Commerce Department
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question. It’s not so much a matter of which members of the Trump administration (and campaign) have ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin, but whether any of them don’t. The web of those who do now includes Sec. of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

To understand the connection it is important to know that banks on the island of Cyprus have a long history of being used to launder the money of Russian oligarchs. Back in 2014 when the Russians invaded Ukraine, the U.S. Treasury Department began keeping an eye on Cyprian banks in order to recover stolen Ukrainian assets after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The AP reports that this investigation by the Treasury Department now includes former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Here’s where Wilbur Ross comes into the picture. According to public records reviewed by the AP, one of the banks Manafort used in that country was the Bank of Cyprus. Ross served as the vice-chairman of that bank following an investment of €400m in 2014.

In 2014, the Bank of Cyprus was still considered to be in a precarious state following a dramatic €10bn rescue of Cyprus’s banking sector by the ECB and the IMF. Under the terms of the deal, many of the bank’s wealthy Russian deposit holders lost their cash and became shareholders in the bank.

Ross, who had made billions of dollars years earlier by betting on bankrupt steel mills, was known for taking risky bets. But his decision to inject €400m into the bank with other investors encompassed a different kind of risk. It put him at the centre of the biggest financial institution in a country that was widely considered to be a tax haven for Russian oligarchs…

Among the dealings Ross was involved with during his tenure at the Bank of Cyprus (from which he resigned when he became Commerce Secretary) was the sale of their bank’s Russia-based businesses to  Artem Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. Ross had described these assets as worth hundreds of millions of euros, but they were sold for €7m.

His time at the bank also included this decision:

In a separate management decision under Ross’s watch, Bank of Cyprus gave Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, until 2019 – four more years than originally planned – to pay back a €100m debt it owed in connection to Alfa’s purchase of the bank’s Ukrainian assets.

Perhaps none of this is related to the question of whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election. As Rep. Schiff said on Monday, perhaps it’s merely another one of those coincidences of yet another person in the Trump administration with ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. But perhaps not.

As someone who doesn’t typically study the world of international finance, it sure seems odd that a country with such a floundering economy is so attractive to so many of these Trump associates who travel in that world. Perhaps it is commonplace for global capitalists to this routinely have shady business ties with Russia. But it sure strikes me as odd.

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