Remember when Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 for a speech in Moscow in 2010, and in a totally unrelated move, Hillary Clinton’s State Department authorized the sale of Uranium One, with its control of 25% of U.S. uranium reserves, to a Russian consortium?
The host of the speech’s venue, and the source of the $500,000 check, was the Russian investment firm Renaissance Capital. The firm – a major holding company for Russian mining interests – was involved in the negotiations for the sale of Uranium One.
Enter the oligarch
The majority stock owner in Renaissance Capital at the time was Mikhail Prokhorov, Russian billionaire, eligible bachelor, and owner of the (then) New Jersey Nets. Prokhorov acquired a controlling stake in Renaissance Capital in 2008 through his holding company ONEXIM. (In 2013, Prokhorov became full owner of Renaissance Capital.)
It may be a coincidence that Prokhorov purchased his stake in Renaissance Capital at the same time executives of Renaissance Capital were allegedly involved in the scheme that developed into the notorious “Magnitsky case” – the plot to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in assets from Hermitage Capital via tax fraud in Russia. You’ll remember this one from the recent furor over the 2016 meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and the shadowy Russian lawyer who wanted to lobby him on the subject of America’s Magnitsky policy. (Numerous links below.)
The scandal from the original fraud case, in which Russian authorities reportedly abused whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky in prison, resulting in his death from untreated ailments, excited the indignation of the U.S. Congress. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, mandating that U.S. sanctions be imposed on individuals involved in such abuses overseas.
Hillary was notably resistant to imposing the sanctions at the time, which has been attributed to the Clinton Foundation’s lucrative relations with deep-pocketed Russians like Prokhorov.
But back in 2010, the year of Bill Clinton’s speech, Prokhorov bought stakes in the Nets NBA team, and in Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. With this latter move, wittingly or not, Prokhorov entered the HillaryWorld of New York, becoming a partner in development with Hillary’s and Bill de Blasio’s crony Bruce Ratner.
A year before, Ratner had gotten a court’s approval to seize the development property in Brooklyn known as Atlantic Yards, where Barclays Arena is located. (He used eminent domain for the seizure.) As outlined at Judicial Watch, the personalities involved in Atlantic Yards are a Who’s Who of modern Tammany-style corruption in the Keystone State, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who both served prison time for their role in the shenanigans.
The kingpin, Bruce Ratner, has long ties to both Hillary and de Blasio, and Hillary’s 2016 campaign headquarters arranged space in the Ratner Building. This is the crony milieu in which Prokhorov was running in New York City. Ultimately, he bought controlling interest in Barclays for an additional $825 million to Ratner, and with partners Ratner and Jay-Z moved the Nets to Brooklyn in 2012.
It’s also worth noting of Prokhorov that he reportedly had an account with the Cyprus-based bank that was used to launder money from the stolen assets of Hermitage Capital, on which Sergei Magnitsky had traced the tax-fraud scheme. Some of that money ended up with Prevezon Holdings, the company that invested the laundered funds in New York real estate, and recently paid a $6 million fine to settle with the U.S. Department of Justice.*
Alert readers will remember that the consulting firm Fusion GPS – with extensive ties to Hillary Clinton and other senior Democrats – was engaged by the U.S. law firm representing Prevezon Holdings, and was retained as well to lobby U.S. officials on the Magnitsky Act.
Fusion GPS, which specializes in the dirt-digging of opposition research, also shopped the discredited “dossier” on Donald Trump around Washington.
Now that we have a clearer picture of Mikhail Prokhorov, we can turn to the new theme being promoted in the left-wing media: the report from Facebook that “Russian trolls” injected themes into social media, via botnets, during the 2016 election.
Russia connection: The Facebook/“Russian trolls” theme
Facebook recently confessed that front groups for Russian operatives bought $100,000 worth of Facebook ad promotion to amplify the reach of their themes in the 2015-2017 timeframe.
A number of commentators have noticed that Facebook has been non-forthcoming in terms of the evidence for this, recounting it in statistical terms, but not showing the public what the material in question actually was.
And it turns out that fingering these accounts as fronts for Russian state operatives is something that was done by a Russian media outlet, RBC.
In a March 2017 article, RBC recounted a great deal about the operations of the Russian trolls, who work out of a branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in St. Petersburg, and who target a number of countries with propaganda and disinformation. It’s an interesting article, more than 7,100 words in length, and full of anecdote and personalities related to the creation of a full-fledged media company – “FAN” – to generate tendentious, persuasive content for foreign audiences.
The FAN media company isn’t confined to running botnets; it has a stable of field reporters who embed with Russia’s officially sanctioned mercenary contractors to run military operations in places like Ukraine and Syria. It’s a sophisticated and highly organized effort.
Out of those 7,100+ words, some 260, right at the very end, are devoted to the Secured Borders page at Facebook and the Tea Party News account at Twitter. RBC has this to say about the two accounts (robo-translation via Google Translate):
RBC magazine was able to find at least one community in Facebook, which actively supported Trump in the pre-election race – Secured Borders. About the involvement of this community in the “factory” was told by a source familiar with its activities, a screenshot of the results of one of the advertising campaigns of the community confirms his words. The access to such statistics is impossible without the administration of the page.
Secured Borders, created with the goal of “protecting our country [USA] right now from risk, rejecting the liberal garbage”, has almost 140 thousand admirers. For example, the coverage of one of the posts of the community advertised during the election period exceeded 4 million people who put more than 310 thousand likes and 80 thousand times [shared] record, it follows from the screenshot. This is the average figures for the results of advertising campaigns, the source of the RBC magazine specifies: the number of large thematic communities with which the “troll factory” disseminated information during the period in the American campaign – about 15 pieces, the total daily coverage for them was only 12-15 million people.
Another community, which RBC magazine learned about, is Tea Party News on Twitter (almost 22,000 readers). Judging by the internal statistics of the community, for example, at the beginning of November 2016 tweets of this account were shown about 1.6 million times.
Daily Beast basically regurgitates this information as its examples of how the American voter was trolled during the election.
Now, there is no reason to doubt that Russia tries to plant information themes in social (and other) media for a U.S. audience. Anyone with a brain can tell that Russian outlets like Sputnik and Southfront are retailing a specific Russian narrative, in the same manner that Politico and Daily Beast retail a Western progressive-left narrative, and Breitbart a right-wing, largely conservative narrative. Likewise, news organizations such as RT, TASS, Al-Jazeera, Xinhua, the U.S. majors (the Big 3 networks and the cable news outlets), the Western wire services, and the West’s big-name print media all produce content based on their respective narratives.
But the “Russian trolling” theme goes beyond that obvious premise. We’re being asked to accept some sparse, thinly-developed data points as if they are dispositive facts conveying a very specific meaning: that Russia unduly – and successfully – influenced the U.S. 2016 election, through the use of social media accounts of which the only examples we have are those identified by the Russian magazine RBC.
So what do we know about RBC?
The oligarch returns
Well, first, it was owned by billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, the fellow we met above, up through June of 2017.
As Daily Beast implies, RBC has had a reputation as a source of good investigative journalism. It is often cited as one of the last such media outlets – perhaps the last – with national reach in Russia. Almost all of the independent investigative media outlets have been intimidated into submission or failure in the last decade.
But there is reason to question how independent RBC has really been in the last 18 months, since it fell afoul of the Kremlin with hard-hitting pieces in 2015 and 2016 that went after members of Vladimir Putin’s family, and implied a Putin connection with the massive offshoring scandal generated by the “Panama Papers” revelations.
Within months of those investigative gems, in April 2016, Prokhorov’s ONEXIM offices were being raided by the FSB. Shortly thereafter, senior editors were ousted from RBC, to be replaced in June 2016 by new editorial bosses coming over from state-controlled TASS. (For insight into how that affected RBC operations, and the general atmosphere of investigative journalism in Russia, see the excerpts in the second footnote below** from reports by a still-independent site, Meduza, which has retained its independence by the expedient of moving to Latvia.)
In light of the raid on Prokhorov and the editorial railroading of RBC in 2016, it is an excellent question how independent the March 2017 report on the Russian trolling operation really was.
“Investigating” the FSB? Unlikely
Another question posed by the March 2017 article is just how the RBC reporters, already on Putin’s “it” list, got all that inside information about an FSB operation.
Perhaps they got it through the front door. Given the well-documented connections of the FSB with one of Mikhail Prokhorov’s other companies – our friend Renaissance Capital – it would be foolish to discount that possibility. Alert readers may remember that the Russian hacker of Yahoo, at the time (2014) the biggest hacking job ever accomplished, was an FSB agent and the head of IT operations for Renaissance Capital.
Senior FSB officers held several top positions with Renaissance Capital in the 1990s and early 2000s, before Prokhorov bought his controlling interest in it in 2008. But the testimony of Hermitage Capital’s William Browder in hearings held by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) in 2017 revealed that Renaissance’s penetration by the FSB is of much more recent date as well.
In other words, it’s quite possible that RBC was able to get access to Facebook account information for the Secured Borders “troll” page because the FSB was the instigator of the March 2017 article – and RBC was the outlet of choice to publish it.
Certainly, RBC seems to have suffered no blowback for writing in detail about an influence operation run by the FSB. In Putin’s Russia in 2017, it’s a good bet that means the Kremlin is fine with having the information published.
The beauty of information operations is that, if your purpose is to sow doubt, the truth, dribbled out on your terms, often serves the purpose well.
Mikhail Prokhorov, meanwhile, is thought to be under orders from Putin to sell off his major business assets. He unloaded RBC this summer, and has put the Nets on the block in Brooklyn. There is little word on the rest of his ONEXIM portfolio. It’s not clear what the future holds for him, but he has the reputation of a mostly cooperative guy who tries not to get on Putin’s bad side, and it seems likely he will lie low for a while.
For those who may be wondering, a few eager-beaver bloggers have tried to frame a connection between Prokhorov and George Soros, especially since Prokhorov ran as a nominal opposition candidate “against” Putin in the 2012 election. I don’t see evidence of direct collusion between Prokhorov and Soros, and my sense of Prokhorov is that he isn’t intrinsically political enough to cast himself in that mold.
But he has the inevitable links to Soros that someone in his position would have. Prokhorov and Soros may not have had significant personal dealings. But Prokhorov’s long-time business partner, Vladimir Potanin, with whom he parted ways in the mid-2000s, ran a telecom company among other ventures with Soros during the time he was partnered with Prokhorov.
Beware Russian media outlets bearing gifts
The bottom line on this theme – Russian trolling – as on all the others is that we are being fed clues that don’t necessarily mean what we’re being asked to believe. Given Prokhorov’s history, and Putin’s clampdown on RBC in 2016, I wouldn’t take anything from such a source about the FSB’s operations at face value.
That doesn’t mean the FSB doesn’t have an influence operation targeting America. It does mean that Russian-sourced claims about the troll page Secured Borders aren’t evidence that Russia successfully hacked, meddled in, or stole the U.S. election – or that Russia made us “lose faith in our democracy” or any other of the “Russia Russia Russia” themes.
* As an aside, the Cyprus-based bank was also laundering money for the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center, or SSRC, which was running the plutonium reactor project in eastern Syria at the time of the fraudulent schemes being worked against Hermitage through officials of Renaissance Capital; i.e., the period 2006-2008. The reactor, of course, was struck by the Israelis in September 2007. It’s not clear from the Asia Sentinel piece whether the money-laundering done in Cyprus funneled any of the stolen Hermitage Capital assets to the Syrian SSRC. What is clear, however, is that the FBME Bank was used extensively by the “Klyuev Group,” a front for the Russian mob. The big heist from Hermitage Capital apparently involved known higher-ups in the Klyuev Group as well as individuals inside Renaissance Capital.
** This first Meduza article, from May 2016, has good background on RBC’s history and reorganization during the Prokhorov years. It was written from the perspective of RBC’s fate being uncertain, after the articles implicating Putin and his family members angered the Kremlin. The article provides a useful overview of where RBC started before the Prokhorov team took over – with something of a pay-for-play reputation – and how bringing in high-reputation journalists from other outlets turned the company around.
The whole thing is worth reading. But the most arresting passage was this one, which clarifies the essential lack of independence that even the supposedly “independent” RBC had, prior to the bust-up with the Kremlin in early 2016 (emphasis added):
RBC‘s ascent wasn’t impeded even by a small-time reputation scandal that occurred in spring 2015, when hackers from Anonymous International leaked a few letters, allegedly from the correspondence between Timur Prokopenko, a presidential administration official (overseeing the Internet from autumn 2012 to winter 2014, and later put in charge of federal elections), and RBC‘s CEO, Nikolai Molibog. The latter confirmed the correspondence existed, remarking that “the scale of changes RBC has undergone over the last 18 months wouldn’t have been possible without explaining [to the state] what we were doing.“
Just keep that in mind. In Russia, you have to explain to the state how you’re reorganizing a supposedly independent media outlet.
The second article is must-reading on what happened to journalistic independence at RBC when the new team from TASS came in, in July 2016. This article is a transcript of a Q&A session between the journalists and the new leadership (along with CEO Molibog), made from a surreptitious audio recording Meduza obtained from someone who was there. The newly arrived editors parry questions from their anxious staff with extended riffs on euphemism, doublespeak, and ellipsis.
It’s clear that what they mean is, the journalists will have less freedom, and there are going to be prohibited topics and lines of inquiry. But they won’t come out and say so. The writers ask them direct, uncomplicated questions about policy, and the new editors respond by accusing the staff of not asking the right questions. If not exactly a Kafkaesque sequence, it is certainly recognizable as evasive and prejudicially framed.
This telling passage is one example, in which the new editors address what RBC had done “wrong” in its handling of the “Panama Papers” story and the constructive links to Putin.
Nikolai Molibog: Well why isn’t it clear [i.e., what RBC’s error had been]? There were three [Russian] newspaper covers the West studied closely [about the Panama Papers and Putin]. In this piece, the way we formatted the story, the image we featured, and our headline—it was all stronger [more incriminating of Putin] than anyone else. But we could have handled this like everyone else.
Igor Trosnikov: If people here are thinking that you can always be direct—be so direct with everything—it isn’t so. It’s not allowed at Kommersant, it’s not allowed at Interfax, it’s not allowed at Vedomosti, and, as experience now shows, it’s not allowed here. Yes? But this is our profession. It’s your profession. And I’m still hoping that this will be our newsroom going forward. I think we should all have an interest in preserving this at its best and highest quality. But I can’t tell you that there are no restrictions whatsoever. They exist. If people here think there aren’t any restrictions, then they’re better off writing on Facebook. You can still get away with it there.
RBC journalist: They’re locking people up for that now, too.
Keep in mind these vignettes of journalistic standards in Russia, and how they affect RBC’s reporting, as you assess how independent the RBC investigation of an FSB influence operation could have been.