ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—There were moments on Friday when silver-bearded Russian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, normally a paragon of self-assurance, looked like an old bear cornered by hounds at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Vekselberg, who reportedly is worth some $15.5 billion, had agreed to participate in a panel about the Russian-U.S. business “dialogue” at a time when his name is being linked to investigations focused on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. He is known to have been questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, and was reported this week to have met with Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, just 11 days before Trump was inaugurated.
In April, Vekselberg was among several Russian oligarchs hit with sanctions by the U.S. Treasury, specifically for their connection to “malign activity around the globe” including “attempting to subvert Western democracies.” Since then, Vekselberg’s Renova energy conglomerate has lost about $900 million.
Other participants at the Friday forum panel about U.S.-Russia business tried to cast themselves as people bravely defending the world’s stability in the midst of a new Cold War. But through much of the conversation Vekselberg just listened nervously, shaking his leg, staring down at the floor.
Vekselberg could see reporters in the room, and knew they wanted to know about that Trump Tower meeting with Cohen. It was arranged by Vekselberg cousin Andrew Intrater, who invests for him in the U.S., and whose company, Columbus Nova, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars into Cohen’s limited liability corporation in January 2017. (The same LLC, The Daily Beast reported, that paid off porn star and alleged Trump tryster Stormy Daniels.)
Reporters in St. Petersburg were wondering what exactly motivated Vekselberg— the chair of a big Russian investment company with branches in Moscow and Geneva (and the proud owner of an Italian villa that once belonged to Mussolini)—to get potentially involved with some $500,000 worth of payoffs to Cohen?
“We hear several versions, one of them is that Vekselberg’s role was to negotiate peace for Ukraine to get the U.S. sanctions cancelled,” Ilya Shumanov, the deputy director of Transparency International’s Russia office told The Daily Beast. “Russian businessmen often play a role of mediators between the Kremlin and the West, each of them is responsible for some country; both Vekselberg and another billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, must have been involved with Trump’s people, though we have not seen any evidence, yet, of them acting on orders from Russian authorities.”
The way the Treasury Department described the relationship when it slapped sanctions on the oligarchs was rather less tactful: “The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites.” And all sides “profit from this corrupt system.”
There were American as well as Russian figures on the panel, and all of them clearly had plotted a path through the current political minefields. Thus Bertrand-Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, spent a lot of time predictably praising his company’s 25-year-long cooperation with Russia, and made no mention of the Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines flight 17, shot down over Ukraine in 2014.
The tragedy was all over the news as the panel convened: 298 people were blown out of the sky over embattled Eastern Ukraine in July 2014. The Dutch and Australian governments, who lost many citizens on that flight and whose investigators led the three-year inquiry, just placed the blame squarely on the Russian government.
Anybody who saw the burned remains of children and adults scattered across Ukraine’s fields would have trouble understanding how members of the world’s business elite could ignore the elephant in the room. Perhaps of more interest to the money men, the incident had served to toughen the resolve of the U.S. and European Union to sanction some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most important cronies. But no mention. Such was the nature of the “dialogue.”
Also unremarked on stage: the absence of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman. The simple truth was that he could not be in the same room with Vekselberg, a subject of U.S. sanctions.
There is a saying in Russian: “You earn your reputation for years but can lose it in one instant.” Before the U.S. sanctions, Vekselberg had the reputation of a well-spoken intelligent philanthropist, interested in education, science and arts. He was the president of the Skolkovo Foundation, a hopeful place for some of Russia’s best, most innovative projects.
The editor-in-chief of The New Times magazine, Yevgenia Albats, said she was surprised to hear about his dealings with Trump’s people after the elections. “We knew that Vekselberg gave money for Trump’s campaign, but the part about him giving money to Cohen sounds very strange,” Albats said, referring to the official donation to Trump’s inauguration.
When Vekselberg finally spoke at the forum, he tried his best to sound cultured and even hip, quoting Bulat Okudzhava, a songwriter beloved by the old Soviet intelligentsia : “There are a few of us left, we and our pain.” Vekselberg was alluding to the few real optimists left among businessmen present in the room. And Vekselberg used an arresting simile, when he said Russian-U.S. relations over the last year had been marked by moments of good and bad, white and black, as if they were striped. But now, Vekselberg said, “White stripes have disappeared.”
None of the world’s leaders gathered in Russia this week asked President Putin about the main reasons for the economic sanctions imposed on his country: the annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Ukraine, meddling with the U.S. elections. Instead, the elite in attendance turned their ire on President Trump. Sitting next to Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Trump for withdrawing from Iran’s nuclear deal, for deep trade disagreements, for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Leaders of Japan and France, as well as the director of the International Monetary Fund, also expressed their disappointments with President Trump’s policy as the dozens of Russian businessmen and politicians affected by the U.S. sanctions listened attentively.
“I have seen all the International Economic Forums in St. Petersburg, but this one is the most predictable show, it is a vanity show of sanctioned business companies and businessmen,” Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow, told The Daily Beast.
At the end of the Russia-U.S. panel a group of men in suits gathered around Vekselberg like an opaque wall and walked him to the door, making sure no reporter could approach to ask questions about the sanctioned tycoon’s life in a world without white stripes. “Welcome to the Skolkovo Foundation,” was the only thing Vekselberg managed to say to journalists in a half-audible voice, as if pleading with them to remember his good works.
“I feel sincerely sorry for Vekselberg, who used to have a little free space, just big enough to spin around on one foot—but now he has no freedom left,” said Elena Panfilova of Transparency International. “Russian liberal figures like him used to have money and power to enlarge that space of their independence from the Kremlin, but they missed their chance and now they all represent the power.”
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey in Paris