Putin’s point man in Congress

28 February 2018, 15:59

In this old photograph, a middle-aged man with a beard looks at the camera, smiling. He’s wearing a traditional Afghani tribal outfit: a vest and pakol. Equally traditionally for Afghanistan is the machine-gun in his hands—a Kalshnikov. Only this isn’t a mujahideen or a Taliban fighter. It’s US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. A Republican from California, shortly after his first election Rohrabacher took time off and went to fight against communism on the side of the Afghan fighters. It was an understandable move on the part of a former special assistant to the notoriously hawkish Ronald Reagan. A journalist by profession, Rohrabacher’s main task was writing speeches for Reagan. Later he decided to enter politics himself.

Nearly 71, Rohrabacher is now one of the grey beards of American politics. And yet, even though he was shortlisted for the post of Secretary of State by the Trump Administration, his next career move, which is coming up soon, will likely be retirement. In the meantime, though, Rohrabacher is holding on tightly to his seat, including the chair of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats under the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.  

What threats in Europe might be a man who fought against the soviet army somewhere outside Jellalabad see? Yes, indeedy. Rohrabacher thinks the main threat to Europe are the armed neo-Nazis who came to power in Ukraine after the Euromaidan and are now, as soldiers in private oligarch armies, busy killing the peaceful residents of Donbas with impunity. At least that’s the kind of thing he stated at hearings by former State Department official Victoria Nuland and ex-US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. And the only peacemaker that Rohrabacher believes capable of bringing order to the region is…Russia.

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Interestingly, Rohrabacher also says the Kremlin should not be blamed for interfering in US elections because the US is no pinnacle of morality or innocent, either, and has frequently taken upon itself to interfere in the political affairs of other countries. He has expressed annoyance at American politicians who see Moscow as the enemy and he has very heatedly insisted that the US should improve its relations with the Russian government. After Donald Trump was elected president, Rohrabacherk announced that there was nothing weird about his wish to “be friends with” Russia.

How did this hawkish Republican ever turn into Vladimir Putin’s biggest fan? The answer to this may be found in recent developments around the Magnitsky Act. When asked by The Ukrainian Week to comment, Bill Browder, the British financier and Russia investor whose who had hired the late Sergei Magnitsky as his lawyer, said:

“Putin is highly motivated to stop the Magnitsky Act from spreading to new countries and to stop it from being implemented in countries where the law has been passed. He uses many methods to do this. First and foremost, he makes grand threats about Russian retaliation if any country passes it. Sometimes those threats are credible, as in the case of the US, where Russia cancelled adoptions of Russian orphans by US families. In some cases the threats are empty, like with Canada, where Russia has so far done nothing. In the cases of the US, Canada and the U.K., the threats haven’t worked, but we’ve seen Ireland, for example, back down from Magnitsky legislation because of the threats.”

In addition to threatening other countries, the Kremlin uses less obvious but no less effective means—politicians that are in its pocket to broadcast the necessary views of things. It came to light that, during his several visits to the Russian Federation, Congressman Rohrabacher was given information directly from the Russian government, including officials at the Prosecutor General’ Office, as well as from Vladimir Yakunin, a Putin insider and a one-time boss of the Russian state railway. Yakunin was famous for being critical of “the consumer society imposed by the West,” but was then exposed for having a storage closet full of luxury furs and an exceptionally lavish lifestyle. More recently, Yakunin’s name joined the US sanctions list.

In addition to Yakunin, Rohrabacher managed to meet with Denis Katsyv, a Moscow-based businessman and the son of a former RF Minister of Transport. Katsyv’s company, Prevezon Holdings, was involved to a money-laundering case that it settled with the US Department of Justice in May 2017 for US $5.9mn in fines. Interestingly, Prevezon was represented by attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who just happened to be a go-between during the handover of compromising materials against the Democratic Party to Donald Trump Jr in summer 2016. Rohrabacher admitted to these meetings, but claimed that nothing illegal was discussed at them. Still, after he returned to the US, he tried to actively use these materials to get the Magnitsky Act withdrawn.

“Mr. Rohrabacher seems to be highly interested in repealing the Magnitsky Act and promoting the FSB’s version of events in Congress,” says Browder. “He advocated against me and Sergei Magnitsky in many congressional meetings.” Rohrabacher also organized the film screening of an anti-Magnitsky film on Capitol Hill called “The Magnitsky Act—Behind the Scenes” that was supposed to expose Browder as a swindler. “He also presented amendments to Magnitsky legislation to try to have Sergei Magnitsky’s name removed from the law,” adds Browder.

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In effect, Rohrabacher was using the same toolkit as the ill-treated investor. For instance, he hired lobbyists to reach key members of the Senate and Congress. They, in turn, tried to promote the Russian view of events around the murdered lawyer, to prove that he was nothing more than a thief. One of the most curious of these lobbyists was a certain Rinat Akhmetshin, a soviet-born American lobbyist who was officially hired by Katsyv’s NGO to lobby for the adoption of Russian children to be restored.

However, Akhmetshin’s interests went somewhat further than the fate of unfortunate orphans. During soviet times, he was a counterintelligence officer and engaged in “active measures,” including propaganda and disinformation. Akhmetshin met with Rohrabacher and helped him in his efforts. The congressman himself claimed that he was only trying to “find the truth” and avoid unjustified accusations against Moscow. Rohrabacher also meets often with Julian Assange and has been working to gain him an amnesty. He has consistently denied claims that Russia interfered in any way in the US election, which has gained him the unofficial title of “Putin’s favorite congressman.”

“Again, none of this has worked,” says Browder, “but he definitely tried and he hasn’t given up.”

In his crusade, Rohrabacher is a relatively frequent and welcome guest on Russian state-owned media like Russia Today. There he often makes pronouncements that are in line with statements made by Russian FM Sergei Lavrov or Putin. It’s hard to say when his enthusiasm for Russia began. Possibly after an official visit to Moscow in 2013 as part of the commission investigating the Boston Bomber. Or in 2016 after the series of visits and his speech at the Federation Council. Or maybe years earlier, after he got drunk and lost a game of arm-wrestling to Vladimir Putin himself—who was then just the little-known deputy mayor of St. Petersburg under Anatoliy Sobchak. It may have come a bit late, but in October 2017, the Foreign Relations Committee finally prohibited Rohrabacher from visiting Russia at public cost because of his suspected ties to the Kremlin.

A closer look at Rohrabacher reveals him to be an interesting man, indeed. He’s capable of seriously questioning renowned scholars about evidence of ancient civilizations on Mars and of writing sentimental patriotic ditties. He plays the guitar and smokes marijuana to treat pain. He married someone 23 years younger than him and they have triplets who are about to turn 14. In a few more years, they will be going off college. Their father is on a first-name basis with some rock stars. Living in Costa Mesa, a very suburban California town, he likes to dive and surf. Clearly the congressman likes to enjoy life. But there’s just one problem with this: all of it needs a serious amount of money and money is the one issue that’s not going too well for Rohrabacher.

As in the classic detective story, “cherchez la femme.” In Rohrabacher’s case, it’s his 47-year-old wife, Rhonda. After finishing her BA, she became involved in politics at a young age, starting as an election volunteer and then a coordinator and even a confidant to politicians. In 1997, she was charged with electoral fraud on behalf of one of the candidates for the first time. In between her political adventures, she found time to be a bit creative: her LinkedIn profile says that Rhonda Rohrabacher worked as a DJ and performed at big-name dance parties in Washington, Moscow and Beijing. After getting married, she dove into politics headfirst, joining her new husband’s election team. These days, she’s responsible for technical issues at its headquarters. Somehow, though, even this led to scandals. She is suspected of misappropriating half the money that had been donated to the Rohrabacher campaign.

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So it looks like money may have been how Russian handlers recruited Rohrabacher. Browder has similar suspicions: “Having been a speechwriter under Ronald Reagan, ideologically he should have been a strong voice trying to contain Russia. I don’t understand his motivations and can only imagine that the Russian FSB have either found his financial weakness or some way of blackmailing him. In any event, his behavior is not that of an independent politician but of a person directly under the control of the Russian government..”

Some of the congressman’s fellow Republicans have also expressed suspicions: “I think there are two people that Putin is paying: Rohrabacher and Trump,” says Senate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

In addition to his admitted goal—getting the Magnitsky Act repealed—, Rohrabacher could be playing a role somewhat like the illiberal and autocratic Liberal-Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Russian Duma. Zhirinovsky plays Russia’s court jester-truthteller who gets to make all kinds of wild and contradictory pronouncements. These serve to test public reaction to various events or actions on the part of those in power without affecting the image of the alpha leader. Those who forgive the jester never forget the king.

But the problem isn’t just Dana Rohrabacher: he’s simply the most obnoxious and visible politician. The real number of American and European officials who owe the Kremlin is not known, nor are their assignments. Popular Ukrainian opinion notwithstanding, the political orientation of a politician means little. Democrat Barack Obama seemed to support Ukraine, but in 2014 he proved to be weak and did not offer more effective measures to stop Russia’s aggression. Prior to the 2016 US election, the Ukrainian press was filled with apocalyptic predictions for Ukraine should the supposedly evil and pro-Russian Trump win. Trump won, but so far, anyway, has not proved catastrophic for Ukraine. On the contrary, he has signed all the necessary legislation to enshrine and expand sanctions, and gave the green light to deliver lethal weapons. Ukraine really needs to stop fortune-telling based on American parties, putting its hopes in “righteous” Democrats or “militant and anti-Russian” Republicans. Only its own strong stance will help the country be less dependent on the whims of the residents of Capitol Hill.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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