Trump, Putin and the mob. Part 8: Yandex, Tiger Global Management & the connection to Donald Trump
Even though Russian investors are often involved with Western tech companies, Russia has plenty of its own home-grown technology platforms. For instance, Russia’s version of Facebook is Vkontakte (Vk), but the largest technology company in Russia is Yandex, best described as Russia’s Google. Though Yandex is a privately owned company, it has shared data with Russian intelligence in the past. In 2011, the BBC reported that Yandex handed over personal information about opposition candidate Alexey Navalny to the FSB.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. Though the West gleefully played up the NSA’s “mass surveillance” system in the wake of Snowden’s defection to Russia, it is simply a fact that Putin’s Russia operates under mass surveillance laws. This is not a secret or any kind of “conspiracy theory.” It is quite literally the law of the land in Russia, though it is often passed under the guise of counterterrorism measures to protect Russian citizens. Their metadata and communications, however, are required by law to be stored by Russian internet providers for 6 months to 3 years.
Simply put, if the FSB or anyone inside the Kremlin wants access to someone’s personal data in Russia, there are systems in place for them to access said data with ease. So, I don’t bring up Yandex’s decision to hand over data as a unique case, but rather to note that the company would not remain in business if it refused to comply with Putin’s orders.
For our own purposes, I bring up Yandex because there is a direct line between this Russian company and President Donald Trump.
Yandex operations abroad
Yandex’s activities have recently become a public issue outside of Russia. In May of 2017, Yandex offices in Odessa and Kyiv (Kiev) were raided by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in what the Ukrainian government described as a “treason probe.” SBU stated that Yandex “illegally collected, accumulated, and passed on the personal data of Ukrainian citizens” to Russia. In doing so, of course, this data found its way to Russia’s FSB.
SBU went on to say, “The information was transmitted to [Russian] security services for planning, organizing, and conducting reconnaissance, sabotage, and information-subversion operations in the country at the expense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability.”
Separately, little more than a month before Yandex offices in Ukraine were raided by the SBU, an investigation by the Hungarian news outlet 444 found personal data of Hungarian citizens was also being transmitted to a Moscow IP belonging to Yandex. Though the Hungarian government quickly denied anything illegal was happening, the code examined by 444 was removed within a day of these communications being published. The government’s subsequent investigation conveniently laid the blame for this incident on a government subcontractor, rather than anyone higher up the chain of command.
Foreign investment in Yandex
Knowing that Yandex was founded in Russia and remains based in Moscow, it was somewhat peculiar to find that one of the initial investors in Yandex wasn’t Russian. He was an American named Chase Coleman III, who runs a hedge fund known as Tiger Global Management. This information can’t be found on Coleman’s Wikipedia page, but as of 2011, Tiger Global was the largest shareholder of Yandex, with nearly a $2 billion investment in the company.
Before this information came to light in 2011, it was known that Tiger Global Management had a stake in Yandex, but the size of the stake was unknown to the general public. This is fairly unsurprising from a company that is so notoriously private about their finances they don’t even operate a website. Despite this, there’s a limit to what the company can keep secret, and once I started to go through Tiger Global’s investment history, I came across many familiar names.
In particular, it’s worth focusing again on Yuri Milner. In 2005, Milner founded Digital Sky Technologies (DST, which became Mail.ru Group in 2010). By 2006, Milner had rejected Yahoo’s offer to buy a stake in the company. Instead, he brought in a different set of investors, among them Renaissance Capital with a 5% stake, and Tiger Global Management initially bought a 12% stake in DST.
In 2008, Milner’s DST became the majority shareholder of Mail.ru in preparation for Mail.ru’s IPO, in part by purchasing a 15% stake in the company from Tiger Global Management, though Tiger Global retained a 13.4% stake after the sale.
Tiger Global Management’s investments
Since the company was founded in April 2001, Tiger Global has been the lead investor 125 times out of the company’s 238 total investments. By any set of standards, that’s a lot of activity by a single company, but the frequency the company invests alongside Yuri Milner is noteworthy. Remember, in addition to being business associates with Mark Zuckerberg, Milner was an early investor in Facebook and Twitter. It was recently revealed that Milner and his business partner, Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, were investing Kremlin money in Facebook and Twitter through DST. We also know that Milner was an investor in Cadre, a New York real estate technology company co-founded by Jared and Joshua Kushner.
Chase Coleman’s Tiger Global Management was also an early investor in Facebook. In addition to Facebook, Milner and Coleman’s companies have both invested in Spotify, JD.com, Zynga, Flipkart, OlaCabs, Airbnb, 17Zuoye.Com, NuBank and Grofers. In late 2017, Milner’s private investment company Apoletto Managers invested alongside Tiger Global in a “payments gateway provider for online merchants” based in India called Razorpay. All of this is to say, their longtime business relationship hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
In the midst of all this, Ukraine’s ongoing treason investigation has included sanctions against Yandex as well as companies linked to Yuri Milner. Those included Vkontakte, Mail ru and Odnoklassniki. Vkontakte, which is Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, is 100% owned by Mail.ru Group. When Yuri Milner resigned as CEO, he was replaced by his protégé and company co-founder, Dmitry Grishin. In addition to sanctions against their companies, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blocked access to these sites for three years.
Baring Vostok Capital Partners was another initial investor in Yandex
In Part 7 of this series, I discussed secret meetings Jared Kushner and Erik Prince took as representatives of Donald Trump. Kushner met with the head of the Vnesheconombank or VEB, and Prince met with the head of the RDIF, a former subsidiary of VEB. I bring this up because another initial investor to Yandex was Baring Vostok Capital Partners. In 2012, a $100 million investment in Karo Film, a Russian cinema chain, was led by Baring Vostok alongside the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). At the time, the RDIF was a fully owned subsidiary of Putin’s personal piggy bank, VEB.
Baring Vostok itself was founded in 1994 by an American named Michael Calvey. Since 1997, a Russian man named Vadim Bakatin has been an adviser to Calvey’s private equity firm. Who is Vadim Bakatin? He is, like Putin, another “former” KGB man. Bakatin was actually the last head of the KGB, serving in that role from 1991–92.
The current Chairman and President of the Board for Baring Vostok, Alexey Leonov, was formerly a vice president at Alfa Bank. Even though this continues to not receive the coverage it deserves, it’s worth remembering that Alfa Bank was pinging a server in Trump Tower during the 2016 election.
Though many in the media prefer to downplay Donald Trump’s connection to Alfa Bank, the connections do exist in open source materials. For instance, Estée Lauder’s son, Ronald Lauder, openly admits to knowing Donald Trump for over 50 years. Lauder donated $1.1 million alongside Robert Mercer’s $2 million donation to a group called Secure America Now (SAN)in 2016. The group’s president, Allen Roth, is a longtime adviser to Lauder, and SAN ran anti-Muslim ads published by Robert Mercer’s Breitbart before the election aimed at helping Donald Trump. (I covered additional details on Lauder and Breitbart in Part 3.)
Additionally, Alfa-Bank and the Lauder Institute, founded by Ronald and Leonard Lauder, are joint sponsors of an award for foreign investment. The group’s annual award was created in 2003. As the President of the World Jewish Congress, Lauder’s numerous philanthropic efforts often include work alongside Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan, often referred to collectively as the Alfa oligarchs. In April 2016, Lauder met with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin alongside the President of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), Yuri Kanner. Mikhail Fridman was the co-founder of the Russian Jewish Congress. He remains on the RJC board alongside German Khan, as well as recent GOP mega donors Alex and Len Blavatnik.
Garry Kasparov and other political activists recently stated, “we believe through our analysis of open-source data that oligarchs from Alfa Group are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs and we have no doubt that these people remain under consideration for sanctions.” The various connections at work here require additional scrutiny.
Alfa Bank, Yandex and Silicon Valley Bank
In February 2009, Alfa Bank and Yandex.money became partners in a joint program they called ‘Money: From A to Ya’. According to the press release at the time, Yandex.Money users with an account at Alfa-Bank can now instantly transfer funds from their account to the Yandex.Money e-wallet and back. Neither user’s personal information, nor account details are transmitted over the internet.
This partnership, while not necessarily nefarious, raises questions due to the ongoing FBI investigation into the communications between the Alfa Bank and Trump Tower servers. This same investigation is also reportedly looking into communications between these two servers and a server at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). In Part 5 of this series, I discussed the numerous connections between Trump surrogate Peter Thiel and SVB. The reason for these any of these communications remains unknown. However, here’s a detail worth adding.
The chief digital officer of the RNC, Gerrit Lansing (seen above in 2013), was also the CEO, co-founder and part-owner of an online fundraising company called Revv. Though he didn’t disclose this information on Twitter or LinkedIn at the time, Lansing remained in his role with Revv during the 2016 campaign.
According to a Politico report after the election, “Republican operatives representing multiple GOP presidential and Senate campaigns said that Lansing pushed them to use the company he co-founded, Revv, to collect their online donations after he was hired for the top RNC job — and that he used the fact that the RNC was using his platform as a selling point.” Also after the election, Revv claimed that in only two years it had “processed over $300,000,000 in donations from over 3 [million] donors.”
Though Lansing was given a top job in the Trump White House, he was later forced to resign because he was unable to pass an FBI background check, reportedly due to his personal investments.
What I find notable is that Revv chose to use the payment processing platform Stripe for campaign donations in 2016. These political donations were difficult to track, in part because the campaigns paid Stripe directly, and then a certain portion was paid to Revv from Stripe. Bottom line: there’s no way for us to know how much money Revv actually made during the campaign, or what Lansing’s cut was either.
So, why did Lansing’s company pick Stripe? I’ll let the company’s co-founder help us out.
Stripe’s first major outside investor was Peter Thiel, who remained business partners — through Y Combinator — with Patrick Collison until late 2017. Another major investor in Stripe is the aforementioned Yuri Milner, who invested as much as $500 million into the company. You’ll recall that Yuri Milner also invested in Jared and Joshua Kushner’s company, Cadre. So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn Joshua Kushner invested $30 million in Stripe as well.
It’s becoming a bit difficult to believe Stripe was chosen by Revv simply for their business model.
Tiger Global connections to Donald Trump
In a 2003 documentary titled ‘Born Rich’, Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson made a documentary on what it’s like to grow up knowing you’ll inherit a fortune. He explained his own experience and interviewed other future millionaires and billionaires. The group profiled by Johnson were his friends or friends of friends. The reviews for the film were largely positive, but I don’t bring up the film for its quality. I mention it because of two particular future heiresses Johnson profiled. One was current senior advisor to the President and Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. The other woman of note profiled was Stephanie Ercklentz.
Who’s that? Stephanie Ercklentz, the daughter of Mai Hallingby Harrison and Enno W. Ercklentz Jr., is now married to the founder and head of Tiger Global Management, the initial investor and formerly the largest shareholder of Yandex. Furthermore, Mai Hallingby Harrison– Chase Coleman’s mother-in-law — was once married to the late investment banker Paul Hallingby. Since you’re probably wondering who Paul Hallingby is, I’ll let this 1988 article from the New York Times explain.
UNLIKE SOME TIRELESSLY ambitious women in her field, Mai Hallingby wouldn’t dream of hiring a public relations consultant. But Mrs. Hallingby, who is married to Donald Trump’s principal investment banker, Paul Hallingby Jr., could use a secretary.
‘’The phone just goes and goes,’’ she says. ‘’And the mail -just going through it and deciding which invitations to accept, which events I should chair…’’
Mrs. Hallingby, who already has a cook-housekeeper, a butler-driver and a part-time assistant to supervise the cleaning and pressing of her extensive wardrobe — four closets, arranged by length and season, and a separate rack for those Age of Lacroix evening poufs — lets her voice trail off with a self-conscious laugh.
This brunette mother-of-two’s career is certainly as pressured as that of any professional. Her efforts at establishing herself as a force in New York’s brash Nouvelle Society sometimes take 16 hours a day, and might seem a prime example of the amoral, status-obsessed superconsumption that inspired the recent roman áa clef of Tom Wolfe and Dominick Dunne. But to the Estonian-born Mrs. Hallingby, the quest to ‘’be social’’ is as meritorious as it is methodically planned. Her party circles overlap with the client circles of Mr. Hallingby, a senior managing director of Bear, Stearns & Company. Moreover, she says, her high profile is valuable to the charities for which she is an assiduous voluntary fund-raiser. The afternoon sun slants into the library of her Park Avenue residence, spilling over the dainty 18th-century desk with its clutter of overdue paperwork, and glints on her Bulgari diamond watch.
All of this is to say Chase Coleman’s wife was, for over a decade, the stepdaughter of President Donald J. Trump’s principal investment banker. Given the fact that the Trump name was found in 3,540 documents in the Panama Papers, it is perhaps unsurprising to find Chase Coleman’s Tiger Global Management features in the Panama Papers as well.
In these pictures, we see a Tiger Global Management subsidiary as a shareholder of Longtop International Holdings Limited, which used Portcullis Trustnet as their Registered agent. The Panama Papers investigation showed “Deutsche Bank registered the entities with the help of Portcullis TrustNet, an offshore services provider headquartered in Singapore. Many companies list Deutsche Bank subsidiary Regula Limited as their directors.”
Now, sharing a Registered agent does not mean any of these companies interacted or were involved in any sort of nefarious activity together, but what it does do is raise the possibility of intersections. Considering Donald Trump’s reliance on Deutsche Bank over the years and their known connections to multiple Russian money laundering cases, checking for crossover here seems to be warranted.
A curious connection between Yandex and Breitbart
To understand why this last part matters, a quick overview is necessary. When any organization builds a website, the goal is to have as much traffic as possible, isn’t it? That’s true for your personal site or any news site. More views means more ads, more business, more interest in the product you’re offering. Increasing traffic often means improving your site’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) score. To do that, it’s important to use the right meta tags in your site’s code.
Prioritizing Google meta tags make sense if you’re an English-language American website. This is what you’d expect to find on any U.S. news organization. You’d also expect to find Yandex meta tags on Russian language websites, or even English language websites that get a lot of Russian traffic, such as Sputnik News or RT.
What you wouldn’t expect, and what is very rare, is finding Yandex meta tags in a U.S. website with the vast majority of itstraffic coming from people inside the U.S. Yet, despite the fact that less than 1% of Breitbart’ traffic is from Russian IPs, in March of 2016 Yandex meta tags were added to Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com. The timing appears to be significant.
On March 28, 2016, Paul Manafort joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Initially, Paul Manafort was hired to ensure Trump secured the Republican nomination for President at the GOP convention in Cleveland. Of course, Manafort would later go on to become Trump’s campaign chairman. In any case, Yandex meta tags were added to the Breitbart.com site code shortly after Manafort joined the campaign, between March 30–31, 2016. Is it also a coincidence Yandex first opened offices in Ukraine in September 2005, not long after Paul Manafort’s longtime work for the pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych began?
We still don’t know for sure. Yet, while the focus is often on fake news, a report from the Washington Post discusses how Russian trolls spread inflammatory articles from U.S. media sources on Facebook and Twitter. While fake news and ads certainly played a role in shaping the landscape of the 2016 election, Russia was able to use our own news against us to achieve their goals of discord and division. The U.S. media outlet that was shared the most by Russian trolls during the campaign was none other than Breitbart.
When Russian spies met with members of Donald Trump’s campaign on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower, there were three confirmed Trump officials present. They were Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. One of the Russian spies, an “ex”-GRU man named Rinat Akhmetshin, admits to being a longtime associate of Paul Manafort. Also, the same week this meeting in Trump Tower occurred, Yandex quietly updated its search engine optimization algorithm. When Paul Manafort was forced to resign as campaign chairman in August, who succeeded him and became campaign CEO? The former head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon.
Now, are these events related? If so, what exactly were they doing and what was the impact on the 2016 election? We don’t know yet. These could well be entirely unrelated incidents with perfectly reasonable explanations. Still, I bring it up because it seems to me it’s easy for most people to view these events in a vacuum, but I believe this is a mistake. No, these shared investments and various connections don’t prove these people did anything wrong, but it does make the seemingly impossible suddenly possible, doesn’t it? People talk. Friends and friends of friends figure out ways to make deals. In most of these cases, it’s difficult to say how close these people are or were. Is Ivanka Trump close to Chase Coleman’s wife? Maybe she is. Maybe they never met. The public won’t know unless people start asking.
The road to collusion isn’t full of random data points without any intersections. Even with sanctions currently in place, Russians work with Americans all the time. There are business partners, friends, and friends of friends who could have helped the Trump campaign work with the Russian government to win the 2016 election. After all, if you’re going to commit treason, wouldn’t you turn to a known quantity to do it?
To me, all these known quantities add up to a single mob. Maybe that’s the reason Paul Manafort hasn’t flipped on Donald Trump yet. Nobody likes a rat.