Congress should explain how dark Russian money infiltrates Western democracies

This is the second in a two-part series.

One should expect a heated national debate about the political implications for US President Donald J. Trump once the key findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation become public. Few will stop at that point to ask what the evidence shows about how Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was possible, and what must be done now to protect American democracy and counter continued Russian hybrid warfare.

Open hearings in Congress can help focus public attention on those important matters of national security policy with a particular focus on the vulnerabilities that are not yet well understood. If Americans were asked to identify Russia’s lines of attack in 2016, the answers would probably include the cyber hack-and-dump operations, the disinformation campaign on social media, and possibly some classic human espionage. Less appreciated is the extent to which foreign adversaries weaponize the dark corners of the US financial system to subvert democracy.

Some financial influence operations target specific policies rather than political outcomes. Russian oligarchs spend considerable resources trying to get their names removed from the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list, injecting foreign money into a vast complex of influence peddlers formally employed as lobbyists, lawyers, public relations consultants, private investigators, and other professional service providers. A prime example is the multifaceted campaign against the Magnitsky Act (a US law freezing the assets of Kremlin cronies who stole $230 million in tax receipts and murdered the lawyer who uncovered the scheme).


Russian efforts to oppose the Magnitsky Act were spearheaded by Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met Trump campaign officials in Trump Tower in 2016 and who was recently indicted in a case showing her Kremlin ties. The Veselnitskaya operation used a nonprofit incorporated in Delaware to conceal its sources of funding, which turned out to flow from a Moscow family with high-level government ties which allegedly used Manhattan real estate to launder money from the Magnitsky case.

However, the methods of financial infiltration that most directly target the heart of democracy involve deploying foreign dark money to cultivate, support, and curry favor with politicians who would advance Russian interests.

One notable example is the loan to French politician Marine Le Pen’s party from an obscure Russian bank that had managed to get a European banking license despite its reputation for doing business with Russian organized crime and Iranian entities amid sanctions. The loan flowed through a decentralized illicit financial network involving co-opted politicians, the Russian Orthodox Church, money launderers, and a Moscow-based aircraft contractor tied to Russian military intelligence. Some of these agents are sanctioned by the US Treasury for supporting Moscow’s wars in Ukraine and Syria, using their skills, connections, and positions to enrich themselves while also aiming to impress Russian President Vladimir Putin by helping to pursue his foreign policy objectives.

Elsewhere in Europe, Russia has allegedly provided financial support to favored political candidates, parties, or movements in Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Republika Srpska.

In the United States, Mueller is investigating whether the history of Russian investments in properties affiliated with the Trump Organization is a case of dark foreign money interfering in American democracy.

In addition to aiming to install friendly politicians, such financial assistance could also offer Moscow a source of blackmail since it is secret and would be politically toxic if made public. Moreover, even after the debts become publicly known (and thus less useful as blackmail per se), their unpaid status could offer Russia a direct form of financial leverage. For example, there is mounting evidence that Russians closely linked to Putin were talking to Paul Manafort in 2016 about using his position as Trump’s campaign chairman to “get whole” on his significant unpaid debts owed to the Russians.

Congress will have to resist the temptation to focus exclusively on the political implications of these cases, as lawmakers also have a duty to raise public awareness around Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit. For example, if Senate Republicans are hesitant about including steps to reform campaign finance in broader anti-money laundering reforms, the House should use open hearings to highlight the central role financial support plays in Russian political interference.

Ultimately, the renewed geopolitical contest between liberal democracy and authoritarianism must be won by understanding our adversaries and taking them seriously, and then fighting back in ways that are consistent with our values. That can start with transparency and facts about the nature of the threat, as well as open debate about how to reform our financial and political systems to preserve, protect, and defend the free world against foreign dark money.

Josh Rudolph is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program. He formerly served at the International Monetary Fund, the National Security Council, the US Treasury, and J.P. Morgan. Follow him on Twitter @JoshRudes.

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Image: US Special Counsel Robert Mueller (center) left a briefing for members of the US Senate on his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 21, 2017. (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)