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Report: Russia Exploits Western Legal Systems, Institutions To Its Advantage

Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France. Critics say Russia abuses its membership in the organization.
Laurent Cipriani
Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France. Critics say Russia abuses its membership in the organization.

Updated at 10:10 a.m. ET

Russia has spent years exploiting institutions and legal systems in the West to target critics, invalidate court decisions and roll back sanctions, according to allegations in a new report.

The report by the Free Russia Foundation describes the lengths to which it says the Kremlin has gone to undermine the West using international law and accounting firms, foreign officials, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations from New York to Latvia.

Among many accusations, the foundation says that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported "hundreds" of Russians seeking refuge, based on Moscow's abuse of international protocols, including Interpol's " red notice," which allows a member country to seek an arrest by another member.

Ted Bromund, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told researchers that ICE has arrested people "for the immigration violation that the Red Notice creates, which comes very close to allowing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to pick his targets on ICE's behalf."

Law enforcement and migration offices are faced with a difficult choice to either heed sometimes unverifiable requests or risk neglecting real terrorism threats, the Free Russia Foundation says.

The report was timed for release on Russia Day, a national holiday. The Free Russia Foundation, a Washington-headquartered organization staffed with dissidents, planned to unveil its work on Wednesday, the day before an event at the Capitol Visitor Center.

"The Kremlin understands psychology. They understand Western fears — security, the fight with terrorism," founder and president Natalia Arno says. "They are infiltrating the fabric of democracy."

Arno described how, in 2012, she was told at gunpoint that she could work for Russia's security services, spend 20 years in prison or leave the country in 48 hours. Since then she has worked to document what she calls abuses by the Russian government under Putin.

Pattern of abuse

The alleged victims in Russia's exploitation of international systems aren't just political adversaries and critics, the report says. They include Western investors, foreign prosecutors and a family that fled to Guatemala.

The report also mentions a unit in the U.S. Treasury Department that reportedly had an agreement that went awry with Russia's Federal Service for Financial Monitoring.

According to a 2018 BuzzFeed report, the plan was to share information on institutions suspected of providing financial support to ISIS, but Russians used the arrangement to probe U.S. workers for financial information on dissidents, scholars and investigators.

"I was told by a journalist from BuzzFeed that one of the requests was about me," says Ilya Zaslavskiy, head of research at the Free Russia Foundation. "[It's] pretty crazy because I've never been to the Middle East and I'm Russian Jewish."

He says the organization sent inquiries to the U.S. government. "We still don't know if the U.S. Treasury passed any information or not."

European complications

Researchers also accuse Russia of using Western policymakers "to actively defy their own legal traditions."

That was what happened in Belgium and France after the Russian government grabbed Yukos, an oil company.

A court in The Hague gave Yukos shareholders a major victory, ordering Moscow to pay them more than $50 billion or have foreign assets seized. The Russian Foreign Ministry threatened to snatch the Belgian Embassy in Moscow, inciting a series of maneuvers by the Belgian government to stop some of its own enforcement efforts.

In the wake of similar retaliatory threats, French lawmakers adopted legislation to protect foreign assets against seizures, dubbed the " Putin amendment" by detractors.

There are also examples of how Russians sought legal help from international law firms that previously represented their opponents.

Additionally, the report discusses a shadowy private military company, called the Wagner Group, that's linked to Putin's "chef" and is said to be operating on the ground in Syria, the Central African Republic and Venezuela. The foundation says it enables Russia to operate militarily abroad without the "messiness" of international criticism.

Josh Rudolph, an illicit-finance fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says Putin has spent the past decade "going global" after destroying Russia's nascent rule of law and democracy. He was not involved in the report.

"The Kremlin and its proxies now undermine democracies everywhere by enriching elites, bankrolling illiberal populists, building energy dependence, funding networks of friendly non-governmental organizations and media outlets, and empowering fringe elements like paramilitaries," he said by email.

Among the speakers scheduled for this week's event were Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R- Ill., and Daniel Kimmage, a leader of the State Department unit tasked with combating foreign propaganda.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 12, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier photo credit misspelled photographer Laurent Cipriani's last name as Cirpiani.
Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.
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