Trump's Moscow links: Focus on Russian state bank

The building that houses Russia’s Vnesheconombank, or VEB, in New York. VEB is no ordinary bank as it is wholly owned by the Russian state. It is intertwined with Russian intelligence. And the Russian Prime Minister is, by law, the chairman of its
The building that houses Russia’s Vnesheconombank, or VEB, in New York. VEB is no ordinary bank as it is wholly owned by the Russian state. It is intertwined with Russian intelligence. And the Russian Prime Minister is, by law, the chairman of its supervisory board. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Trump's son-in-law met bank chief ahead of inauguration

NEW YORK • It has offices in a sleek Manhattan skyscraper. Its bonds are accessible to millions of American investors. And it holds ties to some of New York's biggest banks.

Despite this , Vnesheconombank, or VEB, is no normal bank.

It is wholly owned by the Russian state. It is intertwined with Russian intelligence. And the Russian Prime Minister is, by law, the chairman of its supervisory board.

Now VEB is at the centre of a firestorm that threatens to consume the Trump presidency because the bank's chief - a graduate of Russia's spy school - met Mr Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law, during the presidential transition.

That meeting is the focus of a federal counter-intelligence investigation about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Three years ago, after Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on VEB that kept it from taking on most new business in the United States at a time when the bank's total debt was about US$20 billion (S$27.6 billion).

VEB is at the centre of a firestorm that threatens to consume the Trump presidency because the bank's chief - a graduate of Russia's spy school - met Mr Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law, during the presidential transition.

The possibility of lifting sanctions appeared to be nearing with Mr Trump's victory in the election.

And so the bank's chief, Mr Sergey Gorkov, travelled to New York in December for what he described as a "roadshow" promoting the bank, with the prospect of better diplomatic and business relations between the US and Russia.

During that trip, The New York Times has found, Mr Gorkov met bankers at JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and another, unidentified US financial institution.

Goldman Sachs tried to arrange a meeting but ultimately had scheduling conflicts.

Citi and JPMorgan had long, established relationships clearing financial transactions for VEB in the US, activities not affected by the sanctions. And before the sanctions, Goldman and others had helped the Russian bank issue bonds, an activity blocked by the sanctions and that VEB was eager to resume.

Continuing Western borrowing had become a pressing priority for Moscow.

On that same trip, Mr Gorkov met Mr Kushner, following an earlier session between Mr Kushner and the Russian ambassador, Mr Sergey Kislyak, about opening a communications channel with Russian officials during the presidential transition, according to current and former US officials.

The White House has said that Mr Kislyak requested the meeting and that "Mr Kushner was acting in his capacity as a transition official".

But VEB said Mr Gorkov had met Mr Kushner, who was still running his family's real estate company, to discuss business.

Mr Kushner's hunt for overseas investors for his company's financially troubled Manhattan office tower has been previously documented by The New York Times.

While such an investment would not fit the profile of VEB's past lending, it would have been possible for Mr Gorkov to relay such information to other Russian banks.

The subject of sanctions was also freshly topical in December. The rolling back of sanctions was an essential part of Mr Gorkov's strategy in visiting New York, and was central to the health of his bank.

The next month, during Mr Trump's first week in office, administration officials signalled they were considering lifting sanctions stemming from the conflict in Ukraine.

Separately, former national security adviser Michael Flynn had several phone conversations late last year with Mr Kislyak. In one, the two men discussed additional sanctions by the Obama administration in response to Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

The meeting with Mr Kushner was not VEB's only connection to Mr Trump's campaign or associates.

A banker, who pleaded guilty last year to spying for Russia out of VEB's office in New York, was part of an unsuccessful Russian scheme to recruit Mr Carter Page, an American businessman who later became a Trump campaign adviser, as a spy.

VEB also obtained shares in a Ukrainian steel smelter sold by a business partner of Mr Trump's, Mr Alex Shnaider, a Russian-Canadian businessman, who built a Trump hotel in Toronto, according to documents from the leaked "Panama Papers".

"This is not a bank," said Ms Karen Vartapetov, a public finance analyst at Standard & Poor's. "We should rather treat this bank as a government agency."

NYTIMES

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's Moscow links: Focus on Russian state bank'. Print Edition | Subscribe