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(Forbes) – Looks like the Russians failed to get two Republicans elected in New Jersey and Virginia this week. Better luck next time.
The Russians are coming! Only instead of parachuting into the Inner Empire of California with AK-74s strapped to their backs, they’re hacking Yahoo! and Democratic National Committee emails and blocking tackle for politicians who only seem to be despised by establishment politicians and their friends — whether they’re in Britain or France, the U.S. or Catalonia.
Yes, according to an official Washington Post op-ed, even the Catalonia independence vote can be traced to the geopolitical wiles of Vladimir Putin. And you thought the CIA was omnipotent!
It’s no joke. According to SecureWorks, the DNC emails were indeed spear-phished successfully by Russians. Whether they were on orders from the Russian government is unclear. SecureWorks, a Dell subsidiary, is at least more trustworthy than CrowdStrike and Fusion GPS, a paid smear monger, and more legit than the usual anti-Putin, fiction writing Ukrainian activists who help Washington’s Russia-haters keep Putin on the defense.
The thing is, maybe Putin is not the greatest guy in the world. Maybe there are a lot of shady people in Russia. This is true pretty much throughout the old Communist countries. But Putin can handle being made a villain. He has an entire military and media apparatus to help him at home.
It’s the Russians that are trying to make a living, grow a business, travel and live abroad, who are all somehow guilty by association.
Wait, you’re a Russian? That’s bad. You must have something up your sleeve.
To most in the Russia-is-evil camp, it cannot be spoken that American companies and investment banks do business in Russia and with Russians every day.
J.P. Morgan, Citigroup Global Markets and Bank of America Merill Lynch all tag-teamed with VTB Capital as book runners to the $1.5 billion Nov. 3 initial public offering of En+ Group on the London Stock Exchange. Even worse, the company is controlled by FORBES listed Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. The New York Times can hardly write about En+ Group without mentioning in the headline that Oleg once did business with the newly indicted Trump campaign advisor Paul Mannafort. That instantly makes him part of the Russian narrative that made Hillary Clinton the unfortunate, two-time loser in her quest for power.
Oh, and double-worse; he is a “Putin ally.”
Over the weekend, the Paradise Papers were released. Russians were center-stage. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Commerce Secretary, had private equity investments in a Russian company he did not disclose. Yuri Milner, a well-known name in the Valley and founder of venture firm DST Capital, woke up to discover he was part of the problem. That’s because he invested in Facebook and Twitter. He got money from VTB Capital and Gazprom’s investment division, which found its way into those two social media giants stocks. Russian firms paid to advertise on both, including political propaganda that was more pro-Trump than pro-Hillary.
The fact that two Russian government-controlled banks used DST Capital as a way to invest in the shares of two American companies caught up in the Russia probe gave Milner instant villain status. Despite the fact that he sold Facebook and Twitter in 2013 and 2014, respectively, he was called out for aiding and abetting Russian intrusion into American democracy.
“The idea that we were working on Russia’s behalf to turn social media against U.S. democracy is a fairy tale,” Milner wrote in a Recode magazine op-ed in an answer to a handful of heat-seeking missile articles fired in The New York Timesand in the Financial Times.
But that doesn’t matter. He is a Russian. And a rich one. He must be working for Russian intelligence.
Milner moved to the U.S. in 1990 to attend Wharton Business School. He was one of four graduation speakers at the school this year. In his op-ed in Recode, he says that when he later moved to Silicon Valley, it didn’t matter where he was from. Now there has been a change in the air. Since Trump beat Hillary, just to be Russian is suspect.
Russians feel the same everywhere.
“I was born here in Russia. I cannot go back in time and tell my mother — mom, let’s have me in the U.S.,” says Igor Matsanyuk, a Russian venture capitalist, and a gamer. He is president of Astrum Online Entertainment. He now lives in Lithuania.
He tells me a story about how he recently went fishing with some Lithuanians, all of them old enough to remember life under the rule of a foreign power known as the U.S.S.R. He recalls them asking him, why are you Russians so hated? He laughs to himself as he recalls this to me.
“I never really thought about it. But when I turn on the TV, everyone hates the Russians,” he says. “I don’t know if any of these stories about Trump and Putin are true. I don’t know what is going on. What I do know is that it is not cool to be made to feel like you’re the bad guy all the time. It’s relentless.”
Matsanyuk says that when doing business in London now, for example, they do extra “know your client” work on him, just in case.
The Russians were promised after the fall of the Soviet Union that they were welcomed into the fold of Western capitalist modernity. Let bygones be bygones. Communism had imploded, spasibo Gorbi! The West had won the economic culture war. The Russians learned English. They learned about derivatives trading. They bought Ferraris.
Now, Russia is being shut out. The story is that Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet system and take over Lithuania and the Baltics. He’s already dividing up Ukraine. And as a result of this, Russians are the collateral damage of a narrative run amock.
When everyone is suspect, you trust no one.
European pension funds are not investing in Russia. Russian funds that grew on foreign money are now stagnant; there’s no new money coming in. Venture capital, the foreign kind, has basically left.
I asked 30-something-year-old Yana Starovoytova how often she has seen negative headlines about Russia in the foreign press. Daily, she tells me. Starovoytova works for a Moscow-based hedge fund.
“None of my friends are surprised by this anymore,” she tells me. We are at Bamboo Bar in Moscow’s financial district. An early dinner. It soon gets mobbed. The city is very much alive and kicking. Some people are even speaking American English. What the hell are they doing here? Isn’t this a political faux pas?
I asked her if she blames Putin for all the controversy surrounding her country. She does not. Her explanation for what is behind all of this is not much different from Matsanyuk’s. “We are a ‘convenient’ enemy, historically. China has all the imperfections that we have, but it is not demonized as much as Russia. There is no campaign against it in the western media,” she says.
She should live here. China is a job killer for many in Washington. Until Russia became a really really bad country, China was Washington’s favorite punching bag every election year, though for different reasons.
She elaborates. “I know it’s because of Ukraine and Syria. Russia has openly refused to play by the rules imposed by the U.S. on the rest of the world. What if it becomes a trend and other countries decide to follow? This is a completely new situation for the West, and certainly is not something they want to put up with,” she says.
A year ago, at the Leo Tolstoy estate, I attended a private birthday party of this Russian romantics singer whose name I will never remember. I was the only American in the tiny room of maybe 50 people. Friends of the singer came to me, asked me how I liked it. There was small talk. One made a point to tell me that Russians were not bad people. Including the ones who like Putin.
Last month, at Jaime’s Italian restaurant across from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, I met with three expats, including an American. In the mix was a high tech Russian talking blockchain, and a fund manager from VEB, the development bank of Russia.
I asked the expats what their friends say about them being in Russia. Unanimously: they think we are crazy.
The conversation was off the record.
Igor Podzigun used to work for the government in the Russian city of Kaluga. He was assistant to the mayor and left the public sector for the private sector. He is now part of Russia’s growing tech market, helping to build a digital company called Apla. “When I look at myself and picture me in the world as a Russian today I feel like that Sting song, an Englishman in New York — I don’t belong and feel excluded,” he tells me. “I feel like I’m the bad guy, which limits who I can do business with,” he says. Apla is currently working on a small start-up project with one of the Emirates in the U.A.E.
“I think it’s a tragedy,” he says. “There are a lot of people in Russia who want to travel and want to be global entrepreneurs. Politics is making it very difficult.”
It’s not getting easier.
Maryland Congressman Benjamin Cardin reiterated this week that he wants the Democratic Party to lead an independent committee to investigate Russian election meddling not only here, but worldwide. The move further solidifies the fact that Washington deems Moscow as nefarious as it was in the days of the Soviet Union.
Cardin was part of a handful of congressional leaders that helped former Russia hedge fund manager Bill Browderlobby for the passing of the Magnitsky Act. The Act was signed in 2012 and targets individuals deemed responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s former accountant at his Hermitage Capital investment firm. Browder is now taking his Magnitsky Act on a road show and managed to pass it in Canada in mid-October.
There is a tiny cadre of people, of which Cardin and Browder and expat and ex-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky are a part, who have made it their life’s work to seek revenge against Putin for deeply personal reasons. They are dragging an entire nation through the mud.
For women like Starovoytova, even if opposition politician Alexie Navalny was president, Washington would have a gripe unless Moscow acted as a “vassal” state.
To many Western observers who have never been to Russia, much of these comments may seem like a bunch of locals falling for state propaganda. How is that different from those that have fallen for the opposing side of that story here at home? To hear it, a few thousand Obama voters in blue states in the north went rogue because they didn’t like what they discovered in those DNC and John Podesta emails. Podesta was Hillary’s campaign manager. That’s Russia’s fault. Now we got Trump. Scream to the heavens.
No matter who got into those emails, the contents of them were never disputed. Where are the interviews with these dumb, duped voters? Where are the blue staters who are admitting: yes, Anderson, it was that Russian-backed Facebook ad with Jesus arm wrestling Satan that really did it for me.
Perhaps the Russians can say the same about our own storyline on them.
“I feel more like a patriot these days,” says Maria Vavilova. I ask her what she thinks about Russian involvement in Brexit and in electing Trump and in fomenting unrest in Spain and backing anti-EU French politician Marine Le Pen. She sighs as I run it down for her, wrapped in a white parka, sipping jasmine tea at the lobby bar of the Hotel Ukraine. She doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t have the answers. None of us do. She sits back, frustrated. “Why are people talking like this about my country? I am proud to be Russian,” she tells me. And repeats it, three times in a row.