A dozen prominent anti-Kremlin thinkers and activists have published an open letter condemning a major Washington research organization for hosting 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 President Vladimir Putin.
The Atlantic Council, which hosted Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, principals of the U.S.-sanctioned Alfa Group, published the condemnatory letter on its website before the private dinner Monday, which was internally billed as "an outlook for the Russian economy in an era of escalating sanctions."
The open letter criticizing the Atlantic Council, co-signed by major Kremlin detractors such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and prominent scholars Andrei Piontkovsky and Sarah Chayes, was published in tandem with an Atlantic Council response, in which it defended its decision. The council said that "in order to do our work well — in this case concerning Russia — we need the best information and the best networks possible."
"With that in mind, meeting with Aven and Fridman in a private setting makes perfect sense," wrote John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. "They are very well-connected people who can provide a wealth of insight."
The critics, while crediting the Atlantic Council's agreement to publish their letter of protest, and recognizing the value of dialogue "even with one's adversaries," insisted the format of the meeting represented 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," they said.
Not seen as 'independent' businessmen
"We believe there is plenty of open-source and reliable information clearly demonstrating that these oligarchs are neither 'private' nor 'independent businessmen' as they try to present themselves in various Western venues, but are in fact close associates of Putin's," the letter continued. "It is in this particular capacity that we believe they arrived in the U.S. capital to try to affect U.S. sanctions policy."
The open letter concluded by imploring those who would attend the dinner to press the Russian bankers about their personal ties to Putin.
The Atlantic Council said the dinner was not a "a sweetheart platform," and that its private meetings are "known for their candor, possible because they are private."
"The Council's work over the past four years has been characterized by its clear-eyed view of the Kremlin's dangerous foreign policy and it has led the charge on sanctions policy, Kremlin disinformation and arming Ukraine," he said. "I don't think anyone would regard us a soft touch on Russia."
The organization has repeatedly hosted or cited the work of signatories to the open letter.
According to the dinner program, Clay Barry, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and Joe Wang, director for Russia at the National Security Council, were in attendance.
Aven, a onetime Russian minister of foreign economic relations who went on to head Alfa Bank, Russia's largest private sector bank, has an estimated net worth of nearly $5 billion. Fridman, Alfa Bank's founder, has an estimated net worth of $14 billion, according to Forbes' real-time wealth estimator.
Both men are named in the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, the U.S. law tied to allegations of Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Event moderator Anders Aslund, resident senior fellow of the group's Eurasia Center, organized the talk. He described Aven and Fridman as "old friends" with whom he routinely meets.
"They come here fairly often.They just want to know what's happening in D.C., and this is natural," he told VOA's Russian service."We talked about Russian economy and how it is affected by the sanctions. I won't say more because it was off the record. We don't share what was said."
As a policy, the Atlantic Council does not publish transcripts of closed events.
Views on sanctions' impact
On Tuesday, Riga-based Meduza reported that Fridman and Aven “plan to meet with several congressmen to relay the Kremlin’s current position on sanctions and countersanctions.”
When asked whether Aven and Fridman aimed to represent Kremlin views at the meeting, Aslund, who helped compile information for targeted U.S. sanctions, said all parties met only to exchange perspectives on the resulting economic impact.
He also said Aven and Fridman didn't deserve to be named on the U.S. Treasury's so-called "Putin list" of oligarchs individually targeted for sanctions.
"The list the Treasury Department published on January 29 is just a joke, a bad joke of the Trump administration," Aslund said, referring to the widely reported evidence that the list was copied from Forbes' list of 96 Russians with estimated net worths of at least $1 billion.
Although the Treasury document technically remains legally binding, Aslund insisted that "it doesn't mean anything," even if other Russian oligarchs, such as aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and businessman Viktor Vekselberg, have subsequently been sanctioned as a result.
"There is a huge legal difference," Aslund said. "Deripaska and Vekselberg are under sanctions. Fridman and Aven are not."
Ilya Zaslavskiy of the Free Russia Foundation, however, points to a 2012 joint investigation conducted by Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Barron’s and Novaya Gazeta, which links Alfa Bank to Kremlin money-laundering activities that led U.S. legislators to enact the Magnitsky Act.
“They practically withdrew their money from Russian taxpayers and are now helping the Kremlin invest in strategic facilities and co-opt the Western elites bypassing sanctions,” Zaslavskiy, a former Chatham House fellow on Eurasian affairs and signatory to the open letter, told VOA.
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.
This story originated in VOA's Russian Service.