Who has the courage to defy Putin?
Like many business leaders, NBA fuzzy on Ukraine invasion
BY HENRY ABBOTT
Former University of Arizona center Kyryl Natyazhko lives in central Ukraine where he is married with a young son. David Thorpe connected us on Wednesday. “It’s very nice to hear from both of you and even more exciting to hear that David still remembers me,” Kyryl replied. “Brings smile to my face that I didn’t have since this situation started to escalate here in Ukraine.” We made a date to talk Thursday morning.
Kyryl played at IMG Academy in Florida, for Sean Miller at Arizona, for Mike Fratello on the Ukrainian national team, and then in the VTB, a very good league with many Russian players and teams. He’s 6-11 and listed at 270 pounds. David remembers him setting bone-crushing screens, while having the skills of a small forward, even if his coaches didn’t always play him that way. His cousin Kyrylo Fesenko played for the Jazz and the Pacers.
On Wednesday, the president of Ukraine took to the television to ask citizens to join in the country’s defense.
At 7:19 am ET Thursday I emailed NBA spokesman Mike Bass asking if the NBA has any statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At 7:45 am ET CNN was wall-to-wall with breaking news of Russian tanks and missiles entering Ukraine from all sides. I naively thought Kyryl must be thankful to be in Dnipro, close to the center of the country. I texted him as promised, asking if it’s a good time to talk. You can see, live on video, missiles and tanks flying into Ukraine.
“Hi Henry,” Kyryl texted almost immediately. “Thanks for getting to me but not at the moment.”
At 7:48 am ET CNN updated its map and shows Dnipro with an icon of fire, marked as “locations local residents reported explosions.”
There’s a lot that’s hard to know. What’s easy to know is that this is bad for regular people, hoping to raise their children in peace. The video shows a huge line, somewhere in Ukraine, of people hoping to withdraw cash. Later there’s video from Mariupol; an early morning wet road that could be anywhere in the world, the morning commute past a guardrail and scrubby plains and powerlines. The vehicles going to school and work, at maybe 30 miles an hour: a Volvo sedan, a fully armored tank ready for battle, and then a little white compact.
The New Yorker quotes Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Harvard: “I imagine there will be extremely strong resistance in central Ukraine. What happened as a result of this war was not just that a Ukrainian identity strengthened, and Ukrainians connected more with their Ukrainian culture, but huge categories of people no longer see the idea of picking up arms for their country as radical. Thousands of people went through military training, and they will fight. I don’t know when and how, but I have no doubt that there will be resistance.”
CNN shows a freeway, somewhere in Ukraine, absolutely jammed with cars as Ukrainians flee, sitting ducks heaven forbid trouble arrives from air or land. I wonder if Kyril’s family is in a car like that.
It’s a cinch to condemn Putin for this, right?
Putin is a leverage machine, making many dither like Neville Chamberlain. Germany needs Russia’s gas. Putin’s own cabinet secretaries who lined up to praise his war plans can’t keep their jobs without him. His cronies have invested in Citibank, Facebook, Apple and a thousand other of the world’s most influential entities. Are there Wall Street firms that crow about rejecting his money? If so, I’m not aware of them.
The rich and powerful have a hard time condemning Putin, including NBA investors. The All In podcast (which we have discussed before when the NBA lost its footing in discussing China), features Warriors investor Chamath Palihapitiya and several other titans of tech. The most recent episode, recorded before the invasion began in earnest, is almost a competition to see who most vigorously praise Putin’s side. David Sacks says it would be “unbelievably irresponsible” to consider deploying US troops. David Friedberg feels that after NATO has been “unbelievably antagonistic” Putin’s move can be seen as playing defense. He also notes that the US fighting Russia would be good for China. Palihapitiya notes that this is “really a European issue,” as someone off-camera notes Putin is “a master chess player.” Sacks concludes that the only reasonable move is for the U.S. to give Putin what he wants, by pledging that Ukraine, (and Georgia, and Moldova) will never join NATO.
Was Putin’s best chess move winning overAmerican tastemakers? It’s well-established the extent of Russian investment in Trump properties, the former president has been strangely supportive of the news that people like former Arizona center Kyryl Natyazhko have missiles and tanks incoming.
World War III might be starting a lot like World War II did—with the leaders of the free world hampered by moneyed business interests eager to let the power dynamics do that they will. FDR had to overrule the ardent wishes of a lot of America's biggest conglomerates to start fighting Hitler, because the conglomerates were in business with Hitler, often secretly and in defiance of law.
The definitive account of Putin’s rise, Putin’s People, was written by Catherine Belton. In August 2020 on TrueHoop, we quoted Belton in the Financial Times in 2012 talking about how an oligarch close to Putin, Suleiman Kerimov, gained influence on Wall Street after the 2007 crash:
Senior western bankers were impressed with Kerimov’s financial agility. They introduced him to the likes of Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, John Mack, the former Morgan Stanley boss, and, later, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs who, according to one of them, has since visited Kerimov’s Moscow residence twice. But privately some have wondered whether there may be more to the mysterious Kerimov than meets the eye. Much speculation has rested on whether he sometimes invests funds for other silent partners – in particular, the Kremlin. “There were times when I wondered whether it was a front for the Kremlin,” said one banker. “Nobody would be surprised if he was,” said another.
Kerimov built significant stakes in Western financial firms like Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Fortis, and Credit Suisse.
At the same time, Yuri Milner became arguably the most influential investor in Silicon Valley, starting with a massive early investment in Facebook. Only later would the extent of his connections to the Kremlin raise eyebrows.
But if the work of the most plugged-in reporters is to be believed, the most valuable Kremlin-tied assets might not be in the sanctioned accounts in Moscow-based banks, but in great chunks of American blue-chippers like Morgan Stanley and Twitter.
Silicon Valley has had extraordinary investment and influence from Moscow, and—intentionally or not, has certainly been useful to Putin. Social media has joined television in Putin’s pro-war propaganda toolbox. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in Ireland yesterday about how Facebook has policies that make things easier for influence operations, including on the Ukraine issue. The tech bros did incredible work making crypto mainstream (Palihapitya brags about a 2013 article he wrote, explaining why he was going big). Now that it’s mainstream cryptocurrency is a ready workaround for Putin to evade sanctions.
But that all pales compared to the influence of Jeffrey Epstein in Silicon Valley. The tech world got to know Epstein through a series of dinners where Milner was prominent. Epstein also later used a Putin devotee—Masha Drokova—for public relations. After he was locked up for sex crimes, Epstein returned to prominence in the Bay Area with a well-attended dinner hosted by Reid Hoffman (a member of the so-called Paypal Mafia along with Elon Musk, Peter Theil, and David Sacks).
Epstein worked with Ghislaine Maxwell, her dad Robert was reportedly one of Epstein’s mentors who helped start him in whatever business he was in. Maxwell had deep ties to the Kremlin. In Craig Unger’s book American Kompromat he explains that Maxwell led an effort to move tremendous amounts of Russian money overseas and into the heart of Western capitalism.
There’s a 20-part series on this website exploring the money that is now at Apollo Global, the NBA’s most important source of cash. By design, the money moves in hard-to-trace ways that echo the unresolved multi-billion dollar BCCI banking scandal, which was called a stealth invasion of the banking industry.
Apollo’s founder and largest shareholder, Leon Black, stepped down after it was revealed he had funded Epstein for years. Josh Harris of the 76ers and Tony Ressler of the Hawks also worked and made their fortunes at Apollo, which has many ties to Putin’s network. Black told the Senate Intelligence Committee he met repeatedly with Kerimov’s “consigliere” and ran into Steve Bannon while there. Bannon has deep ties to Epstein and is squarely on Putin’s side. Black reportedly once met Putin himself, and served for a while on the board of the Putin-controlled Russia Direct Investment Fund. Epstein, Unger reports, had the help of a Russian intelligence-connected fixer in securing the services of young Russian women, who flew to New York and got cabs to Epstein’s mansion. True or not, Epstein told a reporter he visited Putin often.
Putin also has deep business and political ties to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The head of the UAE met secretly with Trump’s transition team, in defiance of the Obama administration, to advocate Putin-friendly policies. He reportedly stopped visiting the U.S. out of fears he would get wrapped up in the Mueller investigation.
Putin high-fived the head of Saudi Arabia as the world was reeling in aftermath of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
With skyrocketing oil prices, Saudi Arabia has just been called the big winner of Putin’s move into Ukraine.
All of that serves as a backdrop to news that a giant Emirates-based fund deepened its investment in Apollo just a few days ago. The United Arab Emirates has been called a global hotbed of money laundering. There’s no great way to know whose money might be involved.
I wonder if billionaires who stand to benefit from Putin’s influence can afford to say negative things about Putin. People tend to root for their own portfolios. But today, when it’s so clear who’s in the wrong, it’s hard to believe the pro-Putin arguments will go far with regular people. They’re taking to the streets in Putin’s home town of St. Petersburg.
The NBA has not responded to my email, I don’t know the league’s position on Putin’s invasion.
I also haven’t heard from Kyryl. I hope he’s OK.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop.