Russian Money in UK Politics
In The Godfather, Part II, mobster Hyman Roth is asked by reporters why he moving to Israel.
“I’m a retired investor living on a pension, and I wished to live there as a Jew in the twilight of my life,” Roth explains.
Sergey Kopytov is a retired Ukrainian politician living out the twilight of his life in eastern Europe. Like the fictional Hyman Roth, Kopytov invests in hotels. Except Kopytov’s hotels are not located in Cuba, but rather in the Crimean Peninsula, where he served briefly as finance minister in the pro-Russia Ukraine Party of Regions.
The Hyman Roth of the Godfather Part II was looking for a man who wants to be president of the United States. Roth had the cash to help elect him. “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” Roth says.
The very real Sergey Kopytov may been looking for a man who wanted to be the UK Prime Minister. And like Roth, Kopytov had the cash to help make it happen.
A $630,225 donation to the UK’s Conservative Party in February 2018—money helped install Boris Johnson in the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street—came from Kopytov, according to a bank alert sent to the National Crime Agency.
The bank alert, which tracked the flow of funds from Russia to Britain, was first obtained by The New York Times. It also was detailed in the latest issue of the UK magazine, Private Eye.
“We were able to trace a clear line back from this donation to its ultimate source,” an official at Barclays Bank wrote on January 2021. That “ultimate source” was Sergei Nikolaevich Kopytov.
If true, this raises troubling questions about Russian influence in UK elections. As in the United States, UK political parties are barred from accepting contributions from foreigners. The Conservative Party donation, however, was given a sheen of respectability. It was made in the name of Kopytov’s son-in-law, Ehud Sheleg. The Israeli-born Sheleg is a UK citizen and owner of a posh London art gallery, and a former treasurer of the Conservative party.
“I believe that the flow of funds which began with a $2.5 million payment from Kopytov to his daughter Liliya, and which ended with the $630k donation to the Conservative party was designed to conceal its origins from an impermissible donor and therefore the people responsible for designing the flow of funds committed an offense which potentially qualifies as a criminal offense,” the Barclays banker wrote in the alert. Sheleg’s wife, the former Liliya Kopytova, is a former Miss Ukraine 30 years his junior.
“Kopytov can be stated with considerable certainty to have been the true source of the donation,” the alert states. It adds: “Kopytov is a Russian resident and there is no indication that he has a UK passport or is on the UK electoral roll.”
It’s part of a pattern of Russian money and influence flowing into the UK Conservative Party. Boris Johnson played tennis in 2014 with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a Russian former minister, in exchange for a £160,000 donation. Chernukhin donated almost £2 million to the Conservatives.
Even as the Kremlin meddled in UK elections and sent assassins to kill two former Russian spies living in England, Boris Johnson defended his decision to take questionable money connected to Russia. “It’s very important that we do not allow a miasma of suspicion about all Russians in London—and indeed all rich Russians in London—to be created,” Johnson told the BBC. The future prime minister made those remarks in March 2018, one month after Sheleg’s donation to Johnson’s party and mere days after the poisoning of retired military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
A lawyer for the Shelegs told The New York Times that the couple received millions from Kopytov in the weeks before the 2018 donation. But that was “entirely separate” from the campaign contribution. The explanation given was that Kopytov’s money, which derived from a property sale, repaid a loan made to Sheleg by his family’s trust.
In May 2018, Ehud Sheleg gave another £750,000 donation to the Conservative party. (That donation was not covered in the bank alert.) He was named co-treasurer of the party three months later, and took over sole responsibility for the job the following year. Sheleg stepped down as the Conservative treasurer in 2021, a few months after Barclays filed its suspicious activity report. His representatives say there was no connection between the two events.
Sheleg was one of the biggest single donors to the Conservative party. In total, he gave £3.6 million to the Conservative Party, which got him knighted by the queen.
It remains unclear why nearly three years elapsed before Barclays filed its suspicious activity report about Sheleg’s 2018 contribution.
The $2.5 million that made its way to Sheleg began its journey in Kopytov’s Russian bank account. It then passed through Austria’s Raffeisen Bank, according to Private Eye. Raffeisen has the greatest exposure to Russia of any foreign bank, with €22.9bn of assets at risk. Readers of my book, Trump/Russia, will not be surprised to hear this as there’s a long history of dirty Russian money flowing through Raiffeisen. An infamous 2006 US State Department cable released by Wikileaks stated that that Raiffeisen served as a front for the Russian gangster Semion Mogilevich.
It took weeks for the $2.5 million to land in the Shelegs joint bank account in Britain. The day after it arrived, Sheleg made his contribution to the Conservative party.
The Barclays bank alert that sounded the alarm about Sheleg’s contribution states “that sources, including a Private Eye article note Ehud Sheleg’s close relations with Moscow… [and] connections with organized crime figures.”
Sheleg’s connections with Moscow including hosting the Russian ambassador to the UK in 2015. His organized crime ties relate to a franchise of his Halcyon art gallery in Cyprus. One of the men involved, Rustem Magdeev, is accused in UK court documents of having connections to organized criminals, a charge he denies.
The role of treasurer of the Conservative Party is often a springboard to the House of Lords, the upper house of British parliament. Seven of the last 10 treasurers were made barons.
An elevation to life peer may now be out of Sheleg’s reach. Questions have arisen in parliament about Sheleg and Kopytov. “Exactly what current and former links do the Sheleg-Kopytov family hold with key actors in the Russian state? Finally, has electoral law been broken and, relatedly, has our national security been compromised?” the chair of the Labour Party asked on the floor of the House of Commons last month. Stephen Kinnock, a Welsh MP who was threatened with a libel lawsuit for questioning Sheleg’s ties to Russia, asked when the former Conservative Party treasurer should be labeled a foreign agent.
In The Godfather, Part II, Hyman Roth’s plans to take over Cuba were foiled by Fidel Castro. Exposing Sergey Kapytov as the “ultimate source” of a Conservative Party donation may have foiled his plans as well.
Not long ago, Italian authorities raided a sumptuous villa in the northern Italian town of Roncadelle. Inside, the Guardia di Finanza seized a world-class art collection: paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Miro, and Chagall. Some 143 works in all. Outside, there was a large Botero cat statue. In the nearby town of Montichairi, authorities also seized a Eurocopter EC130, worth an estimated 2 million Euros.
The artworks, the helicopter, and the Roncadelle villa all belong to Lanfranco Cirillo, the 63-year-old architect who has designed homes for Russian President Vladimir Putin and 44 other Russian oligarchs. Cirillo is perhaps best known as the architect of Putin’s $1.4 billion palace on the Black Sea—which earned him the nickname of “Putin’s architect.” (Cirillo didn’t deny his work on the project, but would not confirm the palace’s links to the Russian president.)
A lifetime of living large off the oligarchs has caught up with Cirillo. He faces charges in Italy of income tax evasion, money laundering, and violating laws for the protection of cultural assets. According to investigators, Cirillo failed to pay some 50 million euros in taxes from 2013 to 2019 and is said to have laundered the proceeds. But he’s unlikely to ever be held to account. Cirillo lives in Russia, where he was granted citizenship under a 2014 decree granted by President Putin.
For years, Cirillo accumulated a fortune in obscurity. In 2014, he told La Repubblica that he had thousands of employees and invoiced in the hundreds of millions of dollars. “I arrived from Italy 20 years ago with a suitcase as a representative of furniture from Mascagni of Bologna. Today 42 of the 116 Russian billionaires in the Forbes list are my clients,” Cirillo said. He had done dachas and banks, plane interiors and 20,000-square-foot mansions. Once, he said, he saw an oligarch’s wife slap her husband at a dinner. But Cirillo couldn’t name names. His wealth was built on discretion.
Not surprisingly, Cirillo was a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. “Like 92–93 percent of Russia’s population, I love our president and I think he is the right man in the right place in the current world situation,” Lanfranco said in a 2016 interview. A picture of Putin hung on the wall of his office and could be found on his now-defunct website, abitalia.com. Does he still sing the praises of his hero? Sitting in his luxurious home on the Black Sea, does Cirillo cheer as Russian soldiers lay waste to Ukraine? Or does he worry that Russia’s president has brought his new home to the brink of ruin?
Cirillo was a bridge, one of many that existed between the Russia’s ultrawealthy elite and the West. He allowed Russia’s oligarchs to live in an illusion. Yes, they were in Russia, but they were surrounded by the luxuries of the West. He stuffed the oligarch’s homes and planes with the finest furniture and kitchen cabinets from Europe and the United Kingdom. The tentacles of this operation even reached into America. One of the main suppliers of materials for Putin’s Palace was a company Cirillo controlled called Medea Investment LLC, registered in Washington DC., according to a Russian whistleblower, Sergey Kolesnikov.
Compared to the obscene wealth that surrounded and enriched him, Cirillo saw himself as a bit player. His job was to help the obscenely rich live in the baronial splendor to which they felt their corruption had entitled them. He was just a simple, poor architect, as he famously recounted in a 2009 conversation with oligarchs that was obtained by the Russian publication New Times. “I’m an architect, a simple person, I’m poor, very poor, I spent 50 million today, getting 25 (illegible), I have minus 25 million 800 (thousand) euros, for me it’s a lot of money, almost everything earned,” Cirillo said. No doubt these were trivial sums for his clients.
The bridges that people like Cirillo built between Russia’s ultrawealthy and the West now lie in ashes. The flow of luxury goods has ended. There are no more artisans carving rococo ornaments. No more consultants installing dream kitchens with Viking ranges and Subzero fridges. The meticulously-designed megayachts are being seized. The Versailles-style ballrooms he designed now stand empty. The glittering illusion Cirillo once sold to the oligarchs has been swiftly replaced by the darkness of the Soviet days from which they had all sought to escape.
Where are the sanctions on Putin’s Children?
This post has been updated to reflect that neither Putin nor his daughters are listed as partners of a company that owns a Biarritz home where Igor Stravinsky once lived.
The Biden administration is going after the children of Russia’s oligarchs.
Among those sanctioned in recent days were the wealthy sons of Putin’s former judo sparring partner; the son of the Kremlin chief of staff; and the brother and sister whose dad runs the Kremlin-backed Wagner mercenary group.
“The aid of these individuals, their family members, and other key elites allows President Vladimir Putin to continue to wage the ongoing, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” the White House said.
But one pair of names is absent from the list: Katerina Tikhonova and Maria Vorontsova. These are the adult daughters of Vladimir Putin.
If the Biden administration is going after the children of the oligarchs, aren’t the children of Putin fair game?
Putin has always been extremely protective of his daughters. “I never discuss my family with anyone,” Putin said in 2015. It’s taken years just to learn the most basic facts about them.
Katerina, a dancer-turned-mathematician, and Maria, a pediatric endocrinologist, have stayed out of the spotlight and taken on different surnames to obscure their connection to the most powerful man in Russia. At the same time, they have reaped the benefits of the corrupt system that keeps their father in power.
Katerina and her former husband, Kirill Shamalov, amassed a corporate portfolio reportedly worth $2 billion before their divorce in 2018. (Shamalov was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2018; the UK sanctioned him February 24.)
An investigation by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation found Katerina headed a foundation that developed lands owned by Moscow State University. Her foundation, Innopraktika, collected $7.8 million from Russian-state owned companies and $7.3 million from unknown sources in 2015-2016.
Her older sister Maria also lived a life of luxury. Photos on social media showed her traveling the world, riding on expensive yachts, and hiring teachers abroad, according to an investigation by the Russian publication New Times.
Maria married a Dutch citizen named Jorrit Faassen, who worked at subsidiary of Gazprom. In 2010, while driving in Moscow, Faassen got into a confrontation with bodyguards of a Russian banker. Seven bodyguards forced Faassen’s BMW to stop, beat him with baseball bats, and damaged his car. The banker, Matvey Urin, had fucked with the wrong person. Faassen, described in media reports as a Putin family friend, remembered the license plate numbers of the bodyguards that attacked him. The next day, police arrested the businessman and the bodyguards. Weapons and drugs were found in their vehicles. Urin was sentenced to prison and his banks went out of business.
There are rumors that Putin had a “secret” third daughter with a cleaning woman-turned-multimillionaire, but Putin has never acknowledged the girl as his child.
Sanctioning the daughters would put Putin family assets in the West under the reach of sanctions.
One place to go looking for Putin’s assets in the West is in the French town of Biarritz, 15 miles up the coast from the Spanish border. This seaside resort town holds a special place in the hearts of the Putin family. In the summer of 1999, Putin was vacationing in Biarritz with his wife and daughters when he learned that President Yeltsin had anointed him as his chosen successor.
According to a report published February 26 by the French radio station Europe 1, Putin purchased a home on Rue de la Fregate in Biarritz where the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once lived. Putin reportedly paid around $400,000 for the home in 1996, at which time he worked in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office on a pittance salary. The radio station says the French secret services confirmed the report. Europe 1 says the property is held in the name of one of Putin’s daughters.
Update: I spoke with Michael Anthony, who is listed as an officer of SCI Chalet les Rochers, the French company that controls the property on Rue de la Fregate. Anthony heads Anthony & Cie, a private wealth management advisory firm in France that serves ultra-wealthy clients. Anthony checked his records and tells me that neither Putin nor his daughters are partners of SCI Chalet les Rochers. He declined to name the listed partner(s), citing client confidentiality.
Katerina and her ex-husband, Kirill Shamalov, owned a different home in Biarritz. The seaside house was acquired for 4.5 million Euros in 2012 from one of Putin’s old friends, Gennady Timchenko. It’s not clear who owns the house on Avenue du General MacCroskey today. The French company that owns the house is in turn owned by a Monaco company, SCP Alta Maria, whose beneficiaries cannot be revealed, even on request.
Lyudmila Putin, Katerina’s and Maria’s mother, also spends time in Biarritz. Lyudmila was married to Putin for three decades before they divorced in 2013.
Putin’s ex-wife has come almost every year to Biarritz to “take the waters,” both before and after her divorce, Alexandre de Miller de La Cerda, Russia’s honorary consul in Biarritz, told TIME. “She stops either at the Miramar” – one of the town’s most luxurious hotels – “or in the house that belongs to our mutual friend from Putin’s St. Petersburg circle.”
Lyudmila acquired a $7.46 million home in Anglet, next to Biarritz, six months after divorcing Putin, OCCRP reported. The Anglet home is in the name of her second husband, a St. Petersburg businessman almost 20 years her junior. In recent days, the gate of the Anglet home was marred with graffiti reading ‘Putin suka!’ (a vulgar insult in Russian), ‘Putin’s mafia’ or ‘Slava Ukraíne’ (Glory to Ukraine).
Meanwhile, the US Treasury keeps noting how the Russians it is sanctioning are close to Putin’s daughters. Kirill Dimitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund who was sanctioned last week is close to Katerina and her ex-husband, the US Treasury noted in its release. It’s clear that being close to Putin’s daughters is part of being in the inner, inner Kremlin circle.
So why sanction the oligarchs’ children, and not Putin’s daughters? Is the US worried that it will be too much of a provocation for an already unstable man?
Why did the FBI raid homes linked to Oleg Deripaska?
Editor’s note: Post has been updated to replace photo of DC property misidentified as the Haft mansion.
Sometimes you go looking for one thing and you find something else. I have a theory that’s what happened on December 13, 2018, when authorities in Britain served a search warrant on a London storage unit leased by a company connected to the Russian aluminum tycoon, Oleg Deripaska.
The warrant, made at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, was executed in search of evidence of crimes committed by Deripaska’s one-time business partner, Paul Manafort. It doesn’t appear that there was much on Manafort in that London storage unit, but U.S. authorities had obtained something else – 11 boxes and 100,000 pages of documents from the company that controls the billionaire’s global property empire.
The target of the 2018 UK raid, London-based Terra Services, controls Deripaska’s luxury properties around the globe through a network of subsidiary companies. These homes include stunning villas in St. Tropez and Sardinia, a mansion in London’s Belgrave Square estimated at £50 million, a home in Paris near the Seine, and an estate with two marble palaces in Montenegro.
On Tuesday, FBI agents raided two properties connected to Deripaska in Washington and New York. Agents conducted simultaneous searches at the Haft mansion near DC’s Embassy Row and at 12 Gay Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
A spokeswoman for Deripaska told The New York Times that the searches were “being carried out on the basis of two court orders, connected to U.S. sanctions.” The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Deripaska in April 2018, for “having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, a senior official of the government of the Russian Federation.”
That senior official of the Russian government may be none other than Vladimir Putin. The U.S. government received reports that Deripaska held assets and laundered funds on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I would like to ask: did you find Putin’s money in those abandoned houses?” Deripaska asked on Telegram the day after the FBI raided the New York and DC properties, an intemperate comment that was later edited out.
The sanctions on Deripaska mean that banks must steer clear of him and his money cannot enter the United States. According to Deripaska’s spokeswoman, the properties raided Tuesday were ultimately owned by the billionaire’s relatives.
But someone was paying the bills at the Haft mansion and 12 Gay Street. The property tax bill for the Haft mansion runs more than $132,000 a year.
Did the documents seized in the 2018 London raid provide evidence that Deripaska was violating sanctions with respect to the NY and DC properties?
I have a hunch they did.
First, whatever documents were in those 11 boxes seized by officers National Crime Agency, Britain’s version of the FBI, Deripaska did not want the U.S. authorities to see them. Over the course of 15 months, Terra Services challenged the warrant in five separate hearings. One of Terra’s arguments was that the materials in the boxes had little to do with Manafort, and the few pages that did involve him were already in the possession of the U.S. Justice Department. A British judge rejected Terra Services’ arguments for judicial review in March 2020, clearing the way for the documents to be sent to America.
Second, a previously-unreported court filing contended that Deripaska takes an extremely hands-on role in running his U.S. residences — down to the location of electric sockets. According to an affidavit filed in 2016 New York Superior Court, “Deripaska exercises dominion and control over NY properties.” The document cites emails Deripaska wanted kept secret that were obtained during discovery in a lawsuit filed against him by Alexander Gliklad, former chairman of a Russian coal company.
Gliklad’s lawyers cited an email from a U.S. realtor working for Deripaska that references the oligarch’s preferences for electronics and electrical outlets near his bed in 12 Gay Street. Other emails suggest Deripaska was involved in negotiating a price in a proposed sale of a $42.5 million townhome on the Upper East Side. (The document summarizing those and other emails was improperly redacted, allowing its contents to be read by selecting and pasting them.)
Third, and finally, the person in charge of Terra Services was involved in the purchase and management of the NY and DC properties. A few months before he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, Deripaska handed control of Terra Services over to Pavel Ezubov, his 46-year-old cousin.
Ezubov, the son of a member of Russia’s Duma, or lower house of parliament, set up the Delaware corporation that acquired the Haft mansion in 2006 for $15 million, according to records obtained by OpenSecrets’ Anna Massoglia.
And Ezubov’s name showed up on a New York city building permit for a $42.5 million Upper East Side Manhattan townhome connected to Deripaska. On the permit, Ezubov listed his address at a rented mailbox, located a short walk from 12 Gay Street, where property tax bills for all of Deripaska’s New York properties are sent.
It would make sense if Ezubov is managing these properties because his name shows up elsewhere in connection with properties connected to Deripaska that are being run by Terra Services. This includes Hamstone House, a 10-bedroom English mansion that was reportedly the Duchess of Windsor’s favorite property.
Euzbov’s name also shows up in connection with what may be the most expensive piece of property connected to his billionaire cousin. Villa Herakles in St. Tropez includes a 15,000-square foot main house, a guest house, a 345-acre park, two swimming pools, a tennis court, and a helipad.
Renovations on Villa Herakles cost 17.9 million Euros, according to the contractor’s website. The same contractor also worked on another home controlled by a Terra Services subisidary, Villa Walkirie, on the Italian island of Sardinia.
In a French court decision, an unidentified gardener who worked on Villla Heracles in St. Tropez from 2006 to 2009 said that his “real employer” was Basic Element – Deripaska’s holding company that comprises, Rusal, the world’s No. 2 aluminum maker.
Admittedly, the connection between Terra Services and the U.S properties raided Tuesday is not as strong as it is with the homes Terra Services controls in Europe. But what better place to sort this out then the 11 boxes of company documents that Deripaska did not want the U.S. to see?
Julian Assange’s Russian Connection
Whatever you think of Julian Assange — hero or villain, journalist or thief, high-tech revolutionary or paranoid narcissist — there is no denying his commitment to the cause of transparency.
Assange has paid a steep price for revealing the U.S. government’s hidden history. As I write this, he continues to battle extradition to the United States where he faces criminal charges of disclosing classified material — a case that could set a dangerous precedent for investigative journalism in the most powerful country on earth.
But the story of Assange and Russia reveals another history he prefers to keep private: his own.
The story begins well before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when WikiLeaks’ served as a conduit for the emails Russian intelligence officers had hacked out of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. By that time, Assange already had a years-old relationship to Russia.
It was Russia that Assange would often look to as a place to escape his mounting legal problems, something he would later advise Edward Snowden to do. It was Russia that offered him much-needed funds to keep his organization afloat. It was Russia that alternately terrified him and fascinated him.
Given how much we do know about WikILeaks activities during the 2016 presidential election, we still know relatively little about the origins of Assange’s relationship with Russia.
When did WikiLeaks’ relationship with Russia begin? And how did it start?
We have compromising materials on Russia
It may come as a surprise that Julian Assange — a man the U.S. government considers the Kremlin’s most useful idiot — once announced that his next target was Russia.
The year was 2010. Assange and WikiLeaks were riding a wave of notoriety after publishing thousands of secret US government documents that it had obtained from Chelsea Manning. First came the disclosure of a classified military video of a US Apache helicopter killing 18 people, including two journalists working for Reuters. That was followed by the disclosure of thousands of classified documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Everyone seemed to be wondering who or what WikiLeaks would expose next, and in July 2010, Assange showed his hand in an interview with Russia’s Izvestia newspaper.
Izvestia: Do you have compromising materials on Russia?Alexandra Ovchinnikova, “WikiLeaks Co-Founder Receives US Threats,” Izvestia, July 28, 2010
Assange: Yes, your government and businessmen. But not as much as we would like. The fact that most of your sites only post information in Russian limits our options. However, the Americans are helping us, they transmit a lot of materials about Russia.
Izvestia: Do you trust them in this matter?
Assange: Yes. Although, of course, we double-check all the information.
Izvestia: On which of the Russians has WikiLeaks already “opened a case”?
Assange: I will not name them. You will know them when we post the relevant content.
Assange must have been dismayed when no one else picked up the scoop he dropped in Izvestia, because WikiLeaks tried again in October.
“I think that Russian readers will learn a lot about their country,” WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told Kommersant, a Russian business daily.
This time, the U.S. media took notice.
So did the Kremlin. An anonymous representative of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, said there was no cause for concern, but then warned that Russia could shut the WikiLeaks site down for good if it so chose.
In the end, WikiLeaks’ next target wasn’t Russia.
Instead, Julian Assange sought its help.
Seeking Russia’s help
At the same time as journalists were asking whether the Kremlin was about to get WikiLeaked, Assange was coming under tremendous pressure from law enforcement authorities in Sweden.
Prosecutors accused the WikiLeaks founder of raping and molesting two Swedish women during an August trip to Stockholm. In November 2010, a warrant was issued for his arrest. (In 2019, prosecutors dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence)
With his options dwindling, Assange turned to an unlikely source for help.
In letter dated Nov. 30, 2010 that was obtained by The Associated Press, Assange asked the Russian consulate in London for a visa.
WikiLeaks claimed, without evidence, that the document was a forgery.
Assange’s Man in Moscow
There’s good reason, however, to believe that Assange isn’t telling the truth.
For one, Israel Shamir, the man Assange named as his “friend” in the letter, told Russian News Service radio, that he had personally brokered a Russian visa. But by the time it was approved in January 2011, Shamir said, it was too late. Assange was in British custody.
Russia “would be one of those places where he and his organization would be comfortable operating,” Shamir explained, according to the AP’s report. Asked if Assange had friends in the Kremlin, Shamir smiled and said: “Let’s hope that’s the case.”
A Russian-Israeli journalist and citizen of Sweden, Shamir is best known as an anti-Semitic writer. He has argued that the Jewish “blood libel” myth has a historical basis in fact and likened Jews to a virus. “I think it is every Muslim’s and Christian’s duty to deny the Holocaust,” he said.
Born a Jew in Siberia, Shamir claims to be Greek Orthodox Christian convert. Once a Zionist, he says he’s now an anti-Zionist. Once a spokesman for Israel’s left-wing Mapam party, he now travels in Russian right-wing circles. Shamir was a member of Florian Geyer, a group that was co-founded by the far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who had longstanding ties to Russia’s military, government and the security services. (The group shared its name with a Nazi SS cavalry division.)
Searching the Hebrew-language press, I found that Shamir’s own mother couldn’t understand what happened to her son. “He received a Zionist education. He was a Zionist activist. He did great things,” Esther Schmerler-Lomovski told Makor Rishon in 2003. “It pains me, what happened to him. I would like to understand it myself. I think it’s a disease. It’s a mental illness. He seems sane. He’s not disturbed. He seems smart. But there’s something unhealthy.”
Maybe Israel Shamir did go insane, or maybe he built quite a legend for himself. More than one reporter has pointed out Shamir’s ties to Russia’s security services. “From the late 1960s, people who knew him wondered if he were a KGB plant; at the BBC, while some found him charming, others considered he spent too much time at the Soviet Embassy,” Private Eye reported in 2011. Former Wikileaks staffer James Ball wrote in The Daily Beast that Shamir had “ties and friends in Russian security services.”
For former WikiLeaks staffer James Ball and Assange’s close friend, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Shamir was a step too far. Both men left the group.
Assange, however, would brook no criticism of his friend. Instead of banishing Shamir back to the freezing expanses from whence he came, he had invited him to join his nascent operation in 2007:
Someone wrote saying they ‘refused to associate with an organization that would work with an anti-Semite like Israel Shamir.’ From a brief sampling of your writing … I did not find the allegation borne out. I found these samples to be strong and compassionate. I suspect the name ‘Israel Shamir’ is a realpolitik deadweight we are not yet big enough to carry … Writing under another name in the interim … may be an option.Assange’s Moscow Mule, Private Eye, Feburary 18, 2011.
What was Assange’s response when Private Eye published this email? Private Eye was part of a conspiracy led by journalists from the Guardian who “are Jewish.”
Друзья (Friends of) WikiLeaks
A Russian visa was only one way Shamir was using his ties to Russia to help get his friend out of trouble.
He would also help establish a “Friends of WikiLeaks” foundation in Russia, ostensibly to raise money for an Assange visit to Moscow that never took place.
The Russian Friends of WikiLeaks has received no attention in the United States. It got a lot of attention in Russia because it was backed by the weekly magazine, Russian Reporter, which billed itself as WikiLeaks’ “official partner” in Russia.
One of the founders of Friends of WikiLeaks was Vitaly Leibin, the editor of Russian Reporter, a Putin-friendly publication owned by one of Russia’s most notorious oligarchs.
According to Leibin, Yandex, the Russian search giant, approached him with an offer to help WikiLeaks at a time when PayPal, MasterCard, and VISA were severing their ties to WikiLeaks. “Yandex.Money said that they were ready to guarantee that this will not happen and you can collect donations for WikiLeaks on their site,” Leibin told Vesti Radio. (Yandex denied this.)
Russian Reporter was an interesting partner for Shamir and WikiLeaks for another reason: Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum tycoon sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for his close connection to the Kremlin, owned 30 percent of the Expert group that included Russian Reporter through his holding company, Basic Element.
(In 2017, Deripaska’s longtime U.S. lobbyist, Adam Waldman, would meet nine times with Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, according to the Guardian. Waldman was trying to broker a deal with the U.S. Justice Department about the investigation into Assange and Assange’s leaks of documents detailing the CIA’s cyberweapons known as “Vault 7.”)
How much money did Friends of WikiLeaks raise? Did Deripaska give money? What happened to the money raised by the fund?
Shamir wouldn’t say. “Dear Seth,” he wrote me in an email. “I suffered a micro-insult last year, and I hardly remember anything of the things you asked me about. Sorry, can’t be of help.”
Shamir Gets the Cables
Most revealing was the way Shamir used one of WikILeaks’ greatest coups — the release of thousands of secret U.S. State Department cables.
Before her arrest, Chelsea Manning had passed WikiLeaks 250,000 cables from U.S. embassies around the globe offering unvarnished commentary on countries and leaders.
According to emails obtained by the Swedish magazine, Expo, Shamir had expressed interest in the U.S. State Department cables in June, months before WIkiLeaks began publishing them in bulk.
“I have a lot of good guys who can help to analyze the treasure and it would be good to start spreading the news. I am now in Paris, and people want to know more! Tuesday I go to Sweden, and there is a whole operation for your benefit!” Shamir wrote.
Assange replied, “There certainly is! Tell the team to get ready. Give them my best. We have a lot of work to do.”
Later that year, Shamir had shown up at WikiLeaks’ HQ in Ellingham Hall in the north of England. Introduced to the team as “Adam,” Shamir quickly aroused suspicion among staff when he asked for the as yet unpublished cables concerning “the Jews.”
Former WikiLeaks staffer James Ball says Assange ordered him to give Shamir more than 90,000 State Department cables “covering Russia, all of Eastern Europe, parts of the Middle East, and Israel.” (Assange has denied this, too.)
First stop, Moscow
Cables in hand, Shamir traveled to Moscow in early December.
Shamir reportedly asked Kommersant for $10,000 to write articles based on the cables, sources told Russian journalist Julia Latynina and the Guardian. (A Kommersant representative told Latynina a fee was not discussed.)
Russian Reporter, the Putin-friendly outlet partly owned by Oleg Deripaska, took Shamir up on the offer and started calling itself “the official partner of the Wikileaks website in Russia.”
Shamir’s articles for Russian Reporter contained a mix or both true and false information — a classic KGB disinformation tactic. His reports claim that the cables showed United States was a puppet master controlling global affairs and blamed Georgia’s then president for starting a war with Russia. In fact, the cables said the opposite.
It was a clever way to deal with the fallout from the cables.
“Unable to refute the compromising information contained in U.S. diplomatic cables, Russia’s intelligence services are trying to minimize the damage by distorting their content, using Russian Reporter as a conduit,” The Moscow Times reported, citing Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to then-President Vladimir Putin.
Next stop, Belarus
Shamir next headed to Belarus. He arrived in Minsk in time to observe the Dec. 19 presidential election as WikiLeak’s “only Russian-speaking accredited journalist.” Lukashenko would declare himself the winner of the election with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
On Election Day in Belarus, the news service, Interfax, published an interview with Shamir in which he claimed that the cables contained a “Belarus dossier” and hinted at “black cash” being paid to undisclosed recipients. Interfax also reported that Lukashenko’s chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, met with Shamir.
Two days later President Lukashenko said the following:
“We’re simply going to publish certain documents. We’ll see how those who are published on the Belarusian WikiLeaks site — the supporters [of the opposition] and those who are working behind the scenes — react to this.”
In January 2011, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began publishing extracts from the cables. Among those “exposed” as recipients of foreign money was the leading dissident, Andrei Sannikov, whom Lukashenko defeated for reelection, and Sannikov’s press secretary, who died under suspicious circumstances months before the election. (Sannikov was beaten by police in an Election Day protest, arrested on the way to the hospital, and then held in an undisclosed location, with no communication, for two months. He was ultimately charged with inciting protests and sentenced to five years in prison.)
“Because virtually every opposition leader was already under arrest at the time Shamir leaked the cables, the publication of these documents served to bolster, rather than prompt, the regime’s crackdown in the immediate aftermath of the presidential elections,” Kapil Komireddi wrote in Tablet magazine.
The relationship blossoms
Despite the damage he had done to WikiLeaks’ reputation, Shamir had somehow opened a door for Assange in Moscow.
In January 2012, Assange announced he would be hosting a show on Russia’s state-backed TV network, RT.
“The World Tomorrow” would be filmed in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where Assange had taken refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden.
Once again, Russia was supplying Assange with much-needed cash. RT‘s purchase of a broadcasting license for Assange’s show came shortly after funding for WikiLeaks reportedly began “drying up.”
The following year, WikiLeaks personnel would help Edward Snowden take refuge in Russia. In an interview with DemocracyNow!, Assange said that he “advised Edward Snowden, that he would be safest in Moscow.”
RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, visited Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in August 2013, where they discussed renewing his broadcast contract. Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to “new leaks of secret information.”
Then came the DNC and Clinton campign hacks. “WikiLeaks actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian campaign and very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort,” the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in the fifth volume of its multi-year inquiry into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. Assange received multiple visits at the Ecuador Embassy in London from RT employees during the summer of 2016.
In 2017, the government of Ecuador gave Assange diplomatic credentials and diplomatic immunity in order to allow him to leave its London embassy without fear of arrest by British police and take up a post in Russia. (Britain spoiled the plan by rejecting the appointment.)
As for Shamir, the nature of his relationship to Assange is unclear. (His son, Johannes Wahlstrom, remained part of Assange’s inner circle for years.) But there’s no denying that his association with WikiLeaks greatly benefited him. He writes a column for Russia’s largest daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and a blog on the ultra-nationalist newspaper, Zavtra.
Shamir remained an uncomfortable subject for Assange. It was a reminder of Assange’s own anti-Semitic leanings and his disastrous decision to hand over cables that were used to justify repression in Belarus. What’s more, Assange didn’t like discussing anything about himself other than his fame.
The man who dedicated his life to exposing government secrets didn’t want to reveal any of his own. Assange saw enemies everywhere, but he failed to see (or maybe he didn’t care to see) how his “friends” were using him to serve their own ends.