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Rinat Akhmetshin, the potential Russian spy who met Donald Trump Jr., explained

A Glimpse Into Life In Russia Today (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Rinat Akhmetshin is a Russian-American lobbyist who, by his own admission, worked as a military counterintelligence officer for the Soviet Union before its fall.

He also attended Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, before which Trump was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton that came from the Russian government. The Trump team had, until NBC News broke the story on Friday, never mentioned that there were any other Russian nationals at the meeting.

As a result, Akhmetshin is now the most speculated-about man in American politics. Veselnitskaya herself was a lawyer who had previously represented the Kremlin government but was not literally a Russian state employee. If an actual Russian spy was at the meeting, that would bring the Russian government’s ties to the Trump campaign one gigantic step closer.

So is Akhmetshin a Russian spy? He denies the charge, of course — but that’s what any spy would do (Akhmetshin did not respond to an emailed request for comment). So all we have to go on is what’s publicly available: reporting and documents on his roughly 20-year lobbying career in Washington.

That record is not conclusive either way. But it does suggest that there is, at least, a plausible case that Akhmetshin was involved in Russia’s election interference campaign. An April letter penned by Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, accuses him of having “ties to Russian intelligence.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Russia-friendly California Republican, told CNN that Akhmetshin had "international connections to different groups in Russia” and that "I would certainly not rule [him being a spy] out."

And court documents uncovered by the Daily Beast allege that Akhmetshin masterminded the hack and dissemination of private documents belonging to a mining company in 2013.

So while nothing is proven, the information that’s come to light since Akhmetshin’s attendance at the meeting was exposed on Friday morning only raises more questions about his background and motivation for being at the meeting. The furor over Akhmetshin may turn out to a tempest in teapot — or a Category Five hurricane.

Akhmetshin is a shadowy character in Washington

Akhmetshin’s time as an out-and-out intelligence officer was, by his account, brief. He told the Associated Press he was drafted into the Soviet army in 1986 and was sent to a unit “loosely part of counterintelligence.” He served there until 1988, when he was discharged.

Several years later, he moved to America — where he’s been working as a lobbyist since at least 1998. Akhmetshin’s work centered on issues relating to the former Soviet Union, but he also developed a reputation as a flamboyant operator: a “man about town,” as the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe puts it. He was known both for riding a bright orange bicycle around Washington and for orchestrating lobbying campaigns with heavy PR components aimed at discrediting his clients’ enemies.

“In 2011, Akhmetshin was accused of helping to organize a smear campaign against former Russian Duma deputy Ashot Egiazaryan, who had sought political asylum in the United States in the face of criminal charges in Russia related to a business dispute,” Radio Free Europe’s Mike Eckel writes in an excellent profile of Akhmetshin.

Sometimes these campaigns got vicious. Court filings from the Egiazaryan case reviewed by Eckel allege that Akhmetshin placed an op-ed in a Jewish newspaper tarring the Russian lawmaker as an anti-Semite.

The allegations of hacking grew out of a 2013 dispute between two chemical companies — International Mineral Resources (IMR) and Eurochem Volgakaliy (Eurochem for short), both of which were owned by Russian oligarchs. Eurochem alleged that a subsidiary of IMR had defrauded them in a mining deal. The lawyers representing Eurochem hired Akhmetshin to help them build their case.

According to a lawsuit filed by IMR against Akhmetshin, he broke the law in doing so. According to a private investigator retained by IMR’s attorneys, Akhmetshin bragged in a London coffee shop that “he [had] organized the hacking of IMR's computer systems.” IMR’s attorneys also produced a thumb drive containing their documents, which appeared to have been accessed by Akhmetshin and a colleague.

Akhmetshin denied all the charges — but his phrasing was interesting. “It is not possible that I was overheard saying that I was turning over documents that I had hacked from an IMR or ENRC computer, because I have never done so, nor do I have the skills to do so,” he said, according to a 2015 court document. But no one was accusing him of doing the hacking, just of organizing it. You don’t need technical skills to pay a hacker to do your dirty work.

Perhaps even more tellingly, he claimed he got the thumb drive full of stolen documents from the “London Information Bazaar,” which the court documents describe as an “informal market for sensitive financial, political, and other information that exists in London.” That means that even if Akhmetshin did not organize the hacking, he admits openly that he’s familiar with ways to get shady information.

IMR ultimately withdrew its lawsuit against Akhmetshin. But the case, and the rest of his history, seems to establish that he’s a man who a) spent time in the intelligence world, even if only briefly; b) has experience working in Washington on behalf of former Soviet states and oligarchs; and c) knows at least a little bit about how to acquire and distribute sensitive information.

These are certainly the sort of qualifications the Kremlin would look for when staffing a team to intervene in the US election.

The direct evidence of Akhmetshin’s involvement with the Kremlin is thin — but his explanation for the Trump meeting is questionable

As dubious as Akhmetshin’s past is, there’s no direct evidence showing that he’s in the Kremlin’s employ. There wouldn’t be, of course: It’s not like the Kremlin posts a list on the internet with all the names of its operatives in Washington.

But it’s his most recent lobbying campaign, a furious effort to undermine a US sanctions law against Russia called the Magnitsky Act, that is raising questions about his current ties to the Kremlin.

Originally passed in 2012, the Magnitsky law empowers the US president to slap sanctions on anyone he or she believes to be involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky — a Russian attorney who uncovered a $230 million money laundering scheme involving Russian government officials and then was killed while in Russian state custody. It also gives the president the ability to sanction any Russian officials who were involved in similar murder schemes in the future.

Because the law directly targets specific high-level Russian officials and businesspeople, its passage made the Kremlin absolutely furious. After it was passed, the Russian government retaliated with its own kind of sanctions — banning Americans from adopting Russian children.

In 2016, Akhmetshin was hired by an organization called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGIF), essentially an anti-Magnitsky pressure group. And here’s where things get really tricky from a Trump Jr.-Russia perspective.

HRAGIF was founded by a Russian businessman named Denis Katsyv. His father, Pyotr Katsyv, is a not-insignificant Russian state official, serving as both minister for transportation and vice premier of the Moscow region from 2004 to 2012. The attorney who represented the Katsyv family, and served alongside Akhmetshin as one of HRAGIF’s leading lobbyists, was none other than Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Yes, that Natalia Veselnitskaya — the one who attended the Trump Jr. meeting.

These facts allow for one of two interpretations.

The first is that Veselnitskaya really was trying to meet with Donald Trump Jr. just to talk about adoptions, as Don has long claimed. In that scenario, the meeting was essentially part of anti-Magnitsky lobbying: Veselnitskaya was trying to feel out if the Trump team would be willing to lift Magnitsky sanctions in exchange for the Kremlin lifting its adoption ban. Akhmetshin was brought along to help her make sense of the meeting.

This appears to basically be Akhmetshin’s story — and, if true, would suggest that he was merely lobbying on behalf of Russian interests, not working as a Russian spy.

“[Akhmetshin] said he had learned about the meeting only that day when Veselnitskaya asked him to attend,” the Associated Press reports. “He said he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.”

The second, darker interpretation is that the Magnitsky lobbying was only one of Akhmetshin’s goals. That Akhmetshin and perhaps also Veselnitskaya were being paid by the Russian government both to work against sanctions and to figure out if the Trump campaign would be interested in colluding with their campaign against Hillary Clinton. This is not a crazy scenario, at least according to one intelligence professional.

“In this case, the meeting is allegedly to discuss the Magnitsky Act,” Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative, told my colleague Sean Illing. “What do you do here if you're the Russians? You send someone who is a private lawyer into what might theoretically be a legitimate, aboveboard meeting, and you inject an intelligence officer or intelligence objectives into that meeting. That appears to be what happened in this case.”

Akhmetshin’s lobbying work against the Magnitsky Act is in itself fairly suggestive — after all, who else would want it lifted but the Russian government? It’s the work that led both Sen. Grassley and Rep. Rohrabacher to wonder about Akhmetshin’s connection to the Russian government. Grassley, in his April 2017 letter, said the Senate Judiciary Committee was investigating claims that Akhmetshin was “acting as an unregistered agent for Russian interests.”

This theory also makes sense out of the fact Trump Jr.’s meeting with Veselnitskaya was billed as an opportunity to receive potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Russian government source. And there’s a part of Akhmetshin’s own story, as reported by the AP, that makes this seem more plausible:

During the meeting, Akhmetshin said Veselnitskaya brought with her a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democratic National Committee. Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to the Trump associates and suggested that making the information public could help the Trump campaign, he said.

Why would an anti-sanctions lobbyist have information on DNC finances? Where did she get them if not the Russian government — more specifically, from emails stolen by Russian government hackers from the DNC servers?

We don’t, right now, have enough information to determine which of the two scenarios is closer to accurate. We only have the word of the participants of the meeting to go on so far, and none of them have any incentive to tell the truth if it’s the worst-case scenario. Moreover, Trump Jr. has a repeated habit of lying and omitting the truth about this meeting — which is why we’re only just now finding out about Akhmetshin’s participation in the first place.

But what we do know about Akhmetshin suggests that, at a minimum, we cannot rule out him working as a direct agent of the Russian government. Only more investigation — from reporters, Congress, and the FBI — will be able to get to the bottom of this, one way or another.