The U.K. Struggles to Combat Russian Influence

We’re not the only country in the world that has a “Russia” problem. I’d argue that the United Kingdom’s problem is worse in every way except the very top level of leadership where we’re cursed with Donald Trump. Although, it does seem like their Parliament is at least awake at the wheel, unlike our Congress.

The publication this week of a U.K. parliamentary report calling for tougher action to stop the flow of dirty Russian money into Britain is a landmark moment for the City of London.

Until now, almost all the pressure from within the U.K. political system to change the rules that have earned London its reputation as one of the money-laundering capitals of the world has come from those on the political left concerned about human rights, tax evasion and social justice.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report marks the emergence of a new cross-party consensus that Russian corruption has now become an issue of national security. The report alleges that Russian oligarchs aren’t only laundering their ill-gotten wealth through London, but also using it to subvert Western democracies at the Kremlin’s behest.

In their efforts to combat Russian influence, London is paralyzed to a great extent and by a variety of factors that include the narrow self-interest of their economic elite, their traditions and culture of anything goes capitalism, and their need for foreign capital. But they’re moving forward in a couple of areas.

In the past few weeks, backbench members of Parliament persuaded the government to pass so-called Magnitsky amendments to new U.K. money-laundering legislation. The measures—named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison after being beaten and denied medical treatment—will allow the government to freeze the assets of foreigners suspected of human-rights abuses.

The government also reluctantly agreed to an amendment requiring it to oblige British overseas territories such as the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands to make publicly available the registers of individuals owning controlling stakes in companies domiciled in their jurisdiction. That is a major blow to the secrecy that is essential to the large-scale laundering of corrupt wealth that has long flowed into London’s financial and real-estate markets.

Our own Magnitsky laws were the subject of the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Manafort, Kushner, Trump Jr. and a brood of Russian intelligence agents. More interesting is the second reform listed above. If the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands have to list the owners of the companies registered there, that will have a big impact.

Scott Stedman has been an aggressive citizen investigator of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and he has a new piece out that links Oleg Derispaska to IC Expert, the company that Trump Aquisition LLC contracted with to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Key to his case is a company registered in the British Virgin Islands named Capilana Trading Limited.  This obscure entity was the majority owner of IC Expert until a few months before the deal was struck in an October 2015 letter of intent.  Stedman believes that ownership of IC Expert was transferred in anticipation of the deal in order to obscure the ownership.

Weeks after IC Expert’s chairman Andrey Rozov was granted amnesty by the Russian government in a negligent homicide case, the majority ownership of IC Expert was transferred to a prominent Cyprus lawyer in order to mask the true ownership.

Deripaska’s connection to Capilana is through his Cypriot manager — Ioanna Theofilou. Whereas many Cypriot directors and secretaries act for hundreds or thousands of companies, Theofilou is only involved with a few dozen, with the plurality of those being companies owned by Deripaska. For example, subsidiaries of Deripaska’s largest companies En+ and RUSAL list Theofilou as its director and secretary. When Deripaska established a Panamanian company under the RUSAL umbrella, he again entrusted Theofilou to be one of his only directors. The only other Panamanian company in which Theofilou is a director cannot immediately be traced to Deripaska, though the same officers are involved, and the incorporation dates are only one year apart.

Now Cyprus is as well-known as the Cayman and British Virgin Islands for being a tax shelter and haven for money launderers, but in one respect it is more transparent.

British Virgin Islands law allows the principals of a company to remain anonymous. This secrecy makes it an attractive destination for high-profile businesspeople to register their companies. Normally, this would be the end of the trail for a company such as Capilana, but when conducting business in a foreign country such as Cyprus, principals of a company must be present.

It’s through this requirement that Stedman was able to ascertain that Deripaska’s Cypriot agent Ioanna Theofilou has been the director of Capilana Trading Limited. If the United Kingdom had insisted that the directorship of Capilana be publicly listed, this extra level of sleuthing by Stedman would not have been necessary, so you can see why Parliament’s reform can make a difference.

A potential role for Derispaska in the Moscow Trump Tower deal could be a very consequential piece of the puzzle Bob Mueller is trying to assemble. And Stedman has already made a strong case:

Previously, it was established that two of Deripaska’s CEOs, Stalbek Mishakov and Pavel Lebedev, were in charge of IC Expert’s sister company Expert Development. One of Deripaska’s closest associates and one-time personal lawyer, Mishakov served as CEO of Expert Development for over a year, and oversaw the development of a large shopping center in Reutov, Moscow. At the same time he was serving as CEO of Expert Development, Mishakov was also part of the leadership team at En+ Group, an energy company controlled by Deripaska. The multi-billion dollar conglomerate is one of Deripaska’s most successful ventures to date.

Lebedev and Mishakov previously worked together at another Deripaska-owned company, Altius Development, which built the Olympic Village for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Mishakov, Lebedev, and Andrey Rozov also all served on the Board of Directors of the industrial firm 1MPZ.

As a reminder, Deripaska is the man Paul Manafort was indebted to to the tune of $19 million.

Deripaska has become a key player in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was deeply in debt to Deripaska, at one point asking how he can use his position on the Trump team to “get whole”. In July 2016, Manafort offered to give Deripaska private briefings about the campaign.

Unraveling these types of financial relationships is difficult even with all the resources our government can bring to bear, and that’s obviously by design. It’s true that if the British Commonwealth becomes a less attractive place to do dirty business that the bad actors will shift their money elsewhere, but at least the U.K. has decided not to make things easy for the people who are trying to “subvert Western democracies at the Kremlin’s behest.”

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.