, senior advisor to IMR, and vice president of Free Russia. There is a strong research continuity between these groups, partly because they share an overlapping pool of authors. A typical example is journalist Michael Weiss, who was a research fellow at IMR before becoming “director of special investigations” for Free Russia.

These think tanks have waded knee-deep into Russiagate. Most recently, Free Russia’s 2020 report, “Kill The Messenger,” framed Trump as a “populist” who “routinely threatens journalists and rails against so-called ‘fake news’.” The report went on to chide the Daily Caller for publishing an op-ed by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska—admittedly a somewhat curious accusation coming from a think tank that aligns with a Russian oligarch. Again missing the irony of the situation, the report concluded that “it remains ludicrous that Americans—American organizations, and American groups—can not only continue their close relationships with Russian oligarchs post-sanctions, but that they can continue to host and provide platforms for such figures.” Got that? Foreign meddling from Russian oligarchs is bad, unless that Russian oligarch is Mikhail Khodorkovsky and unless that meddling happens to be politically convenient to the Russiagate narrative. “Ludicrous,” indeed.

On select occasions, Khodorkovsky emerges from the background to express his views directly. In 2018, his personal news blog covered the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit with the following headline: “As Trump Gives Way To Putin, The World Is Left In Dismay.” The article described Trump as “an pariah of human rights activists,” and charged him with a lurid tableau of “failures” conveying Khodorkovsky’s bitter disappointment that Trump did not confront Putin with sufficient hostility.

Khodorkovsky, unlike the Americans who work for his many proxies and front groups, has no real stake or apparent interest in the future of American democracy. He is, instead, cynically exploiting a constitutional crisis in the U.S. in order to foment regime change in Russia. Even more shockingly, he is doing all this with the enthusiastic approval of the very same political establishment that has insisted for the past six years that foreign meddling—particularly of the Russian variety—poses a mortal threat on the same level as an act of war.

Of Russiagate’s many paradoxes, the Khodorkovsky case is perhaps the most revealing. What was sold to us as a noble crusade to purge ourselves of malign foreign influence was, in large part, little more than a bid for power and control by a revanchist elite that blithely courts foreign help when it suits them.

Mark Episkopos writes on defense and international relations issues. He is also a PhD student in History at American University.

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