The FBI are scrutinising the December meeting between Kushner and the head of Vnesheconombank, the US-sanctioned bank that funds Putin’s pet projects
When it first emerged that Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had met Sergei Gorkov, the head of Russian state investment bank Vnesheconombank, after the presidential election, the meeting was not a focus of the FBI investigation into possible Russian collusion.
But this week it became known that investigators are now scrutinising the December meeting with the enigmatic banker, a graduate of the academy of Russia’s main intelligence agency whose Vnesheconombank funds Vladimir Putin’s pet projects.
The White House and the bank have offered differing accounts of the Kushner-Gorkov sit-down. While the White House said Kushner met Gorkov and other foreign representatives as a transition official to “help advance the president’s foreign policy goals.” Vnesheconombank, also known as VEB, said it was part of talks with business leaders about the bank’s development strategy. It said Kushner was representing Kushner companies, his family real estate empire.
Officials close to the investigation have said the half-hour meeting, which was requested by Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, may have been part of efforts to establish a secret channel of communication between the Trump administration and the Kremlin.
Investigators will now have to try to determine what role Gorkov plays in the US-Russian relationship, despite his low profile and checkered biography.
Gorkov and Vnesheconombank have had ties to Russia’s spy apparatus.
Evgeny Buryakov, a Vnesheconombank employee who was based in New York, pleaded guilty to espionage charges in 2016 after being accused of gathering sensitive economic intelligence and trying to recruit intelligence sources for Russia. He was released early from prison and deported in April.
Gorkov has given few public remarks over his career, but former colleagues have described him as a skilled manager with likely intelligence connections.
“For me, it’s obvious that he’s a Kremlin agent, he’s not just a banker,” said Pavel Ivlev, who became acquainted with Gorkov when they both worked for the ill-fated Yukos oil company. The fact that his former colleague emerged unscathed from the prosecution of Yukos for tax evasion and went on to head the state development bank shows he has the absolute trust of the Kremlin, he added. Ivlev fled to the United States to avoid prosecution.
“Besides the general stuff, Gorkov could have passed on a message that was entrusted to him by the Kremlin. What exactly, and how Kushner reacted we don’t know,” Ivlev said.
When asked by journalists about the Kushner meeting at the St Petersburg economic forum this week, Gorkov said it was “normal practice” for him to meet with foreign companies, but declined to say more. Vnesheconombank declined requests for comment for this story.
Gorkov could be considered an example of the “new nobility” of people tied to the security services who dominate the highest levels of government and business under former KGB agent Putin.
Born in the Orenburg region in 1968, he studied at the academy of the federal security service, or FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency. But by the time he graduated in 1994, the Soviet Union had dissolved and the agency was in disarray.
He went into business instead, finding a job as head of human resources at Menatep Bank, the main investment vehicle of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In 1997, Gorkov became head of human resources at Khodorkovsky’s oil giant Yukos, an influential position that made him the “eyes of the leadership” on what was going on inside the company, Ivlev said.
But after the oligarch began getting involved in politics and clashed with Putin, Yukos was hit with tax evasion charges and broken up starting in 2004.
According to Ivlev, Yukos’s top brass were forced to either testify against Khodorkovsky or follow him to prison.
For some reason, Gorkov didn’t face this choice. Dmitry Gololobov, the former head of the Yukos legal department, told RBC newspaper that Gorkov didn’t give testimony during the investigation. Meanwhile, a subordinate of Gorkov’s, Alexei Kurtsin, was sent to prison for eight years.
Taken with his FSB training, Gorkov’s escape from the Yukos disaster led many to assume he had friends in the secret services. He served on the boards of two companies in London but returned to Russia in 2006, where he joined the board of Fesco, a transport company owned by former fuel and energy minister Sergei Generalov.
In 2008, he then moved to the state-owned commercial bank Sberbank, overseeing the bank’s acquisition of foreign assets including Austria’s Volksbank and Turkey’s DenizBank and earning a reputation as a gifted manager.
In 2016, Putin appointed him director of Vnesheconombank, which often serves a piggy bank for Moscow’s pet projects and has a supervisory board headed by the prime minister.
“It sends government financing to projects that the government defines … and the head of Vnesheconombank is a de facto government official of the rank of minister or deputy minister,” said Vladimir Tikhomirov, an economist at financial group BKS.
Gorkov took over in a time of trouble. Due to its problematic loans to projects in war-torn eastern Ukraine and at the Sochi Olympics, as well as complications from the 2014 rouble collapse, the bank was loss-making and burdened by debts of nearly £20bn. US sanctions against Vnesheconombank over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine prevent it from issuing new bonds to raise cash.
For that reason, Gorkov most likely discussed sanctions with Kushner, bringing a business angle on the problem “different from the diplomatic view that the foreign ministry conveys,” Tikhomirov said.
Did the talks go beyond that? Although Kislyak would be the more likely choice, Gorkov could potentially have been tasked with discussing the establishment of a secret communication channel, according to Stanislav Belkovsky, an analyst formerly connected to the Kremlin.
“It’s possible, because Putin would want to create this, and businessmen would be involved,” Belkovsky said. “Putin likes to discuss issues confidentially through business connections, and Kushner could be used in this.”
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