Vladimir Putin’s top cronies are using the English courts to whitewash their malign activities.
The activities in question center on massive state-institutionalized corruption and anti-Western action. Fusing the highest echelons of the Russian economy and security establishment, men such as Roman Abramovich, Petr Aven, and Mikhail Fridman enrich Putin and enable his hostile action against the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, the British government remains far too tolerant of Putin’s people.
Evincing as much, the High Court in London this week conducted preliminary hearings into a defamation suit brought by Abramovich against author and journalist Catherine Belton. A former Financial Times Moscow correspondent, Belton has earned Kremlin fury over her 2020 book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West. Regarded as a masterpiece account of Putin’s consolidation of power, Belton’s book unveils truths that Putin’s power circle would have preferred remained hidden. Truths that they would have preferred to die with courageous journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya and Maxim Borodin. Abramovich is specifically contesting Belton’s suggestion that he purchased Chelsea soccer club at Putin’s behest. That purchase symbolizes a two-decade influx of Russian money into London. Kremlin influence peddling has flowed alongside the money. Until recently, this influence was so significant as to earn the British government’s turned eye to Russian intelligence’s assassination campaigns on its soil.
To obscure public attention to their highly questionable actions within Putin’s inner circle, a number of Russian oligarchs have waged a never-ending defamation lawfare crusade in English courts. When their legions of lobbyists and lawyers fail to pressure journalists into avoiding or editing their reporting, the oligarchs simply go to court. To their chagrin, the First Amendment prevents oligarchs from doing this to American journalists. America prioritizes freedom of the press in a way that Britain does not.
That brings us back to Belton’s current predicament. While Abramovich’s case is still in the early stages, Belton’s publisher, Harper Collins, has already settled with two separate claimants. These being Aven and Fridman. The top two executives of Russian’s largest bank, Alfa, settled with Harper Collins after it “agreed to remove” disputed material and apologized.
This is at once immoral and absurd. Disputed material concerning a public figure should not, by itself, be a cause for revoked publication. Only proof of factual error or malicious intent should justify litigation.
Moreover, it isn’t as if Aven and Fridman’s links to Putin are in question. A 2005 defamation case held in U.S. federal court offers a litany of reports suggesting both officials’ involvement in high-level organized crime and corruption activities in the 1990s. These reports include suggestions of engagement with Colombian and South Asian drug cartels, for example. Unsurprisingly, if in telling contrast with the present English court experience, the U.S. defamation suit was not successful.
By his own admission, Aven is closely linked to Putin. The Mueller report into Russian election interference records how “Aven told the [Special Counsel’s Office] that he met on a quarterly basis with Putin, including in the fourth quarter of 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election. Aven said that he took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through. As was typical, the 2016 [fourth quarter] meeting with Putin was preceded by a preparatory meeting with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.”
The reference to Vaino is important in that Vaino sits on the Russian national security council and is a key interlocutor between Putin, Security Council Chairman Nikolai Patrushev, and the Russian intelligence apparatus. I understand that Vaino plays an intimate role in Putin’s more malfeasant activities against the West. Two broader points should be made here.
First, Aven and Fridman hold key positions of wealth, privilege, and influence as Alfa Bank’s two top executives. They would not hold those roles unless they acted as reliable agents for Putin’s interests. Second, elements of Alfa Bank, as with other major Russian financial institutions, are believed by the U.S. intelligence community to operate as a financial clearing house, slush fund, and laundering operation for Russian intelligence activities. This is something soon-to-be FSB director (and former GRU guru) Sergei Korolyov knows a great deal about. Considering the variably poisonous and microwave-esque nature of these activities, Aven and Fridman deserve far more scrutiny than English legal deference.
Yet, when it comes to legal deference, Putin’s people at least know who to choose as their weapon. Top Barrister Hugh Tomlinson is the go-to guy for defamation cases involving Russian oligarchs. An advocate of even greater regulation on media reporting in Britain, Tomlinson is presumably well compensated for his Kremlin-aligned service. His regard for Western democratic values is far less clear.
This saga leaves us in an ultimately unclear but already unpleasant situation.
A very talented journalist has had her reporting and reputation impugned by a judicial system that puts the sensitivities of Putin cronies before public awareness and free speech. Whether or not Abramovich is successful in his case, it is not hard to see why Putin has long viewed Britain as an easy target.