Category: Vladimir Putin

The NSA is listening to the Russian Mafia

I found some interesting things in National Security Agency newsletters that were leaked by Edward Snowden and published online by The Intercept.

These relate to the NSA’s little-known work in tracking transnational organized crime.

The NSA, which collects massive amounts of signals intelligence, has a unit called S2F dedicated to international crime and narcotics. A unit within S2F (S2F21) is tasked with monitoring mob bosses from Russia and elsewhere.

A 2006 memo revealed how this unit helped thwart the sale of a refinery to an Israeli organized crime figure via a front energy company.

The Israeli organized crime figure isn’t named. If you have any ideas about who this is, please contact me.

A 2003 memo revealed that NSA was tracking a Russian organized crime boss, Vladimir Kumarin, at the request of the State Department. State wanted to know if there were links between Kumarin’s Tambov gang, based in St. Petersburg, and Vladimir Putin.

The indispensable Catherine Belton writes in Putin’s People that in the 1990s, Kumarin, “with the help of Putin,” began taking control of St. Petersburg’s entire fuel and energy business. Putin also granted Kumarin an exclusive contract to supply fuel for the city’s ambulances, buses, and police cars. Kumarin became so powerful he became known as “the night governor.”

In 2006, NSA expanded its relationship with Spain’s Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI) to target Russian organized crime bosses. There were numerous targets of mutual interest to both countries, including Zakhar Kalachov who was arrested in Dubai in 2006.

The NSA’s powerful tools tipped the Spanish police to a company called Vera Metalurgica, linked to Russian crime bosses. One of those crime bosses, according to Spanish authorities, was Oleg Deripaska.

Finally, in 2006, the NSA let its employees know of a interagency intelligence blog devoted to the latest bank accounts and other information collected on Semion Mogilevich, “the U.S. government’s top Russian organized crime target.”

From Putin’s Kiss to Jeffrey Epstein

Tech investor Masha Drokova took an unusual path to Silicon Valley. First, she was a true believer in Vladimir Putin. Then she went to work for Jeffrey Epstein.

There are numerous Russian women who are making substantial contributions in Silicon Valley. Only one can claim to have kissed Vladimir Putin, as Drokova famously did in 2009, and to have received a medal from Putin himself for “contributions to the fatherland.”

The 31-year-old Drokova has been very open about this and many other aspects of her life with one glaring exception: She will not discuss her work as a PR consultant for convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. (Drokova did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)

Update: After this post was published, Drokova told me she did some PR work for Epstein as a favor but was never paid by him. See note at the end of this story.

But the secret was spilled by Jeffrey Mervis, a writer for Science magazine, who received an email from Drokova in August 2017 asking whether he wanted to interview Epstein, her client. No doubt there are others who received similar pitches who have not been so forthcoming.

It’s this Epstein-Putin connection — and Drokova’s ties to a figure of interest to the Senate’s Russia investigation — that has me wondering whether her life is following the whims of fate or someone’s directions. Because let’s face it, Epstein was an intelligence goldmine. He collected dirt on his rich and powerful friends, who over the years have included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Prince Andrew, Bill Gates, and Apollo Global founder Leon Black, who has his own connections to both Trump, Epstein and Russia. He had cameras in his house monitoring private moments. From an intelligence officer’s point of view, Epstein presented endless opportunities for blackmail.

Is Drokova’s life just a series of astonishing coincidences? Or might she be another Maria Butina or Anna Chapman, the sort of Russian woman who uses sex and charm to cozy up to powerful and connected American men in pursuit of information or influence? As I’ve written before, there’s a rich tradition of this Russia, going back to the KGB’s red sparrows.

It’s impossible to say for certain, but what is clear is that Drokova has a knack for showing up in places she doesn’t quite belong. First, she was the Putin superfan who befriended Putin’s critics. Then, she stunned many in her home country when she revealed that she is a proud permanent resident of the United States. She did public relations for Jeffrey Epstein and others despite a poor to middling command of English. Now, people entrust her with millions of dollars to invest in Silicon Valley based despite an investing philosophy — and I’m not making this up — that involves love and sex.

Putin’s Kiss

Let’s start at the beginning. In 2005, then 16-year-old Drokova joined Nashi, the Kremlin-sponsored youth group and rose to the rank of commissar, or core activist. Her spontaneous decision to plant a kiss on Putin’s cheek caught the eye of Danish filmmaker Lise Pedersen who chronicled Drokova’s time in the organization in the 2012 film, Putin’s Kiss.

Drokova was the softer face of an ugly movement. The writer Peter Pomerantsev described Nashi as “the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential pro-democracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square.”

Drokova didn’t beat people up but she did call for burning books and organized a campaign to throw shoes at then President Bush. (“A stupid action,” she told the Wall Street Journal years later, and one that led to her leaving the group.)

Her mentors included Vladislav Surkov, Nashi’s creator and the Kremlin’s former top political strategist. Drokova attended a 2009 conference organized by Surkov to work out a strategy for information campaigns on the Internet, Jeffrey Carr writes in Inside Cyber Warfare. In Putin’s Kiss, Drokova quotes Surkov’s famous line: “Putin was sent to Russia by God.”

She also worked closely with Konstantin Rykov, who went on to become the Kremlin’s “chief troll” as well as a figure of interest in the Senate’s investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election. Drokova became a producer and presenter on Rykov’s Internet channel, Russia.ru. (More on him later)

Drokova’s departure from Nashi in 2010 came after she befriended a group of liberal journalists, the kinds of people Nashi marched through the streets to publicly denounce.

Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, the film’s narrator, praises her bravery for supporting him in a protest after he is beaten within an inch of his life.

Others in Kashin’s circle, however, remained wary of “the girl with the big breasts [who] was sent to talk to liberals,” as one put it in Putin’s Kiss.

After leaving Nashi, Drokova put her propaganda skills to use in PR. Within a few years, she moved to the United States and began investing in Silicon Valley. It was a path that, as I’ve written, had been trailblazed by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov and Yuri Milner.

“Is She A Traitor? Nyet”

In 2017, the new and improved Drokova revealed on Instagram that she was a permanent resident of the United States. The news of Drokova’s U.S. green card caused a sensation in Russia, with many blasting her as a turncoat.

If you look closely at the photo of her visa above, you’ll see Drokova was granted an E16 visa. This is meant for “aliens of extraordinary ability” — aka the “Einstein visa.” (This is the same pathway through which Trump’s wife, Melania, gained U.S. citizenship.) It’s a category that, in theory, is reserved for people who are highly acclaimed in their field; the government cites Pulitzer, Oscar, and Olympic winners as examples.

Tech investor Esther Dyson, who sits on the board of Russian search engine giant Yandex NV, supported her visa application, according to Drokova. (Dyson also has a connection to Epstein. She traveled to Russia in the 1990s with Epstein where they posed for a photo outside the home of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. She also attended the “Billionaire’s Dinners” that Epstein attended and helped pay for. )

While many in Russia mocked and derided Drokova, one notable figure rose to her defense: Konstatin Rykov, her former boss and the Kremlin’s “chief troll.”

One has to wonder whether Rykov was speaking for himself only. In Vol. 5 of its report on Russia, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that “Rykov has played a significant role in the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic influence efforts.” He also has ties to people outside the Kremlin who are associated with Russian intelligence services or pro-Kremlin political parties, the report noted.

Rykov was an early supporter of Trump and featured prominently in a Washington Examiner story headlined: “Putin loves Donald Trump.” (Trump tweeted out a link to this story in 2015, saying “Russia and the world has already started respecting us again!”) After Trump’s surprise victory, Russian elites congratulated Rykov, the Senate’s report notes.

On Election Day, Rykov hosted a party in Moscow that was attended by pro-Kremlin propagandist Maria Katasonova, and Jack Hanick, an American media consultant who is associated with U.S.-sanctioned oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and his pro-Kremlin propaganda media outlet Tsargrad TV.

Included in a list of guests Rykov invited to the election party in Moscow was Masha Drokova. (Drokova’s social media posts suggest she was in California at the time.)

The VC of Love

Next to Drokova’s name on Rykov’s election party guest list was the co-founder of NtechLab, Alexander Kabakov.

NtechLab is the creator of FindFace, which it bills itself as the best facial recognition algorithm in the world. NtechLab recently built a massive surveillance system in Moscow. Russia has also licensed the technology to the United Arab Emirates.

NtechLab was the first in a string of investments that Drokova started making in 2016 in early-stage tech companies. (The size of her investment has never been disclosed.) Another early stage investor in the company was Impulse VC, a firm based in Moscow that was backed by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Other Drokova investments included StealthWorker, a service that connects employers with cybersecurity personnel. She invested more than $4 million in artifical intelligence startup DigitalGenius.

It’s yet another mystery how she came to invest millions at the same time she did PR work for Epstein and others. Why would a successful VC investor do PR? Whose money was she investing?

Not your typical VC photo. (Source: dayoneventures.com)

But it was only the start.

In 2017, Drokova started raising money for a Silicon Valley venture capital fund she founded, Day One Ventures. She has raised more than $70 million to date.

SEC filings show that Day One Ventures is backed by a small group of high-net-worth individuals, most likely from Russia.

Day One Ventures, SEC filing

Drokova had professional and expensive help setting up her fund, such as her New York lawyer from the firm of Willkie Farr. But it all seemed out of step for a carefree, almost childlike woman who said things like “Meditation is my Netflix.”

In 2018, Business Insider ran a remarkable article about Drokova’s VC fund headlined: This 28-year-old Silicon Valley investor builds businesses by helping entrepreneurs fall in love.

“Everyone is more productive when they fall in love,” Drokova explained. Really?

The article noted she sometimes recommends “sexual energy retreats,” or sets founders up on dates.

“It’s not necessarily matchmaking,” Drokova told the reporter, Zoe Bernard. “I just introduce them to my friends.”

Why anyone would entrust large sums of money to a person who says things like this is beyond me, but people have.

Twenty-five people invested more than $19 million in Day One Ventures Fund I. A total of 33 people have invested more than $52 million in her latest fund, Day One Ventures Fund II, according to a November 2020 filing.

One company receiving Day One Ventures money is a legal app called Do Not Pay. Its founder is Joshua Browder, the son of Bill Browder, one of Putin’s fiercest critics.

It’s one of the many absurd coincidences in Drokova’s life that render the word coincidence itself meaningless.


Drokova: “I never worked for Epstein”

Not long after this story ran, I called up Masha Drokova. To my surprise she answered.

Drokova told me she met Epstein once and agreed to do some work for him as a favor, without knowing about his sordid past. “I quickly find out I shouldn’t be connected with this person,” Drokova told me over the phone. “I didn’t do research in the beginning, which I very much regret.”

“I met him and he asked me, ‘I need connections with the media,'” Drokova told me. “I introduced him to some people. I dig deeper. Oh fuck, it’s a very bad story.”

She admitted she did send a pitch to Jeffrey Mervis, the writer for Science magazine. She also sent similar pitches to some of her friends. “Some of my friends told me: Do you know this person?” she said.

But Drokova was insistent that she was never paid by Epstein. There are bank statements that will show this, she told me. She added that she asked about hiring a lawyer to correct the record about the nature of her work for Epstein. She was told it would cost $50,000 and there was no guarantee of success so she gave up.

Drokova got off the phone before I could ask her a report that banking regulators in New York published about Epstein’s relationship with Deutsche Bank.

The report notes that the Deutsche Bank team monitoring Epstein’s accounts received an alert “about payments to a Russian model and Russian publicity agent.” (The bank’s monitoring team ignored the alert after a member of the team stated “[s]ince this type of activity is normal for this client it is not deemed suspicious.”)

If this wasn’t Drokova, then who was it? How many Russian publicity agents were working for Epstein?

Impeachment Showcases Putin’s Skill at “Working with People”

Few people realize that Vladimir Putin was once asked how his past experience as an officer in the KGB helped him as a politician. His answer related to his experience “working with people.” (работы с людьми)

For Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council and Russia expert who delivered powerful testimony last month before the House impeachment inquiry, “working with people” is not as innocent as it sounds.

It is a bit of what she calls “KGB jargon” that reveals a great deal about Putin’s nearly two-decades long hold on power. And it also sheds light on what has befallen our current political order here in the United States.

During Putin’s days as a spy in the 1970s and 1980s, the KGB was all about “working with people,” a euphemism for what might better be described as working on people. Rather than repressing, detaining, or killing critics and opponents of the Soviet regime, Yuri Andropov’s KGB decided it would try to win them over using guile, patience and, most importantly, leverage. “It means studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” Hill writes in her insightful 2012 book, Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin.

Hill lays out how Putin has used this skill to great effect in winning over the Russian political elite as well as its citizens, nearly half of whom still approve of his performance as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his election as president. It’s also quite clear that one of the people with whom Putin has been diligently “working” is President Donald Trump.

The Russian leader has had ample opportunity to work with Trump over the course of more than a dozen phone calls and in-person meetings, including the two-hour private meeting in Helsinki that offered the relaxed, informal setting that Putin prefers. “To be able to work with people effectively,” Putin has said, “you have to be able to establish a dialogue, contact.”

While we know when the two leaders have spoken, including a phone call between Trump and Putin shortly after the Ukraine election is of particular interest to House investigators, we know little about what they have discussed. Even Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said he did not “fully understand” what the two leaders had discussed privately in Helsinki. But Trump has given us some clues about a frequent topic of conversation.

Putin has repeatedly told Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters in 2017. The president went even further the following year in Helsinki when he said he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would have interfered, citing the Russian president’s “strong and powerful” denial.

Putin has called working with people “the most complicated work on the face of the Earth,” but for an experienced KGB case officer Trump isn’t a tough study. The president’s deep insecurity about being perceived as an illegitimate leader is painfully obvious.

This insecurity is at the root of his false claims about the “millions and millions” of illegal ballots that cost him the popular vote in 2016 or his “massive landslide victory.” Trump cannot stomach the fact that he was elected by a minority of the people.

Nor is the president able to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A former aide, Hope Hicks, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators that whether or not Russia had an impact on the election or not didn’t matter to the president because “people would think Russia helped him win.” Hicks astutely described the intelligence assessment as Trump’s “Achilles heel.”  

Another leader might let the matter drop, but a former KGB case officer recognizes the issue of election interference – the very same one the U.S. intelligence community found Putin ordered — is a vulnerability he can skillfully exploit. It provides an opportunity for the Russian president to create the shared understanding necessary to “achieve results,” in working with people. “You need to make that person an ally,” Putin has said, “you have to make that person feel that you and he have something that unites you, that you have common goals.”

It’s not hard to see how destructive this shared understanding that Russia didn’t interfere in the election has been to Trump’s presidency. The July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry was in part an attempt by Trump to cast doubt on Russian interference.  Similarly, Trump’s potentially criminal efforts to obstruct his own Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference are the fruits of the poisoned seeds planted and carefully nurtured by Putin.

After the uproar over Trump’s comments in Helsinki, which he swiftly walked back, the president no longer publicly voices his doubts about Russian interference. He leaves it to surrogates like Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who show loyalty to the president by voicing his feelings. Asked recently whether it was Russia or Ukraine that hacked the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, Kennedy replied, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”

Likewise, Hill called out Republican members of the intelligence committee for suggesting that Russia did not attack the election but somehow Ukraine did. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves,” she said. 

Hill stopped short of accusing the Trump of serving the Kremlin’s interests for fear of creating more fodder that the Russians could use against American democracy in 2020.

At the same time, she made it perfectly clear that anyone who pushes the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election – as Trump did on Fox & Friends the day after Hill testified — is serving Russia’s interests.

Surely, not even Putin could have imagined the uproar that would flow from his shared understanding with the American president, but the upcoming impeachment vote in Congress is in no small measure a testament to the remarkable power of Putin’s skills at “working with people.”

Trump/Russia Review in TLS

Andrew Sullivan has written a nice review of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History in the Times Literary Supplement of London, “the world’s leading journal for literature and ideas.”

Unless, that is, you see all of this as some grand plan hatched in the halls of the Kremlin to unsettle the post-Cold War order, break up the EU and NATO, and legitimize the authoritarian pseudo-democracy in Russia. Seth Hettena, an investigative journalist with the Associated Press, lays out the entire labyrinth of ties Trump has long had with the Russian mafia in New York, and with the Russian government itself. His essential insight is that there is no clear distinction between the two. Putin’s Russia is a mafia state; its oligarchs deep in financial crime and close to mobsters. And Trump was ensnared early on, as his Trump Tower and Taj Mahal casino in New Jersey attracted all manner of Russian hoodlums, tycoons and hit men. But it deepened as Trump became bankrupt, saved only by bankers who were acting to protect themselves, and sought new financing when America’s banks refused to loan to this shiftiest of failed businessmen. His son, Eric, blurted out the truth to a friend: “We have all the funding we need out of Russia. We go there all the time”.

Hettena writes that Trump Tower was one of only two buildings in Manhattan to allow buyers to conceal their true identities. Money-launderers flocked to it. Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City was found to have “willfully violated” anti-money laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was subject to four separate investigations by the Internal Revenue Service for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then the largest ever money-laundering fine filed against a casino. The Trump World Tower, by the UN head­quarters in New York, had a large number of investors connected to Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen, was found by a Congressional Com­mit­tee to have “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union and . . . seemed to have associations with Russian organized crime figures in New York and Florida”. His campaign manager for a while – Paul Manafort – made a fortune channelling Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine. Trump’s new towers in Southern Florida were also humming with Russian buyers. Over a third of all the apartments in the seven Trump towers were connected either directly to Russian passports or to companies designed to conceal the owners. Hettena finds a prosecutor who spelled it out: “his towers were built specifically for the Russian middle class criminal”.

Trump’s unique refusal as a modern candidate to release his tax returns suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. And it is no surprise whatsoever that when the Trump campaign was told that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and offered them to the campaign – as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump” – they took the bait instantly. “If it’s what you say, I love it”, Donald Trump Jr emailed back to the Russian intermediary, “especially later in the summer”, clear proof of a conspiracy with a foreign power to corrupt the US elections. This led to the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and an emissary from Putin. In the autumn, the Clinton emails were duly unleashed, via WikiLeaks, and constantly touted by Trump himself. At one point, he even went on national television and directly asked the Kremlin to release more of them. Trump, in other words, was openly asking a hostile foreign government to help take down his opponent. But by then, his hourly outrages had lost the power to shock. As strong evidence emerged of a Russian campaign to influence the election in the summer and autumn of 2016, Obama proposed that a bipartisan group of senators release the information to warn the public. The Senate Majority leader, the Republican Mitch McConnell, refused. Much of the Republican Party would rather have the election rigged by Russians than see a Democrat win.

The quid pro quo appears to have been a promise to undo sanctions when Trump came to power – something his first National Security Counsel head, Mike Flynn, immediately started work on after the election victory….

The Problem with (Helsinki) Summit Notes

So my Rolling Stone piece is up about the dangers of a one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

There’s an interesting bit of history I couldn’t fit into the story. It involves another Russian leader telling another U.S. president at a summit in Helsinki that he would help re-elect him.

And the fact that we know about this conversation is one more reason why Putin doesn’t want any notetakers around when he meets with Trump alone on July 16th.  Continue reading