This week, it has finally burbled out to the general public’s notice that Fusion GPS, the opposition research group that reportedly commissioned the infamous “Trump dossier” from a retired British MI6 operative, is being investigated by Congress because it was apparently working for Russian government interests at the same time.
At the moment, suggestions that the Russians in question were “behind” the commissioning of the Trump dossier appear to be overblown. If evidence to that effect turns up, we can “go there” when it does. (At the very least, however, the Russian connections to Fusion would explain how the Russian government would have had full prior knowledge that an American oppo research group was looking for dirt on Trump — in Russia.)
For now, what we do know is that Fusion GPS, which has a decidedly un-illustrious history in terms of its clientele (including the usual Hillary drive-by and gratuitous computer hacking), was hired by a pair of Russians who sought Fusion’s investigative services in lobbying against the 2012 Magnitsky Act.
The Magnitsky Act imposed sanctions on Russian officials who were involved in human rights violations, like those allegedly perpetrated against Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax attorney who uncovered millions in tax fraud by Russian oligarchs. Magnitsky was imprisoned and tortured by the Putin regime until he died, reportedly of untreated injuries, in 2009.
A couple of problems with Fusion’s business practices here. One, when he took on the Russia-linked clients, Fusion founder Glenn Simpson didn’t register as a lobbyist for a foreign government. That’s the proximate reason Congress is investigating the connection.
Two, what Fusion was specifically hired for was digging up dirt on an American associate of Magnitsky, William Browder, who is now a key witness against a Russian-owned company alleged to have hidden some of the stolen Russian millions by parking it in U.S. assets. So that’s icky.
But three, the two main Russians in the tale are pretty unsavory. One of them is said to have been a Russian, but has behaved a lot more like maybe a former-Soviet Kazakh in the past. (He’s apparently a naturalized American now. But for a Russian, he took a really remarkable and specific interest – from here in the United States – in the affairs of the Kazakh opposition to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, throughout the 2000s.)
The former “Soviet spy”
In fact, let’s start with that gentleman, Mr. Rinat Akhmetshin. He is often reported to be a former Soviet Army counterintelligence officer. That certainly adds to the air of suspect notoriety around him. But if he was one, he was extremely young at the time – he was 48 last year, and the USSR broke up more than 25 years ago – and Akhmetshin has reportedly been in the U.S. since at least 1998. John Helmer, an independent journalist in Moscow, quotes an associate of Akhmetshin’s who has doubts that he was actually in the Soviet Army’s counterintelligence ranks. In fact, Akhmetshin told at least one media outlet in 2016 that he had never worked for the Soviet military intelligence services (see below).
Akhmetshin has made a practice of operating from front organizations that don’t seem to actually exist, at least in any meaningful way. That’s what he did in the 2000s, when he was lobbying intensively in Washington, D.C. for the political opposition in Kazakhstan.
In 2011, Akhmetshin shepherded Kazakh national Petr Afanasenko around Capitol Hill to testify about his mistreatment by the Nazarbayev government. In this role, Akhmetshin claimed to represent a “think tank,” the “International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research.”
Unfortunately, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which had contacted him for a story on the Kazakh political situation, could find no verifiable extant trace of this “Institute”:
Meanwhile, the group that helped set Afanasenko’s U.S. agenda, a one-man think tank called the International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research, seems determined to maintain a lower profile than its more illustrious counterparts. The organization is run by Rinat Akhmetshin, an ex-Soviet citizen who has been linked in the past with Kazhegeldin, the Kazakh opposition leader who once employed Afanasenko as a bodyguard. Akhmetshin, who sponsored Afanasenko’s visit, declined to comment on the case when contacted by e-mail, saying only that Afanasenko “is an old friend — he is a Belgian citizen and has nothing to do with [Kazakhstan].”
Akhmetshin could not be contacted at the phone number shown on his institute’s letterhead. There is no office at the Washington address it lists, and its website is moribund. “Institute relocated 5-6 years ago to a different address,” said Akhmetshin in his e-mail message.
(RFE/RL did later find paperwork creating the Institute in 1998. It was searching for anything about it after that that proved fruitless.)
More recently, as noted by the Daily Caller in January 2017 (above), Akhmetshin hired Fusion GPS through a Delaware-based non-profit called The Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGIF), purportedly dedicated to reopening the adoption pipeline to the U.S. for needy Russian orphans.
As much as the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy would love for something with that tasty name to be connected to the Clinton Foundation, that’s not what’s wrong with it. What’s wrong with it is that there’s no there there.
This is a series of screen caps of exactly what came up on each page of the HRAGIF website on 4 May 2017.
Big tell: the “DONATE” button doesn’t work. This is obviously not the website of an organization actively engaged with the public, or anyone else, in advocacy for Russian orphans.
Whatever HRAGIF is, it’s pretty clear what it’s not.
It looks very much as if HRAGIF is a front organization for something else. Maybe it’s the Russian government, which of course is interested in doing the work Akhmetshin hired Fusion GPS to help with: lobbying against the Magnitsky Act.
But we’re not quite ready to move on to the Magnitsky drama and the other Russian in this one, Denis Katsyv. I’ll restrict myself to one more piece of information about Akhmetshin here. He was named in a U.S. lawsuit in 2015 for having hacked into the computer systems of a Netherlands-based mining company, IMR, B.V., on behalf of a Russian former parent company.
The keys to this case: both companies involved are owned by Russian/former-Soviet oligarchs; and the one whose U.S. law firm hired Akhmetshin to do the hacking was owned by an industrialist whose MDM Bank was investigated by the U.S. for complicity in money-laundering in a famous case involving the Bank of New York in the late 1990s. The whiff of the Russian mob was all over that one.
Akhmetshin seems to be no stranger to smear campaigns, if we go by the allegations in the 2015 lawsuit:
In early 2012, [law firm] S&R and [senior partner] Salisbury engaged Rinat Akhmetshin in connection with the above mentioned ECVK matter, asking him to gain access to private sources of information concerning IMR. The attorneys at S&R including Salisbury, were familiar with Mr. Akhmetsin’s past work as a former Soviet military counterintelligence officer, as well as with his expertise in running negative public relations campaigns.
Allegedly, the Defendants then used the information obtained by Akhmetsin’s hacking to assist ECVK in their Dutch litigation and inflict damage on IMR. In addition, the Defendants initiated a smear campaign against IMR by disseminating this stolen information as well as other negative information to journalists and third parties. This was allegedly done with the goal of harming IMR’s business reputation. The Defendants then used the negative articles written by the individuals to whom they had disseminated the negative IMR’s stolen electronic information in the applications made in the early mentioned lawsuit against IMR.
If Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS is a master of smear campaigns, as alleged by William Browder, his skills seem to be tailor-made for the peculiar Mr. Akhmetshin’s M.O.
It’s worth noting that in the 2015 lawsuit, Akhmetshin’s address is given as the D.C. address on Vermont St. N.W. researched by RFE/RL in 2011 – which had no trace present of Akhmetshin or his “Institute.”
But in 2016, when journalists were just getting wind of Akhmetshin’s campaign against the Magnitsky Act, RFE/RL did track down a couple of his motorcycles. Apparently, gonzo journalist Seymour Hersh was allowing Akhmetshin to store the bikes on his driveway.
When RFE/RL contacted him in 2016, Akhmetshin said he had never worked for Soviet military intelligence. He did, however, confirm that he had a motorcycle parked at Hersh’s house:
Hersh said he knew Akhmetshin through mutual acquaintances. He said he had allowed Akhmetshin to park “a couple” of antique motorcycles in the driveway of his Washington-area home — motorcycles he said Akhmetshin had bought thinking they dated from World War II but in fact were of German manufacture and had been painted over to look like Soviet motorcycles. Akhmetshin confirmed he had a motorcycle parked at Hersh’s house.
So if you need to find Rinat Akhmetshin, that may be a good place to start.
The implicated oligarch
The other Russian hiring Fusion GPS through the inoperative HRAGIF is Denis Katsyv, the owner of a Cyprus-based holding company, Prevezon, which is alleged to be connected to the tax fraud uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky. The role of Prevezon is thought to have been hiding, in U.S. assets, some of the $230 million swindled in the Russian tax scam; namely, in real estate holdings in New York. The U.S. Attorney in New York has been pursuing Prevezon since at least 2013.
This is the case for which British-American William Browder is a key witness, because he was Magnitsky’s boss in Moscow in the mid-2000s, before the Russian regime imprisoned Magnitsky in 2008. Browder was forced out of Russia himself in 2005, after a falling-out with Putin.
Impugning Browder’s character and testimony was the purpose for hiring Fusion GPS. Impugn Browder, and the case against Prevezon is much weaker. Russia has a better shot at undermining the “human rights violation” narrative about Sergei Magnitsky – and hence, perhaps, getting the Magnitsky Act reconsidered.
If this all seems a bit unlikely – why would the Russians go about things exactly this way? – that’s a good point. The whole thing has a bizarre look to it. It got more bizarre, if no less Russian, in March, when a major Russian witness in the Prevezon case just happened to fall out of a fifth floor window in Moscow.
But let’s circle back around one last time to the original point. Fusion GPS was hired to work for this circus. It was being paid, for part of the time it was also shopping around the “Trump dossier,” by clients with extremely suspicious Russian connections whose organizational website is completely devoid of content – a situation that seems to have “False front” painted on it in Scorsese-red lettering.
And it’s Trump we’re supposed to be skeptical of here?