Hello! This week our top story is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-standing foreign friends and how they are faring amid the Ukraine war. We also look at mercenary company Wagner’s new political ally, and the outlawing of Meduza, Russia’s top independent media outlet.
Putin’s foreign friends complain of bullying, wonder why they are “toxic”
German newspaper Die Zeit last week published an interview with Matthias Warnig, head of the company that was due to take charge of the never-opened Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. Warnig, who worked for East Germany’s Stasi in the 1970s, got to know Vladimir Putin when the latter was a KGB agent. In the 2000s, that connection earned Warnig millions of dollars as he worked with major Russian state companies and played the role of Putin’s trusted contact in Europe. Now, Warnig is complaining to journalists about his “toxicity” — and describing conversations with the Russian president. We took a look at how things are going for both Warnig and some of Putin’s other European confidants.
- In the Die Zeit interview, Warnig recounted several conversations with Putin. In one of them, the president’s friend tried to find out the aims of the war in Ukraine, only to be told that they were “a state secret.” Another time, Warnig allegedly warned the Russian president that he could not win a war in Ukraine. The boss of Nord Stream 2 also revealed that Putin had invited him to come and live in Moscow — but he refused because he did not want to live “behind high walls.”
- Warnig also complained in the interview that he is now regarded as toxic: people refuse to do business with him, his cards and bank accounts are blocked and he has to get used to paying for everything in cash again.
- As reported by WSJ and Focus, Warning got to know Putin in Dresden when he was a member of East Germany’s feared Stasi security service and Russia’s future president was working for the KGB. In the 1990s, Warnig began a career in business, holding senior positions at Dresdner Bank. Later, he joined the board of directors of several Russian companies, including Rosneft (until he left last spring). For 12 years, Warnig was also an independent director for Rossiya Bank, owned by Yury Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin. In addition, the German was an independent director at state-owned bank VTB and aluminum giant Rusal, as well as chairing the board of state-owned pipeline company Transneft.
- Warnig is not the only foreigner to make a career out of his friendship with the Russian president. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is another example. Until recently, Schroeder was on the board of directors for Rosneft and held a seat on Gazprom’s supervisory board. However, his close ties to the Kremlin have caused him serious financial problems since the start of the Ukraine war. Last year, he was even banned from a restaurant on the German island of Nordeney.
- Another well-known friend of Putin’s in Europe is Austria’s former foreign minister Karin Kneissl. Putin attended her wedding in 2018 and said that Kneissl was his first friend in Austria. However, the Austrian politician has found that her friendship with the Russian president led to harassment that contributed to her decision to move to Lebanon. Now, she blames Europe’s leaders, particularly France’s Emmanuel Macron, for doing nothing to improve diplomatic relations between Russia and the European Union. Like Schroeder, Kneissl sat on Rosneft’s board until last year.
- Other senior European politicians have also been obliged to leave lucrative positions at Russian state companies in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. Former Finnish prime minister Esko Aho left the supervisory board of Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, last February. At the same time, ex-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi left the board of carsharing company Delimobile.
Why the world should care
We cannot know for certain whether Warnig really warned Putin against going to war in Ukraine. However, we can say that Warnig’s fate is a perfect example of how foreign politicians who cultivated friendships with Putin and accepted plum positions at Russian state companies now find themselves shunned by Western society.
Wagner founder Prigozhin finds a vocal parliamentary ally
Mercenary company Wagner, which is fighting alongside the Russian army in Ukraine, still has no official legal status in Russia. However, that is proving no problem for its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, as he seeks support in Russia’s parliament. One of the most vocal (albeit not hugely influential) supporters of Wagner has turned out to be Sergei Mironov, leader of Kremlin-loyal party “A Just Russia – Patriots for Truth”. Mironov is currently urging the Duma to legalize mercenary companies.
- Mironov is quickly becoming one of Prigozhin’s political “favorites.” Back in October, the Wagner Group founder said Mironov was one of “the only ones [politicians] who play an active role in the life of our country.” A couple of months later, Mironov publicly spoke up for Prigozhin, criticizing the St. Petersburg authorities when they refused to allow a full military funeral for a Wagner Group fighter who had been serving jail term for drug dealing. As a result of Mironov’s intervention, the funeral went ahead with a full honor guard. Prigozhin later thanked Mironov for his support.
- Mironov also backs Wagner in his parliamentary speeches. In one recent parliamentary session he described Prigozhin’s mercenaries as “heroic” and called for their legalization. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin responded by saying there is no need to distinguish between those who fight for Russia. A bill on legalizing the Wagner Group has yet to be put before deputies.
- The most recent show of affection between Mironov and Prigozhin took place in late January when the politician received a gift from Wagner — a sledgehammer decorated with engravings of skulls. This was a reference to a Wagner fighter bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer after returning from Ukrainian captivity. Shortly after that, Mironov visited a Petersburg business center owned by Wagner where, among other things, the company stages hackathons for young students.
- Nevertheless, Mironov has little political heft compared with Wagner’s other supporters in the corridors of power. And there is no sign that Wagner is about to be legalized. For example, Volodin, who recently urged deputies to pass legislation that would punish those who “discredit” Wanger fighters, is far more influential.
Why the world should care
We can only guess why Prigozhin wants a public alliance with the leader of a party that has just 6% of the seats in parliament. In theory, Prigozhin could use “A Just Russia – Patriots for Truth” to smuggle his people into parliament at upcoming by-elections in Crimea. But this is speculation. Publicly, Prigozhin insists he has no political ambitions.
Russia bans Meduza, the country’s largest independent media organization
Russia named independent news outlet Meduza an “undesirable” organization Thursday, effectively banning its work in the country. Meduza has the biggest audience of any independent media source, attracting tens of millions of readers to its site every month (by comparison, The Bell’s Russian-language site has just over one million readers).
- Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office ruled that Meduza’s activities “represent a threat to the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.” For any organization, “undesirable” status means that anyone who cooperates with it, even from abroad, could face criminal prosecution and up to four years in prison. Individuals who contribute funds to undesirable organizations could also face criminal charges and up to five years in jail.
- Sharing “undesirable” content is also illegal. A first offense can attract a fine, and repeat offenses could lead to up to four years behind bars. However, the authorities say that users linking to Meduza’s work will initially only be asked to take down the offending link. Further punishment would follow in the event of a refusal to comply.
- Meduza was named a “foreign agent” several years ago — but that allows businesses to continue working, albeit under certain legal restrictions (for example, the publication has to publish a “foreign agent” banner on its work). Lawyers believe “undesirable” status makes it extremely hard for Meduza to continue to operate.
- In a statement, Meduza’s editors promised to continue their work. “Russia will be free,” they wrote. “Those who should go to hell have already long been there.”
Why the world should care
Meduza isn’t Russia’s only “undesirable” media outlet. Independent outlets Proekt, iStories and The Insider have all been branded with the same status — but all three continue to operate. However, Meduza is much bigger. And, when Meduza was designated a “foreign agent,” the authorities then proceeded to attach this label to practically all other independent media outlets. We may be seeing the beginning of this process repeating itself with the “undesirable” label. Declaring Meduza “undesirable” is a warning to all other journalists: if you wish to continue working independently, you will be outlawed in Russia.