A Russian Oligarch is Investing in U.S. Companies. Should We Be Worried?
Compared to his fellow Russian oligarchs, Vladimir Potanin is radically transparent when it comes to his investments in the United States.
But then again, how many people realized that a Russian oligarch was a major investor in a firm that hosted Maryland’s voting data? Even fewer know that Potanin has been linked in court documents to one of the world’s largest private equity funds.
Potanin, at 58, is one of the world’s richest men. The bulk of his $18.7 billion fortune derives from his large stake in Nornickel, the world’s largest refined nickel and palladium producer, which he has held since the 1990s. Potanin and his fellow metals tycoon, Oleg Deripaska, waged a bitter, multiyear battle for control of Nornickel.
Unlike Deripaska, Potanin has not been sanctioned the U.S. government although he appeared on the Kremlin list of billionaires and officials with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Potanin is well known in Russia. Less well known, is his role as the major investor in Altpoint Capital Partners LLC, a venture capital fund based in Greenwich, Connecticut with offices in New York and Los Angeles. AltPoint has more than $287 million in assets under management, according to its lastest SEC disclosure.
Potanin does disclose his interests in Altpoint, but there’s a bigger problem: private equity provides a convenient means of obscuring how he and other foreign billionaires invest in U.S. businesses.
“Washington knows shockingly little about foreign money flowing through the financial system, especially via private fund structures like hedge funds, venture capital and private equity, allowing foreign actors to make opaque investments that pose national security risks,” Joshua Kirschenbaum and David Murray observed in Bloomberg.
Altpoint, it turns out, was an early investor in Lyft, the ride-hailing app that recently had its initial public offering. It owns Ford Models, which repped Brooke Shields and Elle Macpherson. And Altpoint has backed a host of startup firms like Factual, a location data company. Altpoint also has founded a hedge fund dealing in cybercurrencies like Bitcoin.
“We are excited about the consumer internet, a new eCommerce approach, media, virtual and augmented reality, mobile solutions or the internet of things,” reads Altpoint’s profile on Cruchbase.
One company in Altpoint’s portfolio is ByteGrid, which set off alarms in Maryland in July.
During “fact finding activities using open source methods,” the FBI found out that Bytegrid, which hosted the computer servers used to register Maryland voters and and provide unofficial election night results, was being financed by Potanin.
State officials swiftly called a press conference. “We felt it imperative that our constituents know that a Russian oligarch has purchased our election machinery,” said Maryland State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Three years had passed before anybody noticed that the Russian oligarch had “purchased” Maryland’s “election machinery.” And nobody seems too bothered by the fact that the same company managed computer facilities for the U.S. Department of Defense.
This matters because Potanin is an oligarch. In fact, he’s one of Russia’s original oligarchs.
Born into the nomenklatura, the Soviet elite, Potanin used to connections to create a successful bank after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. It was Potanin who masterminded the “loans-for-shares” program and he positioned himself to acquire the government’s position in Nornickel for a fraction of its value.
“Yes, it made me incredibly rich,” he told The Financial Times “Everybody knows I won control of 38 per cent of [Nornickel] in loans for shares, cheap.”
Out of the seven original oligarchs, Potanin is one of the only ones still welcome in Moscow. “Why did we survive, [Mikhail] Fridman and myself? Maybe because we never tried to dictate to the government, to the Kremlin,” he told the FT.
Potanin began quietly investing in the U.S. businesses in 2006 via Stone Tower Equity Partners LLC, a New York private equity fund.
Stone Tower acquired Ford Models in 2007, but it took three years before anyone noticed Potanin’s role. “A Russian oligarch has seized control of a coveted American asset: beautiful models,” The New York Post wrote.
It’s interesting to note that Stone Tower’s chairman and CEO, Michael Levitt, was nominated by Interros, Potanin’s holding company in 2008 to serve as an “independent” director at Nornickel. Levitt was elected, even after his connections to Potanin were revealed.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Guerman Aliev, a Russian who worked for Interros was dispatched in the United States to take over his boss’ investments in Stone Tower.
Aliev brought on a new team and renamed Stone Tower as Altpoint Capital. (He then renamed himself as Gerald T. Banks.)
“We buy and sell controlling and non-controlling positions in companies,” Aliev explained in a 2015 deposition. “Being a U.S. manager in the United States, we have investments in Texas, we have investments in just about every single state in the United States. We buy and sell these companies as we see fit.”
Peering deeply into Altpoint is a difficult task. Just ask Potanin’s ex-wife, Natalia, who tried to identify her husband’s far-flung assets after he filed for divorce in 2013. Mrs. Potanina hired the law firm of Alston & Bird (ring a bell?), and used U.S. courts in several states to force her husband’s U.S. companies to answer questions:
Altpoint is Potanin’s captive private equity fund, and he uses it to keep a significant portion of his wealth in the United States. Petitioner requested discovery from Altpoint and several of its employees to show Potanin’s ties to Altpoint in order to assist her in identifying it as one of Potanin’s assets. Debevoise & Plimpton (which represents Potanin’s interests in Russia) appeared on behalf of Altpoint and several other Potanin-affiliated respondents in multiple other U.S. judicial districts, and moved to quash this discovery. …Letter to Judge November 18, 2015.
In one filing, attorneys for Natalia Potanina identified the following as Potanin’s U.S. companies:
- Altpoint Capital Partners LLC
- Amquip Crane Rental
- Bytegrid Holdings LLC
- Everquest Financial Ltd.
- Ford Models
- Globe Energy Services LLC
- IVESCO Holdings
- Pyote Water Solutions
- Resources Acquisition
- Sanchez Resources LLC
- SCA Sanchez Resources Holdings LLC
- Stone Tower Capital LLC
- Apollo Global Management LLC
- Norilsk Nickel USA
- Stillwater Mining Company
The most interesting company on this list is Apollo Global Management LLC, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms with connections to both Russia and the Trump administration.
Apollo loaned $187 million to Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm and one of its founders, Joshua Harris, advised the incoming Trump administration on infrastructure. Earlier, Apollo signed on to finance Trump’s aborted effort to build a tower in Moscow in 1996.
A spokesman for Apollo did not answer my questions about the company’s relationship with Russia.
In 2011, Apollo acquired Stone Tower Capital LLC and with it, Potanin’s old fund, Stone Tower Equity Ventures, for an undisclosed sum. Stone Tower Equity Ventures is now known as Apollo ST Capital LLC.
Another Apollo co-founder, Leon Black, also has links to Trump and Russia. He was named to the advisory board of the $10 billion Russian Direct Investment Fund in 2011. The RDIF was added to the sanctions list in 2015 by the U.S. Treasury Department. Presumably Black has resigned from the RDIF, although his spokesman didn’t respond to my questions.
Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the RDIF, makes numerous appearances in the Mueller Report. After Trump’s election, it was Dmitriev who wrote, “Putin has won.”
As for links to Trump, here is Black (wearing sunglasses) seated next to Jared Kushner at the 2016 US Open in New York:
Altpoint began investing in ByteGrid, which is based in McLean, Virginia, in 2011. According to court documents, Altpoint purchased 3,925 of the total 4,000 Class A Units of ByteGrid and was granted the right to appoint four of the six members of the Board of ByteGrid.
Between 2011 and 2016, Altpoint financed Bytegrid’s acquisition of a half dozen data centers in Silver Spring, Maryland; Alpharetta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Lynnwood, Washington; and Annapolis, Maryland. Bytegrid’s investment decisions were controlled by Aliev and two others at Altpoint. (See Decision in Lynwood Tech Holdings LLC v NR Int. LLC, Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia.)
Bytegrid acquired the Sidus Group, an Annapolis-based firm, in 2015. Sidus had an existing contract with the state Board of Elections for the MDVOTERS system.
In May 2016, the MDVOTERS system came under a “denial of service” computer attack and Sidus took the site down to stop the attack. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, no users were impacted and the system was not compromised. It’s not clear where the attack originated, but in 2017, Maryland learned that it was one of 21 states targeted by Russian government operatives before the 2016 presidential election
After Potanin’s name was linked to the state’s election system, DHS conducted another investigation and found no evidence that Maryland’s systems had been compromised (The report’s detailed findings, however, were redacted). At the end of 2018, ByteGrid transferred ownership of its Annapolis data center to Intelishift, a privately owned, Virginia-based data center.
There’s nothing wrong with a Russian oligarch investing in U.S. business, but the problem, as Maryland learned the hard way, is one of transparency.
If we’ve learned anything about modern Russia, it’s that no oligarch survives in power as long as Potanin has in Russia without answering the Kremlin’s request for help when the call comes. This, I suspect, is what alarmed the FBI about ByteGrid.
Had Putin asked Potanin to throw a wrench into Maryland’s elections, he would not have been able to refuse.