By Marcus Kolga, July 26, 2017
The latest headlines in the ongoing Trump-Russia scandal demonstrate that Vladimir Putin is on a desperate mission to repeal U.S. Magnitsky sanctions that target those in his regime who abuse the rights of Russians with asset freezes and visa bans.
Canada has already been targeted by Russian disinformation campaigns targeting domestic advocates of Magnitsky sanctions and we should look to what’s happening in the U.S. to learn what’s coming next.
Emails released last week by Donald Trump Jr. regarding a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer, present the clearest evidence yet of the Kremlin’s active determination to strike a deal with the Trump administration about the repeal of Magnitsky sanctions.
An offer for political “dirt” related to Hillary Clinton was offered to the Trump campaign via a Putin connected oligarch, the details of which were to be revealed at a meeting with a “Russian government attorney,” Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Veselnitskaya has been actively working for the past several years to repeal U.S. Magnitsky sanctions. In 2016, she helped produce a film discrediting Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer the sanctions legislation is named in honour of.
Veselnitskaya also founded the benevolent sounding and ironically named, “Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation” whose stated goal is, according to its website, to “help restart American adoption of Russian children” (Putin banned U.S. adoption of Russian children in 2012 in response to U.S. Magnitsky legislation).
While Veselnitskaya may have offered to end the adoption ban in return for a repeal of sanctions against her Kremlin bosses, it’s unlikely anyone in the Trump campaign would have met her on the adoption issue alone. Political “dirt” was the bait, and repeal of sanctions by President Trump was the price.
What happened after that June 9, 2016 meeting indicates what may have been promised.
A month after the meeting nearly 20,000 Democratic Party emails were made public by WikiLeaks in an operation that has been universally characterized by the U.S. intelligence community as a Kremlin-orchestrated active measures campaign.
After taking office in January, the Trump administration immediately set its sights on repealing Magnitksy legislation. According to retired U.S. Ambassador Dan Fried, who was the top U.S. sanctions official at the time, “there was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions” immediately after the inauguration.
In May 2017, the U.S. money laundering case against Veselnitskaya’s client, Prevezon Holdings, was quietly settled out of federal court.
While debate rages about whether the meeting broke any laws, one thing remains clear: Vladimir Putin is desperately seeking an end to the current sanctions targeting his cronies. And we know he is trying to derail similar efforts in Canada.
In March of last year, Veselnitskaya took aim at Canadian efforts to adopt Magnitsky legislation with various posts on social media in attempts to discredit Canadian advocacy efforts, including my own. Those posts were immediately followed by several anti-Magnitsky articles that appeared in Russian pro-Putin media. Those quickly prompted a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber to demand that the Russian prosecutor general investigate those advocating for Canadian Magnitsky, including myself.
The development of new Canadian platforms and proxy groups to communicate its narratives and promote its agenda has become a priority for the Putin regime.
A few months after the Russian invasion of Crimea, a hastily concocted “grassroots” organization called The Russian Congress of Canada was formed, claiming to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Canadians. The organization’s website parrots Kremlin propaganda, much of which is intended to undermine Canadian support for Magnitsky legislation and those who advocate for it. The group recently sent out a mass email to Canadian MP’s entitled “Appeal to Prime Minister Trudeau to question Minister Freeland’s integrity.”
The Kremlin also uses oligarchs and business contacts to try and shift Canadian policy. It does this partly, via organizations such as the Canada Russia Eurasia Business Association. Bombardier, a CERBA member connected with Russian state-owned enterprises, has lobbied hard in Ottawa to remove Russian sanctions and has succeeded in keeping former head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin off of Canada’s sanctions list.
As Canada’s own Magnitsky sanctions legislation moves toward a final vote in the fall, Canadians can expect an escalation of Russian disinformation and provocation targeting members of our government, media and civil society. As such, Canadian politicians and government decision makers must be prepared, and learn to recognize disinformation and Kremlin active measures in order to protect the integrity of our own democracy and institutions.
Marcus Kolga is a communications strategist, filmmaker and publisher of UpNorth.eu. He is a senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute’s Foreign Policy Centre.