A mysterious encounter on the side of the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, is likely to take place between Russian president Vladimir Putin and U.S. president Donald Trump.
Once again, as was the case when they met in Helsinki in July 2018, there may be no notes taken and no assistants in the room and, consequently, we may never know what was said and what was agreed.
Overshadowing this meeting are continuing concerns that Putin has found ways to compromise, indeed blackmail, Trump.
There is no hard evidence to support this view. However, Trump’s continuous friendly comments about Putin and his secretive conversations with him have generated suspicions.
The FBI remains silent about the findings of a counterintelligence investigation that it opened in early 2017.
Trump has publicly contradicted himself in various interviews and Tweets recently as to whether he would welcome foreign (that is Russian) information against his Democratic Party opponents as the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign proceeds.
He has brushed aside suggestions that accepting such information would violate U.S. election laws.
The U.S. president has ignored all of the evidence in the April report by special counsel Robert Mueller of enormous Russian engagement in the years leading to the November 2016 election. Instead, he has stated that he trusts Putin who told him there was no interference.
Trump agreed, with a big smile across his face, in a long and wide-ranging interview with U.S. NBC TV reporter Chuck Todd that was fully aired on Sunday, June 23, that he would raise the subject of Russian interference in U.S. elections when he meets Putin in Japan.
Sanctions and cash
Mueller did not investigate the Trump Organization’s financial dealings with Russia, or large-scale acquisitions of Trump owned properties in the United States by wealthy Russians.
Investigations now being pursued by New York State authorities and by Congressional committees may provide information on such matters as Trump’s taxes, as well as his many ties to Deutsche Bank.
Some of these investigations have now been going on for more than a year.
In addition, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank has been investigating whether Deutsche Bank was involved in transactions that saw it move Russian funds through the Estonian branch of Danske Bank into New York accounts. Deutsche is under a further set of investigations by European authorities.
And further aspects of the dirty cash investigations in the United States embrace Deutsche Bank’s involvement in possible transactions with Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who headed a family real estate firm and who is now a senior White House advisor.
It seems likely that Putin will try and convince Trump to lift U.S. financial sanctions on major Russian enterprises and the close circle of Putin’s multi-billionaire friends.
Few issues anger Putin as much as this one, but it is difficult to see just what Trump may ask for in return to pledging an effort to curb sanctions – perhaps a private Putin promise of further help to Trump in the 2020 U.S. elections.
Or perhaps Russian support for Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” against Iran?
The importance to Putin of seeing the United States lift sanctions cannot be underestimated. The issue is prominent in the Mueller report. It is a critical and compelling feature of extensive research contained in a brand new book by Atlantic Council scholar Anders Aslund – “Russia’s Crony Capitalism.”
Drawing upon multiple sources, Aslund suggests that the private investments held by Russians in real estate and other assets in the West could be around $800 billion, and: “Putin personally holds tens of billions of dollars of assets abroad, probably in the range of $100 billion to $160 billion.”
Aslund notes that many of Putin’s friends and associates have created opaque complex sets of offshore holding companies to launder the cash and invest it and that a significant portion of these funds belongs to Putin himself.
So, when Putin forcefully argues against Western sanctions, he is not just doing this on behalf of his friends, but he sees himself as a victim as well.
Many Trump properties are registered in the names of holding companies that mask the identities of the true owners, although Russians are thought to be particularly prominent at Trump properties in New York and in Florida.
Putin has every reason to try and see that the United States continues to allow such real estate investment secrecy and Trump may have personal financial reasons to share this view.
Surprisingly he has been silent, so far, as legislation to secure beneficial ownership of assets in the U.S. has recently been gathering bi-partisan support in both houses of the U.S. Congress.
The FACT Coalition, representing approximately 100 different organizations, has been lobbying hard for this legislation and secured formidable political and business support.
A transatlantic effort
This comes at a time when greater efforts to curb money laundering, investigate banks and pressure offshore havens to be more transparent are being seen on both sides of the Atlantic.
For example, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK’s House of Commons has recently warned that Putin is striving to undermine British security and it has argued that both sanctions on Russia and UK anti-money laundering regulations need to be strengthened.
If there is one thing that Putin and his cronies do not like it is transparency (while Trump is going to extreme lengths to keep his own finances secret).
The question is – will Trump in this week’s meeting provide Putin with any joy when it comes to lifting those sanctions and keeping a tight lid on Russian investments across the world?