Bank at the center of US inquiry projects Russian ‘soft power’

Sergei Gorkov, Chairman of State Corporation "Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank)", speaks with participants during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017.


Sergei Gorkov, Chairman of State Corporation "Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank)", speaks with participants during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017.

Grigory Dukor | Reuters
Sergei Gorkov, Chairman of State Corporation “Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank)”, speaks with participants during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017.

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 presence on Wall Street, detailed in previously unreported financial records, 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 center of an international firestorm that threatens the Trump presidency because the bank’s chief — a prominent graduate of Russia’s spy school — met with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, during the presidential transition. That meeting is a focus of a federal counterintelligence investigation about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

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Three years ago, in response to Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on VEB that have effectively kept it from taking on most new business in the United States. Since then, however, VEB has quietly kept up appearances on Wall Street in the event that sanctions would be lifted, according to interviews with American bankers and former government officials.

That moment appeared to be nearing with Mr. Trump’s victory. And so the bank’s chief, Sergey N. Gorkov, traveled to New York in December for what he described as a “roadshow” promoting the bank that was largely hinged on the prospect of improved diplomatic and business relationships between the United States and Russia.

During that trip, The New York Times has found, Mr. Gorkov met with bankers at JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and another, unidentified American financial institution. Goldman Sachs bankers also tried to arrange a meeting but ultimately had a scheduling conflict. The meetings, which are not prohibited by sanctions, were confirmed by three people briefed on the discussions but unauthorized to speak publicly about them.

None of the American banks were new to VEB. Citi and JPMorgan had long, established relationships clearing financial transactions for VEB in the United States, activities not affected by the sanctions. And before the sanctions, securities filings show, Goldman and others had helped the Russian bank issue bonds, activity that was blocked by the sanctions and that VEB was eager to resume.

After a few painful years, continuing Western borrowing had become a pressing priority for Moscow. The Russian Finance Ministry has spent about $10 billion to prop up the bank over the past three years, according to banking analysts.

On that same trip, Mr. Gorkov met with Mr. Kushner. The nature of the meeting, which remains in dispute, followed a session between Mr. Kushner and the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, about opening a communications channel with Russian officials during the presidential transition, according to current and former American officials.

The F.B.I. and congressional investigators are now scrutinizing whether Mr. Kushner may have met with Mr. Gorkov to help establish a direct line to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, or for other reasons not cited by the White House.

The White House and VEB have issued contradictory statements about the purpose of the Gorkov meeting.

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 with Mr. Kushner, who was still running his family’s real estate company, to discuss business. The statement said VEB’s management had met with “a number of representatives of the largest banks and business circles of the U.S.,” a claim supported by the Times’s reporting about Mr. Gorkov’s meetings with banks in New York.

VEB has not disclosed specifics of the conversation with Mr. Kushner, which is of keen interest to investigators.

Mr. Kushner’s hunt for overseas investors for his company’s financially troubled Manhattan office tower on Fifth Avenue has been documented by The 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. It is not known, however, whether the subject was raised in the meeting.

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 signaled they were considering lifting the sanctions that stemmed from the conflict in Ukraine.

Separately, Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, had several phone conversations late last year with Mr. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. In one, the two men discussed additional sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to the Russian government’s 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.


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