The Russian Tsar, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is considered by some, to be the world’s richest man, with an estimated wealth between $70 billion and $200 billion1. If the latter were true, that would put him far ahead of Bill Gates (at $86 billion), who Forbes considers to be the wealthiest, because they can confirm the existence of his assets2.
The problem with Tsar Vladimir is that his assets are well hidden. Despite this, he is believed to control 37% of oil company Surgutneftgaz1. This company was created as a joint stock company in 1993 not long after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is a major oil and gas producer, and is also involved in power generation, sales of petroleum products and petrochemicals3. Its net profit in 2012 was $5.9 billion4. That would make Putin’s share, some $2.1 billion. Putin also has a 4.5% share in Gazprom1, another joint stock company, which is in the business of the production, transport and sale of natural gas. Gazprom has a monopoly on gas exports from Russia, and the Russian Government holds a controlling interest. Its net profit in 2014 was $3.1 billion. Putin’s share of that comes to about $140 million. It is also believed that Putin has substantial holdings (maybe as much as 50%7) in Gunvor, a company that is one of the worlds largest commodities trading houses, with investments in refineries, pipelines, storage facilities, terminals, and in mining6. Gunvor’s net profit in 2012 was $433 million. If Putin does own 50%, that would have made him a tidy $216 million in 2012.
There is another interesting recent occurrence concerning the sale of 19.5% of the oil and gas giant Rosneft to an anonymous buyer8. This stake was sold for €10.2 (~$11) billion to a Singapore investment vehicle that Rosneft says was a joint venture between Qatar and the Swiss oil trading firm Glencore (which previously owned 0.54% between them). However, the publicly available documents do not stack up, with Glencore contribution only €300 million to the deal and Qatar only €2.5 billion. The remaining ownership stake ultimately leads to a Cayman Islands company, whose owners are unable to be traced. One of the oddest things about this sale, is that the Rosneft board only found out about the sale after the televised announcement had been recorded. In addition, the sale was organised between Rosneft’s Igor Sechin and Putin, to the exclusion of others in the Russian Cabinet9.
There has been a suspicion that the 19.5% stake in Rosneft had been given to Trump and his associates in exchange for lifting US sanctions against Russia. These sanctions have had significant detrimental effects on profits in Gazprom and Rosneft. Part of the dossier provided by Christopher Steele (formerly of MI6)11, suggested that is where the 19.5% share of Rosneft went. The dossier says that the offer was made to Carter Page, a former member of Trump’s foreign policy team, when Page was in Moscow for three days in July, 2016, to deliver some lectures. Page has denied these allegations10,12. However, he has criticised US sanctions on Russia as “sanctimonious expressions of moral superiority”, and the day after the Rosneft deal was signed, Page was back in Moscow, according to him, to meet with top managers in Rosneft. Page’s Russian business interests in Russia have piqued the interest of the CIA who are looking into whether Russia was funneling money into Trump’s campaign. While none of this proves anything, the coincidences are striking.
Even if Trump and his cohort are not convicted of being in collusion with Russia, they have certainly learnt much from the largest kleptocracy on the planet and the instructor-in-chief. Trump has studiously ignored the emoluments clause of the US Constitution, as he has business interests in numerous countries, not least of which is Russia13. The surprising thing is that the Republican Party seems to be quite content to let him get away with it. If and when the crunch comes, and it is likely to be within the year, there will be many nervous Republicans forced to answer some very difficult questions. If it can be shown that they ignored evidence of Trump’s transgressions, which they seem to have done, it could lead to the effective demise of the Republican Party.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far right National Front, visited Putin in Russia recently, before she faces the presidential election in late April. Le Pen is struggling to raise the $21 million she needs to fund the election, especially after the party’s Russian lender, the First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB) had its licence revoked by the Central Bank of Russia14. The National Front’s treasurer, Wallerand de Saint Just said he is seeking international financiers, because French Banks have refused to lend money to the party. The party has received funds from Russia before, with FCRB giving them a $9.7 million loan in 2014, and an unknown Russian-backed fund based in Cyprus lending them $2 million in 2015. A US investment bank was preparing to lend a needed $20 million last August, but pulled out at the last minute14. Despite wishing to distance herself from Moscow, Le Pen complained that she had no option but to seek funds overseas. It does make you wonder why, in the current Trump climate, that anyone would approach Russia for funding. Maybe Putin wanted to instruct Le Pen on the finer points of kleptocracy. It is expected that Le Pen will reach the runoffs for the Presidency, but if she does, it will be interesting to see whence the money came.
In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, led by Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen, is the current populist right wing party of choice, and is against same sex marriage, migration, adoption, feminism, the European Union and, like most far right parties, denies human-induced climate change16. They have a distinctly pro-Russian stance and have attempted to establish close relationships with Putin’s circle, and the youth wing of AfD is formalising ties with the youth organisation of Putin’s United Russia party17. The Kremlin seems to be in part funding AfD through allowing the latter to operate as a gold trading organisation, selling Russian gold and therefrom extracting a commission. AfD was party to a ‘peace conference’ held in Berlin which was designed to explain Russia’s attitude to Ukraine. The nominal organiser of the conference was the German magazine ‘Compact’18, which is run by pro-Kremlin journalist, Jürgen Elsässer. Elsässer was an extreme leftist and once worked for the newspaper of the Communist Party of East Germany. Some time after East Germany fell over, Elsässer became a far right acolyte, and is aligned with AfD. The newspaper die Zeit (Time) calls Elsässer a Kremlin apologist, seemingly the only constant in his diverse career. When Elsässer was a leftist, Soviet propaganda treated US Democrats and Reupublicans as essentially indistinguishable, but now that Elsässer is a rightist, the magazine has several articles explicitly endorsing Trump19.
The far right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), led by Heinz-Christian Strache, is also pro-Russian, and has offered to act as a go-between for Putin and Trump. The party, which was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, like most other far right parties is against immigration, the European Union, NATO and regulations in gneral. Norbert Hofer ran for FPO in the Austrian Presidential election in early 2016, and won the highest proportion of votes in the first round (35.1%), but in the runoff against Alexander Van der Bellen, only gained 49.7% of the vote. That vote was declared void due to mishandling of postal votes and in a revote in early December, Hofer’s vote declined to 46.2%. This decreased vote for the populist is probably the ‘Trump effect’ in operation, something that seemed to be the reason for Geert Wilders’ relatively poor showing in the Netherlands election earlier in 2017. Trump’s chaotic and idiotic populism simply puts people off. It is unclear where the Freedom Party of Austria gets its funding, but it has denied that it has received any money from Russia.
There are also other fringe political parties of the right in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Italy and other countries who have been accused of cosying up to Russia in exchange for funding22,23. It is ironic that almost all of these parties are nationalistic and campaign on a platform of national sovereignty while Russian monies “jingle in their pockets”19.
This is a continuation of the cold war by ‘hybrid warfare’23. After the major defeat brought about by the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the USSR and its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Russia is now engaged in a new offensive to destabilise Europe, and to decrease the effectiveness of NATO and any other cooperative efforts between Europe and the US. It has already managed to peel off the UK from the European Union. Once the European Union and NATO are memories, Russia can effectively do whatever it likes in Ukraine and the Baltic States, and anywhere else it fancies. The only bright spot in this whole business is Trump. He is demonstrably so child-like, so incapable, so ignorant and so obviously corrupt that his example is making voters in Europe balk at the thought of electing far right Russophiles like him. Russia likes these far right parties because they tend to be run by people so easily corruptible, and so clearly out for themselves. This is perhaps exemplified by Jörg Haider, one of the previous leaders of the FPO, and a staunch anti-immigrationist, who was caught up in a scandal involving Russian businessmen paying him bribes to assist in obtaining residence permits.
If, as Putin wishes, the European Union and NATO both fall over, Europe will become a very dangerous place, yet again.