During the nearly four year investigations into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 US elections, it became glaringly obvious the extent to which malign campaigns from Russia are in fact enabled by actors in the West. Bipartisan staff on the Senate Select Committee responsible for the inquiry became increasingly jaded by the depth of the cooperation.
Russian officials and their oligarch proxies routinely rely on the efforts of lawyers, bankers, public relations executives, investigators and other professional advisors to advance their often-nefarious interests. Under Russian direction, these hired enablers are at the forefront of efforts to undermine the very systems in which they operate and thrive.
In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, some Russian entities are still benefiting from the expertise of their Western partners. These benefits – whether political, financial or cultural – extend to the Kremlin itself. Ultimately the financial largesse emerging from these relationships lines the pockets of President Putin and his cronies and funds Russian adventurism globally, including the military efforts in Ukraine.
Sanctions imposed by the United States, the UK, and the EU prior to the February invasion of Ukraine had some impact on tools of Russian influence, but some significant actors have thus far escaped scrutiny and much-needed accountability.
One of these goes by the benign sounding name of the Russian Deposit Insurance Agency (DIA). It is a state-owned entity responsible for liquidating and conducting bankruptcy administration proceedings for failed Russian financial institutions. But it holds a unique position of authority within the Russian financial sector to identify and pursue assets held at home or abroad to return those assets to the state, often through coercion, threats of prosecution, or forced company liquidation.
The DIA is chaired by the governor of the sanctioned Russian Central Bank. Its general director, Andrei Melnikov, previously served as Minister of Economic Development of the so-called Republic of Crimea—a job which earned him sanctions from the US government.
But the DIA’s efforts to pursue and persecute Kremlin critics abroad are amplified by those in the West, through a web of a enablers and facilitators.The body’s Moscow-based law firm, GR Legal, has a host of British partners listed on its website such as law firm CMS and the accounting firm Grant Thornton International, alongside the DIA itself. Some in the United States and the United Kingdom are beginning to take notice of and question these relationships—which apparently continue despite extensive sanctions and the departure of hundreds of firms from the Russian market.
In a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake noted the DIA’s ties to Grant Thornton, CMS and another company, Harbour Litigation Funding Limited. On this side of the Atlantic, US Democrat Congressman Steve Cohen highlighted the connection of CMS lawyers to another Russian influence and pressure campaign targeting Bill Browder, Magnitsky’s boss and avid anti-Putin campaigner. Public attention to these business ties only increased after the UK’s decision in May to ban Russian access to British consulting, accounting, and PR services, with the US swiftly following in the UK’s footsteps.
It is long past time for Western firms to reconsider their relationships with Russian entities. These ties, while no doubt lucrative, serve to shore up the Kremlin, its proxies and its military campaign in Ukraine.
Washington must implement reforms to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and London must pursue similar laws of its own, to ensure those working to advance the interests of the Russian state are acting transparently. After all, sunlight truly is the best disinfectant. Washington and London must also join with the European Union and other global partners to ensure that sanctions regimes are appropriately targeted—and not just at the friend-of-Putin oligarch flavor of the day, but the entities and networks they use to conduct their malign work.