After Monday’s New York Times piece on Trump business partner and associate Felix Sater’s efforts that began at least in November, 2015, to get Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Donald Trump get elected President that also involved Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, and a concurrent Washington Post piece that showed Cohen following up in January 2016 with a member of Putin’s inner circle on a related potential business deal, the wide, tangled web involving Trump, Sater, and Cohen demands only more attention.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse August 30, 2017
The April 2012 opening of Toronto’s Trump International Hotel and Tower. From left, Jim Petrus, COO of Trump Hotel Collection, Alex Shnaider, Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump — Alex Urosevic/ Agency
Note: Earlier readers may have been confused because somehow, someone got into my post and edited out names like Topolov, Shnaider, & Seabeco. I have made security adjustments so that will not happen again.
AMMAN — The best prism through which to understand the big picture of how deep and incriminating Team Trump’s connections are with Team Putin/Russia is that of the many crooked business deals Trump and his associates embarked upon with operatives of Putin/the Russian government and the Russian mafia (two entities which can, in fact, be difficult to distinguish or separate from each other). The devil is in the details, and only a full exploration can truly expose the magnitude of this story.
This article is not that full story, but a much shorter gateway to that full story, itself the culmination of a year of meticulous research and involving some 70 close Trump associates, Putin associates, Russian government operatives, and Russian organized crime figures and their associates involved in dozens of crooked business deals totaling many billions of dollars that included international energy giants and over a dozen major luxury real estate deals; nearly all of the people and deals involved criminality and/or scandal.
Perhaps the foundational pillar in this story—besides Donald Trump’s penchant for unethical and criminal business practices and for teaming up with business partners who share it—is a meeting in Tel Aviv in October of 1995. This meeting was hosted by Russian-Canadian “businessman” Boris Birshtein and brought together leading members of Russian and Ukrainian organized crime in order to discuss mutual plans for their activities in Ukraine, which would almost certainly have included some of the later moves discussed below. Among the mafia bosses present was Semion Mogilevich, the “Boss of Bosses” in the Russian mafia and known as the “Brainy Don” because of his wizardry at orchestrating complex financial schemes that took years to plan and set up. And one need not be an expert to realize that so many high-level organized crime bosses would not congregate at one place at one time unless they were discussing something big, very big¸ with enormous amounts of money at stake.
By this time, it should be noted that Mogilevich had already had two major mob lieutenants who had bought units in Trump Tower in Manhattan: David Bogatin and Vyacheslav Ivankov, and Bogatin personally dealt directly with Donald Trump. There was also the case of Felix Sater, who ran a Wall Street fraud and money laundering scheme worth tens of millions of dollars with unspecified elements of the Russian mafia in the mid-1990s from one of Trump’s major Manhattan properties, 40 Wall Street. This was at a time when Mogilevich was also engaged in his own massive stock fraud and money laundering operation in the U.S. and Canada with his Russian mafia crew, and one should remember how hierarchical organized crime generally is, meaning there is a high chance Mogilevich was involved in Sater’s scheme. And, of course, there is the (potential) little detail that I was the first to report: that Sater’s father was alleged to be a captain in Mogilevich’s Russian mafia crew.
At the time of the 1995 Tel Aviv meeting, Birshtein was close to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, close enough to send him, along with others at Seabeco (the company Birshtein ran), at least $5 million to help him win reelection, and Kuchma would be aware by at least 2000 that Mogilevich had major operations in Ukraine underway and that he was working with Putin and had been close with him for some time. Possibly involved in these efforts, a Mogilevich lieutenant named Leonid Roytman was a “vice president” for a construction company run by Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Topolov, who was himself heavily involved with organized crime. Topolov would be part of a money laundering and embezzlement scandal in the late 90s and early 00s involving Ukraine’s state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, the Russian state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, a Kiev soccer team, and Ukrainian Andreii Artemenko, who took over the team from Topolov in 1999.
This may have been a for Mogilevich for a far more epic money laundering scheme involving Gazprom and Naftogaz.
As Putin took charge of Russia in 1999, a Ukrainian named Dmitry Firtash became a major shadow broker for the transport and sale of Central Asian gas into Ukraine. And among the employees of Birshtein in the 90s were Alexander Mashkevich and Patokh Chodiev, who just a few years after their Seabeco days would form two parts of a notorious “Trio” of Kazakh oligarchs that would become famous for dominating the Kazakh natural resources sector, for money laundering, and for ties to organized crime; also employed by Seabeco was Alexander Shnaider, who would marry Birshtein’s daughter. By 2001, Shnaider, with a partner, had his own company that owned a 93-percent stake in Zaporizhstal, Ukraine’s fourth largest steel mill when steel was roughly 25% of Ukraine’s GDP, while the “Trio” had become a thing and had been engaged in orchestrating deals with Russian gas giant Gazprom at the same time a massive plot involving the state-owned giant was being put into motion by Putin and his operatives, especially Mogilevich and Firtash, who in the early 2000s, engineered a stranglehold on Ukraine’s gas network through a series of shady-yet-profitable deals and front shell companies.
Mogilevich was even getting prominent Republicans to lobby to have his name removed from the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, and one man involved in these efforts, Neil Livingstone, would also end up being connected business-wise to Firtash through an introduction by Mississippi GOP-governor Haley Barbour’s consulting firm (Livingstone would later run unsuccessfully to be Montana’s governor, and his running mate in the effort, Ryan Zinke, is now Trump’s Secretary of the Interior).
While those lobbying efforts were underway, Kuchma (who had been a pro-Russian leader) selected the corrupt pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as his chosen successor for the 2004 elections. The problem for him was that many Ukrainians wanted closer ties with the West and wanted to reject the old Soviet-style corruption of the Kuchma/Yanukovych wing of Ukrainian politics. So Kuchma tried to have the election fixed for his protégé, but it was pretty obvious and masses of Ukrainians took to the streets; the country’s Supreme Court ordered an election redo, and Yanukovych lost.
In this effort to elect Yanukovych, a Republican political operative from the United States, famous for his work with unscrupulous “Third Word” dictators, was assisting him as a political consultant and would stay after the loss, leading efforts to rebrand Yanukovych and his pro-Russian political party, the Party of Regions. His name was Paul Manafort, and he had already done informal work for Donald Trump by this time as a partner of Roger Stone and would end up running Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 during the crucial stretch when Trump racked up delegates and officially secured the Republican nomination; both in Ukraine and on Trump’s in presidential election effort, Manafort’s junior partner, Rick Gates, would heavily assist. It would be in part under Manafort’s watch when Trump’s presidential campaign would become the most explicitly pro-Russian of any major candidate since WWII. Alongside his political work for Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, Manafort also took on a gig worth millions through Russian aluminum oligarch Oleg Deripaska to lobby on behalf of Russian interests and for Putin, with whom Deripaska was close. In 2004, Deripaska, who is also tied to organized crime, had also done a massive aluminum deal with Mashkevich, formerly of Birshtein’s and then of the Kazakh “Trio.”
Even as the 2004 Ukrainian election was being decided, Mogilevich’s and Firtash’s gas scheme was in place and working: Firtash’s shell companies would buy gas from Gazprom at low rates, then sell it at much higher rates to Ukraine, partnering with Ukraine’s Naftogaz; the profits would then be used to bribe Ukrainian politicians and bend them to Putin’s will and fill the Party of Region’s coffers so it would be flush with cash, and in exchange, Firtash would be given billions in credit from Putin-linked bankers to buy up major sectors of key Ukrainian industries. Where Firtash was the public face, Mogilevich was moving the money around behind the scenes, laundering away from prying eyes.
By 2006, this scheme had grown to include RAO UES, a Russian state-owned electric company, which meant Russia was selling its Gazprom-transported gas to Ukraine at marked up rates and then getting some of the fruit of that gas back at a discount when a portion of the gas was used to generate electricity for RAO, which then sold the electricity for even further profit; an American man named Carter Page advised both Gazprom and RAO at this time, and he is smart enough on these matters (if not others) to make it near-impossible to believe he did not know what was going on to a significant degree.
Page would go on to become one of the only foreign policy advisors to Trump’s campaign that Trump could name in 2016, but by then Page had already been under a secret federal surveillance warrant since 2014 on suspicion of being a Russian agent.
Around the time RAO was being integrated into the massive Ukrainian gas scheme, in 2006 a lawyer named Michael Cohen with a shady history had worked his way into Trump’s employ as a key legal advisor; he had married a Ukrainian, and so had his brother, Bryan, whose wife was the daughter of Alex Oronov, who was a major business partner of Topolov, who, as mentioned, had ties to Mogilevich and had been involved in the soccer/Naftogaz/Gazprom scheme from before that also involved Artemenko, who, in turn, would later describe Oronov as his mentor. Both Cohen brothers went into an ethanol business with Oronov and Topolov; the venture did not go as planned and raises natural questions as to if anything illicit was involved.
By 2007, Trump was partnering with non-other than Alexander Shnaider, Birshtein’s son-in-law, to develop a Trump Tower in Toronto. The following year, received a massive loan from FL Group, an Icelandic “investment” firm that was well-known for handling money for close Putin associates and that played a major role in the global financial crises at the end of the decade; the loan was given, ostensibly, to purchase a yacht. That same year, Shnaider sold his stake in the Ukraine steel mill for some $850 million to an unknown buyer tied to the Russian government and who was financed by VEB (Vnesheconombank), a Russian state-owned bank whose board was then chaired by Putin himself. This furthered the Kremlin’s goal of having allies dominate key industries and natural resources in Ukraine, and the following year the mill was sold to Rinat Akhmetov, a super-wealthy Ukrainian oligarch close to Yanukovych. As for the Toronto Trump Tower, the project fell apart in scandal, lawsuits, and bankruptcy, with Trump’s name even being taken off the building just this July.
Also throughout the 2000s, Trump partnered with Felix Sater on a number of shady real estate deals that all failed, ended in scandal and/or lawsuits, and almost certainly involved massive amounts of Russian money laundering. Sater’s real estate business, Bayrock, was even located in Trump Tower, and its five deals with Trump included, most infamously, the Trump SoHo in Manhattan. Sater and his Kazakh partner, Tefik Arif, also secured financing from none other than Alexander Mashkevich and from FL Group; the “financing” was a $50 million package that went to four of the five Sater-brokered deals and was illegally structured as a loan for tax fraud purposes. Given Sater’s possible ties to Mogilevich and known ties to the Russian mafia, it is valid to suspect that some of the money involved could have been related to the whole Eurasian gas scheme.
The Soho deal in involved financing from Tamir Sapir from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, who lived in Trump Tower, was a graduate of the Soviet Ministry of Internal and who had longstanding close ties to a myriad of Soviet officials; an old business partner of his named Sam Kislin had earlier brokered a deal for a condo in Manhattan’s Trump World Tower for Vasily Salygin, who would go on to be an official in Yanukovych’s Party of Regions during the whole gas scam era. At a ceremony hosted by Trump in Mar-a-Lago, Sapir’s daughter also married Rotem Rosen, a close business partner with an international diamond magnate from the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, Lev Leviev, who is close with Putin and worked on issues for him with Russian aluminum oligarch Roman Abramovich, who himself has ties organized crime; Ivanka Trump would become quite close with Abramovich’s wife, while her now-husband, Jared Kushner, would do business with Leviev, who would sell Kushner high-end real estate in 2015. But back in 2008, Leviev sold posh Manhattan real estate to Prevezon, a company owned by Denis Katsyv, the son of a former Russian government minister, Petr Katsyv, who worked with a close Putin ally, Vladimir Yakunin, who publicly endorsed Trump’s run for president in June 2016; Prevezon used the Leviev transaction to help launder millions of the Russian government’s illegal proceeds from its Magnitsky-related historic tax fraud scam (an issue on which Denis Katsyv and Yakunin both lobbied U.S. lawmakers), which was one of the issues discussed at the now infamous meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and a number of notorious Russians tied to Putin and the Russian government; at the time, Leviev’s business that conducted the transactions was headquartered at Trump’s 40 Wall Street, the same building Sater had used many years ago in conducting his fraud and money laundering.
Manafort was in on the whole Ukraine gas scheme, too, and starting at least in 2008 even helped, along with Gates, to launder vast sums of money through sketchy Manhattan real estate deals that were never completed, ended in scandal, and helped keep the money away from authorities, helping to give Yanukovych and his Party of Regions their crooked edge over their rivals. A Ukrainian politician, Yulia Tymoshenko—who led the efforts to crack down on this Ukraine gas scheme before she ran for president and lost in 2010 to a Yanukovych who had been successfully rehabilitated by Manafort and who was then imprisoned by Yanukovych on trump-up show charges after her loss—sued Manafort, Gates, Mogilevich, Firtash, and Yanukovych in a New York federal court from Ukrainian prison, arguing that those crooked Manhattan real estate deals had helped enable her enemies to do her harm, both politically and “legally.” The court agreed with some of her claims but felt it lacked the jurisdiction to rule on them and that the evidence did not meet the higher RICO standards.
Yanukovych remained in power until 2014, when his own people drove him out, precipitating the current civil war and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. Soon after Trump was inaugurated president, he dispatched Michael Cohen—who had become something of an infamous spokesman for the Trump campaign in 2016 (“Says who?”)—and Felix Sater to meet with Adreii Artemenko to discuss a “peace plan” that had the approval of top Putin aides and that would have handed Russia formal control of Crimea, with the meeting organized by Alex Oronov. Only a few months later, Oronov mysteriously died.
While the latest New York Times story on Sater begs the question of how Sater can claim to have access to Putin, it is quite possible that the answer to that question is Mogilevich himself.
A lot of these Russian-tied real estate deals were so spectacularly poorly executed that they only make sense if viewed primarily as criminal vehicles for Russian and Ukrainian money laundering. Considering that so many of these people and deals can likely be linked to that 1995 Russian and Ukrainian mafia bosses’ meeting in Israel hosted by Boris Birshtein, that is not surprising.
Even only looking at this portion of the story, it seems the machinery of that major Putin operation designed to dominate Ukraine using natural gas and money laundering was likely set in motion by that 1995 Tel Aviv meeting, and that, eventually, multiple parts of that machine engaged Trump both in what may have been related money laundering scams and then, later, in a political plot to help him win the American presidency using and information operations to both boost him and attack the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and her Democratic Party. A single operation? No. Multiple related operations that used some of the same people and machinery? Most certainly, and the overlap is where the real story—and questions—rise.
Again, keep in mind that this is only a part of the Trump-Russia saga. You can read about these events in more detail and other people and crooked deals involving Trump, his people, Putin’s people, and the Russian mafia in my more exhaustive earlier article.
See the related article that contains this chart: Think You Know How Deep Trump-Russia Goes? Think Again: This Chart/Info Will Blow Your Mind.
Correction appended to note the alleged nature of the claim that Sater’s father was tied to Mogilevich
© 2017 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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