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Russia Follows Old Playbook To Gain Global Influence

Apr 10, 2017
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On Capitol Hill, there's optimism that the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation will get back on track now that Chairman Devin Nunes has temporarily stepped aside over ethics allegations. Democrats in particular want to find out if there was any collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign officials, especially those with connections to Russia. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: One of the many striking things about President Trump's bid for the White House was the number of advisers and associates around him with business ties to Russia. Think Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Carter Page. That caught the attention of investigators now looking into whether those associates were pressured by Russia.

Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, recently told NPR part of the Kremlin's playbook is to financially entangle people it wants to influence or control.

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ADAM SCHIFF: And it may be that they work on energy deals, or it may be they work on financial investments, but they try to get their financial hooks into parties of interest. And so there's a question here whether those same tactics were used with respect to the Trump organization.

NORTHAM: William Browder is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management which at one time was one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia. He is one of the leading experts in fighting Russian corruption and is now blacklisted by Moscow. Browder says Russia is always on the lookout for people who can be compromised.

WILLIAM BROWDER: The Russians are looking for people that they think are important in the West, important in political business, in economic circles. They target people they think are going to be useful to them one way or another.

NORTHAM: Some people might be useful in providing a way for Russians to park their money. Stephen Blank, a Russian expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, explains.

STEPHEN BLANK: Nobody really trusts the Russian banking system or the political system, so that money gets laundered abroad. So where do you launder that money? You launder it in investments in foreign countries which are safe. One prime example of this is real estate in New York, Florida.

NORTHAM: Browder with Hermitage Capital says there are a number of goals for Moscow, such as gaining political influence outside of Russia. He says the Kremlin will cast a wide net and wait patiently until the time is right to exploit someone.

BROWDER: The two primary ways in which they recruit people is either through bribery or blackmail. They find ways of threatening people through compromising information.

NORTHAM: Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a leading specialist on economic policy in Russia, says there are any number of methods to compromise people. It could be sex or sweetheart deals, awarding huge contracts with the help of loans from state-run banks such as Vnesheconombank, a government-owned development bank that has been under U.S. sanctions for three years.

ANDERS ASLUND: It gives big loans - for example, $50 billion for the Sochi Olympics. And the chairman, the CEO of the bank, is always a KGB general.

NORTHAM: The old KGB is gone, but the bank's current CEO, Sergey Gorkov, graduated from a successor agency, the FSB. He was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, met with Gorkov in December during the presidential transition. Aslund believes the meeting sent out all the wrong signals.

ASLUND: Sergey Gorkov could only have two issues to discuss with Jared Kushner. One is to end the sanctions against Vnesheconombank. The other is the financing of Jared Kushner.

NORTHAM: The White House said Kushner was acting as a Trump adviser, not as a private real estate developer during the meeting with Gorkov. But he has agreed to be questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee as the investigation into possible collusion with Russia continues. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.