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.