The Kremlin on Thursday said that Alfa Bank principals were not representing interests of the Kremlin or President Vladimir Putin at a recent closed-door meeting with the leadership of a major Washington think tank.
VOA reported Wednesday that the Atlantic Council hosted an off-the-record round-table dinner for two oligarchs listed on a U.S. Treasury-issued registry of 210 wealthy Russians identified as close to Putin, which was published in January.
The private event, which was internally billed as an open-ended discussion about “the Russian economy in an era of escalating sanctions,” featured billionaire bankers Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman of the previously U.S.-sanctioned Alfa Group, Russia’s largest private lender.
Aven's and Fridman's attendance drew criticism from a dozen prominent anti-Kremlin thinkers and activists, who published an open letter condemning the event as an ethical breach.
“The meeting should take place only on the condition that the oligarchs do not get to select the audience along with a friendly moderator, and that critical questions can be asked,” said the open letter, which also expressed concern that Aven and Fridman “arrived in the U.S. capital to try to affect U.S. sanctions policy.”
The Atlantic Council, which published the critical letter on its own website in tandem with its response defending its decision, said the dinner was not “a sweetheart platform,” and that the think tank’s private meetings are “known for their candor, possible because they are private.”
Atlantic Council officials, who have routinely hosted or cited the work of signatories to the critical letter, pointed out that all Alfa principals were removed from an updated list of Russian billionaires targeted by U.S. sanctions.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Aven and Fridman were representing their own business interests.
“They are by no means Putin envoys,” Peskov was quoted as saying in Russian news reports. “In this case they represented one of the largest business entities in Russia and only this entity. Of course they cannot represent the president of Russia.”
On Tuesday, Riga-based Meduza reported that Aven and Fridman had planned “to meet with several congressmen to relay the Kremlin's current position on sanctions and countersanctions.”
Both men are named in the controversial Steele dossier, which details alleged connections between President Donald Trump's election campaign and Kremlin operatives, and both men are named in CAATSA, the U.S. sanctions law tied to allegations of Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Neither was ever sanctioned individually, and both have filed multiple defamation suits over being named in the Steele dossier.
Despite Alfa Group’s well-established ties to Putin — Aven openly acknowledges a friendship with the Russian president that spans decades, and Reuters has reported that children of Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov work for his company — the Alfa principals were notably absent from the updated list of Russian entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury on April 6.
Ekho Moskvy radio on Thursday cited unnamed sources familiar with the Atlantic Council talks, who said that that Aven and Fridman predicted Russia’s economy would continue its decline despite high oil prices, largely as a result of “irreversible structural changes” and brain drain.
Aven and Fridman have a combined estimated wealth of nearly $20 billion.
This story originated in VOA's Russian service.