The message from Moscow reached Paul Manafort at a crucial moment in the U.S. presidential race, just as he was about to secure the official Republican nomination for his client, Donald Trump. Manafort’s overture had been received, the July 2016 message informed him. And Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, would be back in touch soon.
In the months before the 2016 elections, Manafort, then Trump’s campaign chairman, had tried repeatedly to reach out to Deripaska through intermediaries, according to emails revealed last year by the Washington Post and the Atlantic. The two men’s relationship went back a decade; Manafort had worked as a political consultant for Deripaska’s business interests in Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s.
The messages used coded language–apparent references to money, for instance, were sometimes rendered as “black caviar.” But the aim of the exchange seems clear. Manafort wanted to offer “private briefings” about the Trump campaign to one of Russia’s wealthiest men.
That offer has since come under the scrutiny of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential race. His investigators want to know whether the Trump campaign had a secret back channel to the Kremlin, and Manafort has agreed to help them answer that question. As part of his guilty plea on Sept. 14 to charges stemming from the Mueller investigation, Manafort agreed to cooperate “fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” with the special counsel.
Already Mueller’s probe has shown the range of assets Putin brought to bear on the 2016 campaign. Russian hackers stole and leaked the private emails of Trump’s opponents and worked to polarize and enrage voters by manipulating social media, according to evidence made public by Mueller. Russian diplomats wooed Trump’s advisers, who were eager for information that could hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances.
But it is oligarchs like Deripaska, wielding extraordinary wealth and global connections, who may have played the most important role in the Russian influence campaign. Putin himself has suggested as much. Onstage with Trump at a press conference in Helsinki on July 16, the Russian leader said he “can imagine” private Russian businessmen supported Trump’s bid for the presidency. “And so what?” Putin demanded. “They don’t represent the Russian state.”
In fact, their ties to the state are a lot closer than Putin let on. From the very beginning of his 19 years in power, the Russian President has turned his country’s wealthiest men into a loose but loyal band of operatives. In exchange for lucrative deals with the government, or simply protection from the authorities, these billionaires have gathered contacts at the highest levels of U.S. politics, high enough to influence policy in the service of the Russian state. “These are cats that like to bring dead mice to the Kremlin,” says Mark Galeotti, a leading expert in Putin’s influence operations at the Prague-based Institute of International Relations.
And in the Trumps, the oligarchs found plump targets. One Russian billionaire hosted Ivanka Trump and her husband, the President’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, at a gala in Moscow in 2014. Another has links to a $500,000 payment to Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen in 2017. A third ran a propaganda operation that pumped pro-Trump content into the news feeds of millions of American voters. In the heat of the presidential race, a fourth tycoon arranged the meeting where a Russian lawyer offered dirt on Clinton to Trump’s closest aides. And then of course there was Deripaska, whose years of fishing for friends in Washington eventually got the chairman of a presidential campaign on the line.
The U.S. has begun to hit back. In February, the Justice Department indicted one oligarch, Evgeny Prigozhin, for his role in the 2016 social-media-influence operation. In April, the Treasury Department sanctioned two others, Deripaska and investor Viktor Vekselberg, freezing their assets and limiting their travel, in retaliation for their work for Putin.
The oligarchs say they are doing nothing wrong in advancing Russia’s interests at home and abroad. Reviews of legal records and interviews with oligarchs and their associates in Russia and the West show just how far they have gone. They also show how deeply they penetrated the 2016 U.S. presidential contest, and the campaign of Donald Trump.
On a warm day in 2000, during the first months of his tenure as President, Putin arranged to meet his country’s richest men at a barbecue on the edge of Moscow. The gathering had not been his idea. One of the bankers closest to the Kremlin had suggested it, hoping it would allay their concerns about Russia’s new leader. “He was a black box,” recalls Sergei Pugachev, the financier behind the meeting, who was once known as the Kremlin’s Banker. “No one knew what was inside.”
Many of the oligarchs assumed in those days that Putin would be a pushover. With no power base in Moscow, the young KGB veteran from St. Petersburg seemed incapable of challenging their hold over the government, the media and much of the economy. Entire industries had been auctioned off to these men during Russia’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s, often in exchange for loans to save the state from bankruptcy. Some of them had urged President Boris Yeltsin to choose Putin as his successor. They assumed the new President would be at least as pliable as the old one.
Putin was quick to correct them. In choosing a venue for the meeting, he decided against the Kremlin, the normal spot for such a conclave. Instead he chose to send a more pointed message. “The meeting was at Stalin’s dacha,” Pugachev recalls. “That was very symbolic.”
Hidden among thick forests on the western outskirts of the city, the estate in Kuntsevo was the home of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin for two decades before his death in 1953. It was also the place where Stalin drew up lists of enemies among Russia’s political and economic elites, who were sent to their deaths in Siberia and elsewhere by the untold thousands in what became known as the Great Purge. The tyrant’s old office, right down to his desk and the couch where he used to take naps, was still preserved at Kuntsevo when the oligarchs pulled up to the gates for their meeting with Putin. In the presence of these memento mori, no one challenged the young President with any difficult questions, says Pugachev. “It’s enough that he let us leave,” he recalls one of the guests saying afterward.
Not all of them were so easily intimidated. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil mogul with political ambitions of his own, understood the new rules that Putin was trying to enforce. “He wanted us to understand that we, as big businessmen, may have some power,” he tells TIME. “But it is nothing compared to his power as the head of state.” Khodorkovsky did not take that message to heart. After publicly clashing with Putin and his loyalists, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion in 2003 and subjected to a trial criticized by human-rights activists as a settling of scores. He wound up serving 10 years in prison.
The lesson to the oligarchs was clear. Their fortunes could stand or fall on Putin’s whim, and most accepted the need to do favors for the Kremlin as part of the cost of doing business. “If the state says we need to give it up, we’ll give it up,” Deripaska said of his own business empire during an interview with the Financial Times in 2007. In a remark that would come to define the position of the oligarchs in Putin’s Russia, he added, “I don’t separate myself from the state. I have no other interests.”
The oligarchs stuck to their specialties. Some focused on banking and finance, others on mining and energy. And they paid their dues to the state in different ways.
Aras Agalarov, a flashy real estate tycoon with a taste for mafia movies–his family once filmed a remake of The Godfather for his birthday with him in the starring role–was known for accepting construction projects that might endear him to Putin. When the President decided that he wanted to host a summit in 2012 on a deserted island at Russia’s eastern edge, Agalarov spent $100 million of his own money building a vast white-elephant campus for the event, with new roads and infrastructure. Putin was pleased. “Your contribution to our country’s development cannot be measured in money,” the President said after pinning the Order of Honor to the mogul’s chest in 2013.
Another of Putin’s favorite businessmen has taken a more active role in Russia’s foreign adventures. Convicted of fraud and other crimes in the Soviet Union, Prigozhin found lawful success in the late 1990s with a St. Petersburg restaurant called New Island, where Putin would often dine with friends and foreign dignitaries. He won catering contracts with the Kremlin and the Russian army, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”–which has stuck despite Prigozhin’s moves into other industries.
In 2015, he emerged as a key player in Russia’s military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria. Documents and legal records published in the Russian press have linked his companies to the Wagner Group, a private military outfit that has sent fighters into both conflicts, often taking on missions that seemed too dangerous, or sensitive, for regular Russian troops. Prigozhin also bankrolled the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm that blasted out Kremlin propaganda through hundreds of fake social-media accounts, according to the U.S. charges unveiled against him earlier this year. Asked about these ventures, his spokesperson replied that Prigozhin does not speak to reporters “on principle.”
The more subtle and sensitive work of cultivating influence among power brokers in the U.S. and Western Europe generally goes to Russia’s wealthiest tycoons. Prominent among them is Viktor Vekselberg, who was one of the guests at Stalin’s dacha back in 2000. With a short silver beard and ice blue eyes, he earned much of his fortune in oil and metals. Later on, he decided to direct it, with the Kremlin’s blessing, to the tech sector.
Vekselberg quickly made friends in Silicon Valley, in part through investments managed by his cousin’s firm out of New York City. But Vekselberg’s partnerships with U.S. companies, like a billion-dollar deal he helped negotiate with Cisco in 2010, soon attracted the attention of the FBI, which issued a highly unusual warning to the industry in 2014. Vekselberg’s foundation, the bureau wrote, “may be a means for the Russian government to access our nation’s sensitive or classified research, development facilities and dual-use technologies.”
The concerns of U.S. authorities were even more acute when it came to Deripaska. He had emerged as the winner of a brutal competition for control of Russia’s aluminum industry–a billionaire since his 30s. The U.S. revoked his visa in 2006, effectively banning him from the country, reportedly because of alleged ties to Russian organized crime. That only seemed to improve his standing with the Kremlin. He had already married into the family of Putin’s predecessor, Yeltsin, and later became “a more or less permanent fixture on Putin’s trips abroad,” according to a 2006 U.S. embassy cable.
Even without a U.S. visa, Deripaska still managed to develop ties with some of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, including Manafort and his then partner, Rick Davis. The consultants introduced Deripaska in early 2006 to several Republican Senators, including John McCain. When the late Senator celebrated his 70th birthday in the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro that summer, Deripaska was among the revellers.
The partnership between Manafort and Deripaska was especially rich with opportunities for the Kremlin. The American lobbyist even pitched Deripaska a plan in 2005 to shape political events across the U.S. and much of Europe, according to the Associated Press, which published parts of the plan last year. The aim, the AP reported, was to “greatly benefit the Putin Government” with influence operations in a several Western capitals. One tactic Manafort reportedly touted would be to “train a cadre of leaders who can be relied upon in future governments.”
Deripaska has denied ever agreeing to such a plan and Manafort denies working for Russia. “I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal, to advance its interests,” Manafort said in March 2017. “I did not work for the Russian government.”
The year after Manafort sent his plan to Deripaska, they worked together on a project that redrew the map of Europe. In the spring of 2006, Montenegro held a referendum on independence from neighboring Serbia. Manafort has admitted helping stage the vote with financial backing from Deripaska. “It probably couldn’t have happened without their help,” says a Montenegrin official involved in the referendum. “They made a very good team.”
The network of relationships cultivated by the oligarchs over the past two decades covered almost every sphere of influence at home and abroad, and it was partly by chance that Trump got caught in it. Trump’s desire to do business in Russia began well before Putin and the oligarchs rose to power. During his first visit to Moscow, arranged in 1987 by the USSR’s ambassador to Washington, Trump visited sites for a new hotel, including one near Red Square. “I was impressed with the ambition of Soviet officials to make a deal,” Trump recalls in The Art of the Deal.
Vladimir Rubanov, who was a senior KGB officer at the time, says Trump may have been targeted for surveillance during that visit. “I’d say there is a 50-50 chance,” he tells TIME. The brash American certainly had the qualities that Soviet spies would have looked for. “He’s connected. He’s famous. He’s wealthy,” says Rubanov. “So for us this person would not be treated like just another visitor.”
As the communist system began to break up in the late 1980s, the talks about a Trump Tower in Moscow fizzled. They were only revived in earnest a quarter-century later, but this time it was not the government handling the negotiations. It was Agalarov, Putin’s favorite builder.
In the fall of 2013, Agalarov collaborated with Trump to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. They spent a couple of days together while hosting the event, attending parties and dinners with the Russian elite. The result was a plan to build a $3 billion complex of hotels, shopping malls and office space in Moscow, including a tower that was to bear Trump’s name. The state’s largest lender, Sberbank, even agreed to finance around 70% of the project, which would have been the biggest commercial real estate loan in its history at the time. But Trump’s political ambitions apparently wound up getting in the way. “If he hadn’t run for President, we would probably be in the construction phase today,” Agalarov’s son Emin told Forbes last year.
As the elections approached, the Agalarov family kept in touch with the Trumps. With the help of his publicist in London, Emin reached out to Trump’s eldest son Donald Jr. to arrange a meeting in June 2016 that has since become a focus of the special counsel investigation. Held on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan, its nominal purpose was for the candidate’s top advisers–including Manafort and Kushner–to receive dirt on Clinton from a lawyer with close ties to Russian law enforcement. The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, has denied having any information to offer, and Trump says he wasn’t aware that the meeting was taking place. Mueller has yet to disclose his findings on the gathering. But the role of the Agalarov family in setting it up shows just how deep into Trumpland their contacts reached.
Then there was Vekselberg, whose ventures in Silicon Valley had caused such concern at the FBI. The tech billionaire scored an invitation to Trump’s Inauguration, thanks to his cousin Andrew Intrater, whose American firm, Columbus Nova, had made many of his tech investments in the U.S. Columbus Nova also made a surprising, different kind of investment early in Trump’s presidency. The firm paid Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, at least $500,000 in consulting fees in 2017, according to the New York Times. Although Vekselberg was Columbus Nova’s biggest client, the company’s lawyers say he had no role in the payments to Cohen.
There may be other, earlier connections between Vekselberg and those who would become involved in Trump’s campaign. Documents obtained by TIME show that Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser from March to September 2016, sought out Vekselberg via intermediaries in 2013 when Page was launching a natural gas business. The documents name Vekselberg as a hoped-for investor and refer to a senior executive in his foundation as a point of contact. The documents show Page planned dinner with the senior executive on July 3, 2013, and refer to a draft Memorandum of Understanding between Page’s firm and Russian energy giant Gazprom.
At that time, Page was being wooed by a Russian intelligence operative in New York City with promises of contracts in the Russian energy sector, according to court documents. “He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could be [sic] rise up,” one of the spies wrote another, according to transcripts of intercepted conversations included in a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department in January 2015. “I will feed him empty promises.” The two Russians were later arrested by the FBI and expelled from the country.
Page told the House Intelligence Committee last year that in late June 2013 he met with two FBI officials who interviewed him about his contacts with the Russian spy. In his testimony, Page said he did not ask for anything of value from the spy, who Page said was the “least relevant” Russian he was speaking with about Gazprom at the time. Reached by TIME and asked about his attempted outreach to Vekselberg and any role the oligarch played in the Gazprom talks, Page said, “I can neither confirm nor deny, beyond noting that you’re being led far astray once again.” Page has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Early this year, Vekselberg was stopped and questioned by Mueller’s investigators, who searched his electronic devices, according to the New York Times. It is not clear whether Page ever met with Vekselberg or the senior executive. Through a spokesperson, Vekselberg said his Skolkovo Foundation has no means of accessing U.S. sensitive research or technologies and that he had never met Carter Page, and referred TIME to his senior executive, who did not respond to requests for comment. Vekselberg declined to comment on the Mueller investigation until it is over.
Other oligarchs managed to play a role in the 2016 elections without ever setting foot on U.S. soil. The Internet Research Agency, which Prigozhin ran out of an office building in St. Petersburg, flooded social media with pro-Trump content that reached millions of American voters in 2016, according to Facebook’s internal investigation and a U.S. indictment issued against Prigozhin in February. Putin, for his part, did not seem to think these efforts were such a big deal. “This is only connected to private persons,” he said of his former chef’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election. “Not the state.”
That argument would be harder for Putin to make in the case of Deripaska. His links to the state are so tight that in order to resolve his U.S. visa problems, the Russian government granted him a diplomatic passport, which he admitted using 10 times to visit New York, in court documents filed in 2016.
It’s not known whether the private briefing allegedly offered by Manafort ever happened, but Deripaska was in close contact with the Kremlin around the time. In August 2016, he allegedly met on his yacht with one of Putin’s top foreign policy advisers, Sergei Prikhodko, and discussed U.S.-Russian relations. “We’ve got bad relations with America,” the billionaire told the Kremlin official, according to a brief audio recording of their conversation made by an escort on the boat and later leaked online. But that isn’t Russia’s fault, Deripaska added. It’s because of the ill will felt toward Russia in the Obama Administration, he said. Contacted for this story, Deripaska’s spokesperson said the line of questioning was based on “biased and false information,” but offered no further comment.
None of the oligarchs would have needed specific instructions to know that helping Trump beat Clinton, a long-standing critic of Putin’s, would earn them their President’s gratitude, experts say. “They put their imaginations to work,” says Galeotti, “leveraging whatever resources and contacts they had.”
But the price they paid for meddling in the U.S. elections was likely higher than any of them expected. The sanctions many have faced as a result are some of the toughest the U.S. has ever imposed on private businessmen. Bloomberg News estimated that Russia’s wealthiest tycoons lost a combined $16 billion of their net worth on that black Monday, April 9, after the sanctions were announced. Vekselberg reportedly had up to $2 billion of his U.S. assets frozen. Deripaska has been scrambling to distance himself from his companies in the hope of shielding them from the impact of the sanctions. The damage to their reputations among Western investors and banks is likely to hurt their businesses for years to come.
The only winner in this saga would seem to be Putin, whose taming of the oligarchs at the start of his tenure continues to pay political dividends. It allowed him to stand before the cameras in Helsinki and shift the blame away from the Russian state. And as a means of covertly exercising influence abroad, Putin could hardly ask for a better toolkit than the one the oligarchs provide.
In that sense the U.S. Treasury Department may have gotten the story backward when it pledged in April that the oligarchs “will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.” In fact it is the businessmen of Russia who insulate the state and act on its behalf when necessary. For Putin, that is what makes them so useful, and that is not likely to change.
With reporting by Tessa Berenson and Massimo Calabresi/Washington
This appears in the October 01, 2018 issue of TIME.