"One cannot rule out that he is a front man"
Part 6 of TrueHoop's investigation into Mikhail Prokhorov. It's PUTIN WEEK!
Decades ago, rich people bought NBA teams for amounts in the tens of millions of dollars. In those days, a regular person had a shot at understanding where that money came from. Peter Holt bought the Spurs with money from a business his uncle founded selling heavy equipment. Larry Miller wrote a book about how his car dealerships afforded him the Jazz. Amway dollars bought the Magic.
Every NBA team is valued north of a billion dollars now, though, and piles that big are tougher to dig through. Team purchases motivated solely by local pride or fandom make less sense, and even investment returns seem riskier—will the billon-plus dollar purchasers also sell with big appreciation? Everything is more complicated. If you’re a guy looking to understand the motivation of the Nets owner, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, nowadays, you find yourself attending conferences like March 2018’s PutinCon, put on by the Human Rights Foundation. There was an application to attend, I was excited to get the email saying I had been accepted, even if there was a little trepidation:
Why go to a conference about the leader of Russia to understand the NBA? Because this NBA owner is, in what would emerge as the word of the day: tricky. Before I ever imagined I’d go to such a conference, I read a ton, and interviewed people. The most plugged in people have the trickiest messages about oligarchs, and how they work. Respected analyst Ilya Zaslavskiy wrote a white paper called “The Tsar and his Business Serfs.” It’s serious stuff, and part of it was presented before Congress. In the paper, he writes:
We do not know how much of Prokhorov’s money is his own and whose money he is investing in Western assets. In fact, given his continued loyalty to the Kremlin, there is no way to fully confirm that his investments are not actually a way to circumvent sanctions. One cannot rule out that he is a front man not only for his own money but also for the capital of Kremlin insiders, who are now buying his assets at surprisingly acceptable prices (at or above current market price). Just under a year ago, Prokhorov publicly said that ownership of the Brooklyn Nets helps him to counteract US sanctions because of the human interaction between teams, professionals and common people.
Prokhorov owns a lot of things—the Nets are but one big asset—but Zaslavskiy suggests that in some of his assets he’s a front man for Kremlin insiders? Could the Nets be one of those things? So we go to PutinCon.
We huddled against an icy wind, and when I got there a few minutes before the doors opened. They were swarmed by blue-uniformed NYPD. I was maybe 50th in the line that trailed along the midtown sidewalk. Eventually, I struck up a conversation with the 51st, who looked a bit like my mom. In this line it didn’t feel weird to tell her that I had just been listening to an episode of the Trump Inc. podcast about money laundering at Trump’s Atlantic City casinos.
She cut me off: “That was all Deutsche Bank!” That hadn’t been in the podcast. Then she explained that at that time, she worked at Deutsche Bank, trying to set up controls to prevent the bank from laundering money. She works for a different bank now.
I knew PutinCon would have crazy cool people.
Eventually, before all feeling bled from our fingers, we got our turn to hand our driver’s licenses to a frigid staffer who checked a computer and scrutinized our faces and photos. Behind the table, one of the uniformed police had a type of gun strapped to his chest that I had only ever seen before in movies. On the back of his tactical vest was an alphabet soup of NYPD law enforcement letters, and then the word “counterterrorism.” Inside, middle-aged men in plainclothes wanded and patted down attendees and peered into bags. One of them was a dead ringer for Bruno Tattaglia of the Godfather, and I got the feeling he had “seen things.”
The conference was at New World Stages, long the underground home to an Off Broadway Muppets-for-adults show called Avenue Q. PutinCon would obsess over a profane puppetmaster in a space normally reserved for profane puppets.
We might not have daylight, but thanks to the single heavily guarded entrance, we would at least have safety.
Or not; Putin’s reach can seem infinite. A few days earlier a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, had been poisoned in England along with his daughter. Another dissident, Nikolai Glushkov, had been found dead of a “compression to the neck” in his home just outside London. Among those few hundred of us milling around, some must be FSB (the new name of the KGB, essentially), right? (Are these sportswriter questions?)
Certainly, many in the room—although there were multiple rooms, we all fit in the one medium-sized theater—feared for their lives. The glossy program said two speakers had been arrested or detained in Russia, seven had received Interpol Red Notices, two had been poisoned, three were from the intelligence community, two had run for president of Russia, and nine had fled political persecution. In the opening flap of the program, former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, the conference’s host, set the tone: “The world would be safer, more prosperous, and more free without Putin.” He recently tweeted:
This event had to be on the Kremlin’s radar. So far underground, the cell signal flickered between elusive and absent. I turned my phone all the way off. That way, my ringer wouldn’t disturb. Also, was it crazy to think it might be hacked if I left it on? Would the FSB or the GRU (Russian foreign military intelligence agency) log into the wifi and track us all? Crazy to think they would. But also crazy to think they couldn’t—if John Podesta was worth the trouble, why not Putin’s assembled dissidents?
“I assume,” said a loud man, happily tapping away at his phone, “that everything is already hacked.”
You can see why Putin might want to shut these people up: One of the opening talks, which you can see online right now, was journalist David Satter saying Putin came to power thanks to a series of terrorist bombs that blew up apartment buildings across Russia. Putin had been designated the successor to the fading Boris Yeltsin, but was essentially unknown to the public, and polled abysmally. Satter explains how the terrorist campaign worked politically: Once the country was terrorized, Putin emerged as the solution. “In the ensuing panic, Putin was suddenly everywhere,” Satter says. He would defend Russia from the Chechen terrorists.
But the idea that Chechens set the bombs chafes with the evidence. Satter told the story of the fifth bomb that didn’t go off, in September 1999, after four bombs that did. Local police arrested those planting a fifth bomb, and—amazingly, this part is not disputed—they turned out to work for the FSB. Satter was in Moscow at the time, and assembled dogged research in the ensuing years. Satter talked about a government official who dropped the name of one of the bomb sites—before a bomb went off there. Satter says he has received documents from FOIA requests that make it clear the U.S. government knew about all this and decided not to intervene.
In short, as Satter tells it, the mass murder of Russian citizens—close to 300 died, many more injured—was allegedly a central plank of Putin’s presidential campaign. It all sounds too crazy to be true, but for this audience Satter’s story was almost rote. It is a common analysis. The line in the Wikipedia page about the apartment bombings has six references by the claim that the bombings were a false flag attempt designed to usher Putin into office.
Here’s another telling of the same story, by This American Life. The idea is beyond outrageous, but in my foray into reporting on oligarchs, I have found myself in a new strange world where these things are discussed almost as common knowledge.
This is an incredible historical event, even before what followed. Led by Putin, Russia then avenged the “Chechen terrorism” by all but leveling the capital of Chechnya, Grozny.
The next speaker, Arkady Babchenko, had been a soldier in that war and, in cargo pants with nine zippers (I counted) spoke about the power of propaganda. “Most of the crimes were invented,” he said through a translator. “It was a hysteria.” He calls the television Putin’s essential tool: “a box to generate zombies … rigging the human being to an animal state.” And that’s how PutinCon began.
Later we saw:
In one presentation, Aric Toler, an off-the-charts genius, showed how he and his colleagues at BellingCat collected social media video and photos--families posing for the camera and the like--that included some or all of a Russian ground-to-air missile launcher making its way on a flatbed truck across Russia and Ukraine. It appears to have continued close to where a Malaysian Airlines passenger flight was shot down, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Then we saw a video of that same launcher making its way back toward Russia—with one of its four missiles plainly missing. There is a full report online.
A former member of Russian parliament from St. Petersburg, Olga Litvinenko, explained (like UN delegates, the audience had headphones for live translation) the particulars of many of Putin’s misdeeds, with names and dates and conviction. She knew all this because one of Putin’s key accomplices, displayed in massive photos with Putin broadcast on a screen behind her, is her father Vladimir Litvinenko, with whom she was having a custody dispute over her daughter.
But there was no time to linger. Each speaker got 12 minutes—a TED talk, essentially, and the schedule was precise. One speaker was told that if he went over, the chairman of the foundation would haul him off the stage personally.
The Guardian’s Luke Harding, author of Collusion, declared that “noisy patriotism is the puppet project” of the Putin regime, and that the primary and private project is safeguarding the $350 billion or so Putin and his cronies have tucked overseas. Another speaker had a powerpoint slide of how oligarch dollars make their way into the United States—through banks in Cyprus, the Virgin Islands, and into the U.S. through Delaware corporations, or law firms hiding behind attorney-client privilege. In the hallway was a display of politicians around the world who either were in Putin’s pocket or acted like it; then-U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrbacher made the list.
Molly McKew, an expert on information warfare, chilled the audience. Her biography would fit an espionage novel: former adviser to a president of Georgia, founder of a consulting firm that advises governments, and “narrative architect at New Media Frontier, a social media intelligence company.” She said Putin focused on what he saw as “the weakest and most corruptible” part of America: the people. He’s “ruining our view of ourselves.” She talked in military terms, essentially sizing up free people as targets. She spoke quickly and tossed out the word “Gerasimov” to describe a war we may not even know we are in right now. She defines it in a Politico story: “The approach is guerrilla, and waged on all fronts with a range of actors and tools—for example, hackers, media, businessmen, leaks and, yes, fake news, as well as conventional and asymmetric military means. … Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.”
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia, has a background in coding and a zeal for hacking intrigue. He talked of Russia’s hacking the Clinton campaign and leaking the findings, and the strategies of the Internet Research Agency, and groups like Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. His allotted 12 minutes was packed with perhaps too much actionable intelligence: “Oh shit,” he remarked at one point, when his eyes strayed from his voluminous notes to the clock. “I have no time.” But he kept going at least another five minutes, which was worth it when, in closing, he gifted the room the phrase “axis of weasels.”
Various sympathizers sent along videos. Marco Rubio was forceful in denouncing Putin, putting daylight between himself and the head of his party. But while Rubio’s video elicited a groan or two, it was all excited gasps when Alexey Navalny—the man widely seen as most likely to defeat Putin should free and fair elections ever become possible—sent a slick and spirited video, talking earnestly into the camera from his house arrest in Moscow. When it was interrupted three or four times by technical difficulties—the only technical difficulties of the day—all the jokes (were they jokes?) were about Putin meddling.
In the security line, I felt trepidation. By afternoon, adoration. People who loved Russia took incredible risks to make this event happen.
One example: Andrei Soldatov. The survival stats are lousy for Russian journalists who criticize the powers that be. Foreign Affairs called Soldatov and his co-author Irina Borogan “dogged and nervy … detectives tracking down players on all sides.” He has been fired, censored, and repeatedly interrogated for this investigative work, and still lives in Moscow.
Nevertheless there he was on stage, wearing some of the thickest, squarest lenses you have ever seen, telling of the FSB’s tragic and ham-handed handling of a hostage situation that resulted in hundreds dead. (Dig around on the PutinCon website, you can watch almost every presentation.)
My pattern for the day was to listen to speakers, assess who might have a real understanding of Prokhorov, and then try to find them in the hallway. Soldatov moved up the list. The PutinCon schedule is disciplined, the breaks were few and brisk, but sure enough, as attendees clamored over coffee and sparkling water, there was Soldatov, in a thicket of people in the corner by the snack bar, bantering in Russian. I lurked, trying to catch his eye. With my phone entirely off, I could hardly pretend to check it.
Eventually he was free. I told him I was writing about Prokhorov, and the most basic question I had was if he thought I, as a sportswriter, should see Prokhorov as a pawn of Putin.
We had only a few minutes left of the break. The preliminaries of many Prokhorov conversations, with people plugged in to Russian politics, is a reminder that few believe Prokhorov’s presidential run was a genuine effort to counter Putin. (Julia Ioffe writes in the New Yorker that the only question is “whether the Kremlin had requested, or merely blessed” his run.)
On the bigger point, Soldatov muddied the waters: “That’s a very tricky story,” he answered, introducing the word of the day, tricky. “It seems he is a bit smarter than most. His sister is interesting. She is the face of Russian liberal intelligentsia. She is everywhere.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being cagey because he wanted to hide the truth, or was genuinely unsure.
Maybe a different approach. Did Soldatov happen to see Prokhorov’s 2015 blog post on the assassination of Boris Nemtsov?
“I did,” he said.
Here was a topic I thought might clarify things. Nemtsov had once been a Kremlin insider, but by the time of massive street protests in 2010 and 2011 had become, with Kasparov, Navalny and others, a leader of the opposition. Nemtsov wrote a series of reports documenting alleged Kremlin crimes. At the time of his 2015 assassination, on a bridge near the Kremlin, Nemtsov was about to publish a book about the Ukraine titled Putin: War (a version of which was published after his death). Nemtsov was a great friend of Kasparov’s, his name something of a rallying cry for Putin opposition.
Prokhorov told the New Yorker’s Ioffe that his mother taught him to be cool like a boa constrictor. “Calm,” he says, “good mood.” And indeed that’s his mode virtually all the time. It’s part of the reason it’s tough to know what he truly thinks about anything. I know of only one instance where raw emotion tumbled out. As translated by google, Prokhorov blogged this when Nemtsov died:
They killed Boria Nemtsov. My head does not fit, still do not believe.
He lived with an open visor, said everything in his face, was afraid of nothing and no one, did not break under the blows of fate.
And he died like a man. He was shot in the back. The scum did not have the courage to look into his eyes. I grieve with relatives and friends. No more words.
I asked Soldatov if he thinks Prokhorov’s ire, at the death of this icon of Putin opposition, was genuine.
“I do,” he replied.
I posed the question to Soldatov as a test of Prokhorov’s real feelings, a measure of Prokhorov’s allegiance to Putin. The Nets owner was aghast at the death of a man who led rallies against Putin. His sister is a hero to Putin’s staunchest critics. Prokhorov is not, in everything, in lockstep with the Kremlin.
Later, though, I learned that Nemtsov’s death rattled many. Maybe even Putin. Another of Russia’s bold journalists, Mikhail Zygar (“still holding the Putin era to account, despite the obvious dangers” in the words of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour) made this tricky thing trickier. His incredible book All the Kremlin’s Men notes that Putin himself disappeared from public view in early March 2015, just after Nemtsov’s death. Kremlin P.R., Zygar says, began covering for him by posting, as new, photos of Putin meetings that had in fact taken place weeks earlier: “Senior officials whispered to each other that Putin had in fact gone away to ruminate over his next move,” writes Zygar. “It was even rumored that he had gone into hiding because he was afraid for his own life…”
It’s not a story of two camps—pro-Putin vs. anti—but competing factions, and chaos.
In other words, maybe being rattled by Nemtsov’s death means little, as a sign of independence from Putin. But PutinCon has a lot more to teach.
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