Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration’s new commerce secretary, presided over a deal with a Russian businessman with ties to Vladimir Putin while serving in his previous role as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus.
The transaction raises questions about Ross’s tenure at the Cypriot bank and his ties to politically connected Russian oligarchs. It comes amid confirmation by the FBI that it is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
In 2015, while he served as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, the bank’s Russia-based businesses were sold to a Russian banker and consultant, Artem Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. At the time, Sberbank was under US and EU sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Avetisyan had earlier been selected by Putin to head a new business branch of the Russian president’s strategic initiative agency, which was tasked with improving business and government ties.
Avetisyan’s business partner, Oleg Gref, is the son of Herman Gref, Sberbank’s chief executive officer, and their consultancy has served as a “partner” to Sberbank, according to their website. Ross had described the Russian businesses – including 120 bank branches in Russia – as being worth “hundreds of millions of euros” in 2014 but they were sold with other assets to Avetisyan for €7m (£6m).
Ross has not been accused of wrongdoing and there is no indication the Russian deal violated US or EU sanctions. Ross resigned from the Bank of Cyprus board after he was confirmed as commerce secretary last month.
Ross, who had made billions of dollars years earlier by betting on bankrupt steel mills, was known for taking risky bets. But his decision to inject €400m into the bank with other investors encompassed a different kind of risk. It put him at the centre of the biggest financial institution in a country that was widely considered to be a tax haven for Russian oligarchs, even as the US and EU were imposing sanctions on Russia. In 2014, the year he made his investment, the US State Department considered Cyprus an area of “primary concern” for money laundering (pdf), according to its official assessment.
Ross was appointed vice-chairman at the bank after his investment in 2014, a post he shared with a deposit holder-turned-shareholder, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, referred to in Russian media as a former KGB official and Putin ally. According to the bank’s annual reports, the two attended two board meetings together in 2014 and as many as five together in 2015 before Strzhalkovsky’s May 2015 resignation from the board. One of the questions that has been posed to Ross by Democratic senators is whether he ever had contact with Strzhalkovsky.
One of Ross’s first big decisions at the bank was the appointment of former Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann as chairman, whom he chose in part because of Ackermann’s “huge Rolodex”, according to a 2014 Bloomberg interview.
Ackermann’s ties to Russia were especially strong, including a warm relationship with Putin and Herman Gref of Sberbank.
In a separate management decision under Ross’s watch, Bank of Cyprus gave Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, until 2019 – four more years than originally planned – to pay back a €100m debt it owed in connection to Alfa’s purchase of the bank’s Ukrainian assets. Alfa Bank still owed Bank of Cyprus €57m as of the end of September. Bank of Cyprus said the extension was provided because of the “worsening geopolitical situation in Ukraine”.
John Koenig, former US ambassador to Cyprus, told the Guardian he did not believe Ross had ever gone out of his way to favour Russian investors or the Kremlin. At the time, he recalled, officials were actively seeking investments from big US and European banks but nobody was interested until Ross came along.
Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.