Victor Boyarkin, a close aide to the sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, is getting some unwanted attention these days.
“How did you find me here?” Boyarkin asked a TIME magazine reporter who managed to track him down at a conference in Greece.
Boyarkin, reportedly a former colonel in the GRU, is part of the constellation of intelligence officers employed by Deripaska that help him maintain his proximity to the Kremlin’s inner circle.
TIME had questions for Boyarkin about Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. References to Boyarkin (“Victor” and “our friend V”) were sprinkled in emails to Manafort during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Tell V boss that if he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote to his associate, Konstantin Kliminik.
Boyarkin told TIME he was talking to Manafort during the presidential campaign to collect on a debt. “He owed us a lot of money,” Boyarkin said. “And he was offering ways to pay it back.”
The fact that Trump’s campaign chairman was in debt to someone like Deripaska and being hounded for money by someone like Boyarkin shows, yet again, how deeply unqualified Trump was to be president. Trump’s best defense is that he didn’t know about any of this. The much darker, worst-case scenario is that he chose Manafort precisely because he had these sorts of connections to Russia.
Boyarkin headed up “special operations” for Deripaska, according to the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online. This work took him to the African country of Guinea where Rusal, Deripaska’s Russian giant aluminum concern, had a plant that was shuttered by a strike. But lately, Boyarkin’s “special projects” have involved the Trump administration.
According to Intelligence Online, Boyarkin recently returned to Deripaska’s inner circle to deal with the sanctions imposed in April 2018 by the Treasury Department on Deripaska and his companies. (Exactly what role he played isn’t clear.) Lord Barker of Battle, the chairman of Deripaska’s London-listed holding company, En+, paid the DC lobbying firm $108,500-a-month, Mercury Group, to lobby for sanctions relief.
It was money well spent. Ever since those tough sanctions were imposed on Deripaska, the Trump administration has been looking for ways to soften the blow, as I wrote for The New York Times. The Treasury recently said it intends to lift the sanctions on Deripaska’s companies in what seems like a sweetheart deal.
Boyarkin was himself sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury earlier this month “for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Oleg Deripaska.” Notably, The Senate intelligence committee said the sanctions on Boyarkin “will help counter some of Russia’s malign influence efforts, and is a welcome step.” It seems the sanctions on Boyarkin appear to be part of the deal to lift the sanctions on his boss.
According to the U.S. Treasury, Boyarkin and Deripaska were both involved in providing Russian financial support to a Montenegrin political party ahead of Montenegro’s 2016 elections. A decade earlier, Manafort worked for Deripaska in Montenegro to manage a referendum campaign that ended with the country declaring its independence.
Boyarkin is a former colonel in the GRU, according to the British newspaper, The Telegraph. (Other sources describe him as a lieutenant colonel.) Boyarkin’s name shows up in the U.S. diplomatic list from the 1990s when he was posted to Washington as a Russian naval attache, often a cover for intelligence officers.
Have we learned all there is to know about Deripaska’s ties to the Trump administration?
I doubt it.
Earlier this week, the Senate intelligence committee released a pair of reports analyzing the social media output of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian outfit that masqueraded as Americans as it pumped out millions of social media posts aimed at dividing the United States and helping elect Trump,
The New York Times’ front-page coverage of these reports focused on how the IRA tried to influence the black vote, with critics calling that paternalistic. The lead author of one of the studies wrote that her report showed the need for a broad effort to combat disinformation.
After reading these reports, what struck me was something else. I was blown away by the sophistication of the IRA’s efforts, which, the reports showed, had a broader reach than previously understood.
To borrow a line from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, let’s stop calling what the Russians did meddling. This was not merely the work of some amateurs in what’s often called the “St. Petersburg troll factory.” This outfit had the hallmarks of a professional intelligence operation.
(In my book, Trump/Russia, I’ve written about how the IRA tactics are a modern twist on an old spy game that dates back to the WWII Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Special Services, the predecessor to the CIA.)
Exhibit A is a startling and previously unreported tactic employed by the IRA: Recruiting human assets.
One of the IRA’s more popular Facebook pages was a fake Christian group called “Army of Jesus.” This site offered free counseling to people with sexual addiction.
As one of the Senate-commissioned reports notes, “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability – usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed – is a timeless espionage practice.” People did respond to these posts, although it’s not known how effective these and other campaigns were.
A revealing side note: the “Army of Jesus” Facebook site that offered free sexual addiction counseling originally started as a Kermit the Frog account, then switched to The Simpsons before turning to Jesus.
Other IRA outreach efforts included offering free self-defense classes. Meetup.com was used to organize black self-defense classes for the Fit Black/Black Fist IRA accounts.
The authors of the report “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency” deliver a strong warning about the future of source recruitment via the Internet:
This tactic will be increasingly common as platforms make it more difficult to grow pages and buy ads with fake personas. It will be extremely difficult to detect. The number of organic posts that reveal attempts to engage with Americans reinforces our conviction that influence operations areNewKnowldge, “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency”
unlikely to be managed without information sharing between the public and private sector.
It also turns out that the IRA was involved in selling merchandise. Some of the merchandise was aimed at building audience, particularly in the accounts targeting the black community. The IRA also sold LGBT-positive sex toys (!)
In addition to a source of revenue, merchandise sales allowed the IRA to gather personal information: names, addresses, email address and phone numbers, as well as credit card information. Once again, this has an espionage application for source recruitment.
Finally, the most frightening thing is that this work continues. IRA accounts remain active. Russia continues meddling in the recent U.S. midterm elections, as members of the Trump administration have conceded.
Make no mistake: The Trump administration could easily stop this activity if it wanted to. It could take steps that really make Russia nervous like sanctioning its debt or banning its banks from any activity in the United States. But Trump won’t do that.
The question is why not?
On his 600th day in office, following months of dire warnings from his own intelligence officials, President Trump finally did something to try and prevent Russian interference in the upcoming Midterm elections. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to Trump and Russia.
An executive order signed by Trump on September 12th declared a national emergency to deal with interference in U.S. elections, which it rightly describes as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” But Trump’s executive order does little to stop it. It targets unspecified, large companies while giving the president full discretion to choose from a range of sanctions that have failed to deter Russian aggression in the past. Democrats in Congress blasted the order as toothless. Daleep Singh, a former assistant Treasury secretary in the Obama administration, testified before Congress that it represented more a press release than a change in policy.
The real purpose of the executive order, Trump’s critics maintain, isn’t to deter Russian election meddling. It’s to deter far tougher legislation in Congress. Two bipartisan bills pending before the Senate would inflict severe economic pain on Russia if it continues to meddle in American politics. One measure, dubbed the “sanctions bill from hell” by its co-sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham, rattled nerves when it appeared in Moscow newspapers over the summer. Both Graham’s bill and the leading effort, introduced in January by Senators Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio, threaten to shut off the flow of U.S. dollars to the Kremlin.
It may come as a surprise to many Americans that some of the money paying for Russia’s bad behavior comes from the United States. The Kremlin has borrowed billions of dollars from U.S. investors over the years through sales of Russian sovereign debt, which effectively are loans to Vladimir Putin’s government. Yes, you read that right: public pension funds from New York to California, along with asset managers, hedge funds, and U.S. banks are financing a regime that is deliberately trying to undermine American democracy and the U.S.-led Western alliance. A Moscow-based credit rating agency estimated last month that the United States holds 8 percent of Russia’s sovereign debt — or more than $12 billion, based on the latest figures from the Russian Central Bank.
Cutting off these financial flows is the kind of serious step missing from Trump’s executive order. The administration’s reason for rejecting sanctions on Russian debt was outlined in a congressionally-mandated study by the Treasury Department earlier this year. The concern is over the “negative spillover effects” on global financial markets and businesses. In other words, the White House is worried that sanctioning Russian debt might do economic harm to America’s friends and allies — something that doesn’t seem to apply to the president’s trade war with Canada. And Treasury’s warnings have proved overblown. Since April, when ruble debt was more popular outside Russia than ever before, foreign investors have been quietly dumping their holdings with none of the predicted upheaval.
The only economy that will be seriously harmed by sanctions on Russian bonds is Russia’s. It would put downward pressure on the ruble and drive up Russia’s borrowing costs, forcing Putin to scrap his ambitious spending plans for what is likely to be his last term in office. More importantly, it would put Russia in the same league as Iran and Venezuela, the only two other nations that have had their debt sanctioned by the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. Both Senate bills go a step further, and would also bar Americans from doing business with big Russian banks like Sberbank. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said such an action would be a declaration of “economic war” and promised to retaliate “economically, politically, or, if necessary, by other means.”
There’s no good reason for the White House to reject these penalties, serious as they are, or even tougher ones, because there’s an easy way for Russia to avoid them: Don’t interfere in U.S. elections. Without a sure, strong response, the American electoral system remains as vulnerable as it was before Trump’s executive order. It’s clear that existing sanctions weren’t enough to stop Russia from wreaking havoc in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Van Hollen and Rubio’s bill, the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines, or Deter Act, would bring a cruise missile to the fight; the president is bringing a pop gun. “That’s why it is imperative that the Senate and House take action because, clearly, the administration abdicated its responsibility in this area,” Van Hollen told me. It remains to be seen whether Congress can do what the president cannot or whether Trump’s executive order will lay the matter to rest.
It’s important to remember what’s at stake. Confidence in our elections, the foundation of American democracy, was dealt a serious blow in the 2016 presidential race. It was further weakened by Trump’s refusal to accept the findings of his own intelligence community on Russian interference.
Now, the president’s long-delayed response sends the signal that the United States can’t or won’t do what it takes to protect its sovereignty. This abject failure of leadership raises troubling questions about where the president’s loyalties lie. It suggests once again that Trump is putting the interests of Russia above that of the country he was elected to lead.
In case you missed it, here’s my op-ed on Russian sanctions and Oleg Deripaska that ran in The New York Times.
My Rolling Stone Q&A with Watergate figure John Dean got a lot of people talking. Dean told me that Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News. He also said that he doesn’t expect Trump to resign and a whole lot more.
One thing that we didn’t have room for was a question I asked John Dean about the Chennault Affair, another Nixon scandal that involved collusion with a foreign power to win an election and allegations of treason.