Russia opens polls for vote on extending Putin's rule

FILE - In this file photo taken on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow. Russian authorities seem to be pulling out all the stops to get people to vote on a series of constitutional amendments that would enable President Vladimir Putin to stay in office until 2036 by resetting the clock on his term limits.

A major Russian bank with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin has filed racketeering lawsuits in Lancaster County and Palm Beach County, Florida, claiming hackers attempted to frame it as a conduit for back-channel messages between Moscow and Trump Organization servers, including one run by Lititz-based Listrak.

The lawsuits, filed June 11, come nearly two years after the bank’s head, Petr Aven, tried unsuccessfully to set up a back channel to President Donald Trump’s transition team at Putin’s direction, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Aven denies Putin was the reason for his outreach to Trump.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned repeatedly that Russia would again try to interfere in the 2020 election by stoking division, spreading misinformation and attempting to stir doubt about the integrity of the electoral process.

Alfa bank says its lawsuit has nothing to do with the election, but rather aims to uncover who launched a cyberattack that manufactured the appearance that they were involved in election meddling.

“This action is in no way related to U.S. or international politics, nor is it an attempt to support or harm, or to align Alfa Bank with, any candidate or political party,” the second sentence of the lawsuit’s introduction states.

Alfa has hired one of the world’s largest law firms — New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — to represent it in the two county courts, both of which are in key swing states.

“This is one of those mega Wall Street law firms that don’t play around,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and current law professor at St. Vincent College. “They’re obviously willing to commit a great deal of resources and time to this, and they’ve gone about it in the most serious way you could imagine.”

The attacks

Alfa Bank claims that from May 2016 through September 2016, hackers sent emails to the bank’s servers that appeared to have come from Trump Organization servers, including Listrak’s.

Listrak serves hospitality companies, including the Trump Organization, by creating internet domain names that appear to be affiliated with those companies and sending mass marketing emails from them. A Listrak spokesman declined to comment.

Alfa Bank alleges hackers “spoofed” those domain names, making it appear emails to the bank were coming from Listrak’s server. Alfa’s servers responded the way every computer responds when it receives an email: by automatically looking up the email’s origin.

Hackers launched a similar series of attacks in February and March 2017, according to the lawsuit. Each of those lookups gets logged, leaving an electronic trail. That created the appearance that Alfa’s servers were communicating with Trump-affiliated servers thousands of times, according to the suit.

Though the public can’t access those logs, computer scientists and researchers can. They use the information to monitor for malicious activity and ensure the internet is working the way it should.

Some of them noticed the unusual traffic — Alfa’s lawsuit suggests the hackers might have tipped them off — and leaked the connection to reporters who were looking into the ongoing Russian state-sponsored interference in the U.S. election.

“The narrative that Alfa Bank communicated with the Trump Organization — falsely created and shaped by the defendants — persists in media circles and the public consciousness,” Alfa Bank said in a statement to LNP | LancasterOnline.

The bank’s owners want to do business in the United States.

“However, after Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election they — as private Russian investors — have recognized the barriers to reaching that goal and the need to develop confidence in them again in the U.S. in light of these false cyber allegations.”

During Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony, then-Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican and former CIA officer, asked Mueller whether he believed the stories laying out the Alfa-Trump link were accurate.

Mueller said he didn’t know, but “my belief at this point, it’s not true.”

‘Project A’

Aven, the bank’s head, is among about 50 Russian oligarchs who meet regularly with the Russian president, Aven told Mueller’s investigators in 2018.

Putin has spent the past 20 years consolidating control over the levers of power in his country. Experts on the country and its politics, such as Masha Gessen, have said that when assessing Russian state actions, it’s more useful to think of Putin as a mafia boss than as a traditional head of state.

In their one-on-one meetings, Putin might offer Aven “suggestions or critiques,” which Aven understood as implicit directives, “and that there would be consequences if Aven did not follow through,” according to the Mueller report.

One such meeting took place shortly after the 2016 election, when Putin told Aven he was having trouble getting in touch with the president-elect’s team, and that impending U.S. sanctions might target Aven or his bank, the Mueller report states. Weeks later, the Obama administration would expel Russian diplomats and impose sanctions on Russia for its election meddling.

Aven told Putin he’d try to protect the bank, including by trying to get in touch with the incoming administration, according to Mueller’s report.

Aven “categorically rejects any suggestion in the Mueller report that his planned outreach to the Trump administration ... was on behalf of the Russian state,” according to Alfa Bank’s statement. “At the time, Alfa and its shareholders felt strongly that they needed to take steps to build bridges with the incoming administration so they could protect their extensive international business interests and long-term desire to invest in the U.S.”

Aven asked Richard Burt, a director at another of Aven’s companies and a former U.S. diplomat who was angling for a Trump administration post, to help. Burt would later tell Mueller’s team the request was “unusual and outside the realm of his dealings with Aven.”

Burt, in an email to Aven on Dec. 22, 2016, referred to the outreach effort as “Project A.” The effort fizzled out soon afterward, according to the Mueller report’s accounts of Aven’s and Burt’s interviews.

Venues

Asked whether Russian state authorities directed or urged Aven to file this lawsuit, the bank replied, “No. Absolutely not. Mr. Aven is a private businessman and Alfa Bank is a private Bank. Alfa Bank initiated this litigation to serve its own goals; namely, identifying and holding those responsible for perpetrating this cyber attack.”

Filing federal racketeering lawsuits in state courts rather than federal court isn’t all that unusual, said Antkowiak, the former federal prosecutor. Some believe the discovery process is more favorable at the state level, he said.

Multiple experts on Russian disinformation and election interference efforts declined to speak on the record about this story, but a 2018 report by the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund warned that the Kremlin “has weaponized elements of the US judicial system and process to further its own ambitions.”

According to the report, the Kremlin exploits the “generous provisions for opening a discovery case,” and U.S. courts’ unwillingness to see some of the workings of the Russian state as more akin to the mafia than a traditional government.

“Crime is not an aberration, but the standard. The best understanding is that an organized crime gang led by Putin has taken over the commanding heights of the Russian state,” Aslund wrote. “The US and other Western governments and institutions may not be able to stop this takeover, but they must avoid colluding with it, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”