During the war in Ukraine, PR people protect clients associated with Russia

In a statement to POLITICO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, whose clients include Saudi Arabia, confirmed its work for the company and the Blavatnik Foundation. The firm claims that both businesses are American.

Hill+Knowlton is not the only firm defending its Russian clients. JConnelly, for example, until recently operated on behalf of the international ARETI group founded by energy tycoon Igor Makarov. Canadian government Makarov was sanctioned last week among others on the list of “close associates of the Russian regime, including Russian oligarchs and their families.” The list includes two adult daughters of Putin.

And Lanny Davis, a Democratic operative who served as special adviser to President Bill Clinton, continues to represent Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman. who made billions as an intermediary for the Russian state gas company Gazprom. (Davis, on behalf of Firtash, denied ties to the Kremlin, denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and claimed that Firtash had not worked with Gazprom for many years.)

None of these individuals are under US government sanctions, although Firtash is pursuing extradition to the United States on charges of bribery and racketeering abroad. Through intermediaries, everyone is trying to moderate the coverage, which casts new light on the business relationship that led them to amass fortunes but brought them closer to the Russian government.

Even Congressman R. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Has called for some kind of punishment for those whom he calls the oligarchs “accomplices of the West.” In a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Cohen asked the administration to “impose a travel ban on foreign collaborators of Russian oligarchs” as a deterrent, although his list focused on British lawyers.

PR professionals don’t seem to shy away from the issue, said Casey Michel, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and a journalist who has written about Russian-connected billionaires, including one story that led to his own confrontation with at least one of their PR teams.

“At 10,000 feet, the broader strategy is that these guys are tasked with whitewashing—or wringing out, or washing out, or whatever term you want to use—the reputation of these figures,” he said.

Sometimes this means that “investigative journalists, authorities or regulators do not look too far into the foresight of their funds… [or explain] why can’t they be called oligarchs at all,” he said.

One figure in particular stood out to Michel: Blavatnik, whose team “has been very blunt and very aggressive in denying that he is an oligarch,” he said.

On April 1, Michel received an email from Verity Defoff, Managing Director of Hill+Knowlton titled “Urgent Correction Request”. The note stated that Michel had not approached Blavatnik’s firm, Access Industries, for comment or clarification on his recent story “How Russian oligarchs laundered their reputation in the West.” in New York magazine. Defoff pointed to a quote by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny that Blavatnik was not a “political oligarch”. In his email, Dephoff also denied that Blavatnik had ever “been involved with the Russian government or any related political spheres” and stressed that Access Industries has provided “hundreds of jobs” to Americans.

Blavatnik has been a US citizen for nearly 40 years. His investments include Warner Music Group, luxury goods company Tory Burch and chemical company LyondellBasell. But a number of subjects including universities and politicians criticized for accepting his donations after the invasion of Ukraine.

Hill+Knowlton said in a statement that it works with the Blavatnik Family Foundation and Blavatnik’s firm, Access Industries, “an American company headquartered in New York.”

“Virtually his entire portfolio is investments in real estate, chemicals and natural resources, technology and the media in the United States,” Access said in a statement. “The Foundation is a US charitable organization that helps scientists with early-stage health research. He also supports the arts, universities and international schools of business and government.”

Hill+Knowlton also sent a number of statements to Access regarding its founder’s business operations. In one of them, Access described the term “oligarch” as “a seriously loaded term that carries a specific authoritative definition, especially in today’s war, when Russian elites have become the object of government scrutiny.” He also noted that Blavatnik has not been subject to sanctions in the United States, Britain or the European Union and that he is not involved in Russian politics or the Russian government.

In a later statement, Hill+Knowlton also said it would not represent a sanctioned individual or entity and ceased operations in Russia as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Other companies also protect their work. In an April 18 interview, JConnelly CEO Ray Hennessy said the firm was doing work on behalf of ARETI Group, Makarov’s current company. Makarov has history of business relations with Rosneft or Gazprom, Russian state-owned companies. But Hennessy added: “If you are going to imply that in some way we are working with people associated with Putin, who is waging war abroad… [if that’s not] slanderous in itself, I don’t know what that is.”

Against the backdrop of communication with POLITICO, the Canadian government imposed sanctions on Makarov, whom the US Treasury Department listed in 2018 as a Russian oligarch.

JConnelly responded with a statement on Monday saying it does not represent Makarov, his structure, or “anyone listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury Department or any G-7 country in as “subject to sanctions”. Human.'”

Davis registered his work under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. In accordance with application to the Ministry of Justice, Davis’ firm, Davis Goldberg & Galper, was paid $150,000 to work for Firtash for a six-month period ending October 31. During this time, the firm communicated with or emailed journalists from many publications, including The New York Times. , NBC News and POLITICO, according to the filing. Topics included the Firtash case and “sanctions against Ukraine.” Firtash was sanctioned by Ukraine for allegedly supplying materials to Russian military enterprises, which Davis denied on behalf of Firtash.

On several occasions, Davis’ firm tried to “fix the record” with journalists, according to the documents. In recent weeks, through public statements, Davis has sought to position his client as a defender of Ukraine, a man who asked to return to his homeland “to defend his country.”

But Ben Freeman, a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Government who studies foreign influence, interviewed firms working for clients with potential ties to Russian leaders. He said he believed there was a reputational risk for firms, even if the client could be, in his words, “loosely described as a Russian oligarch.”

Davis noted that Firtash’s time with the gas company Gazprom ended many years ago and denied any ties to the Kremlin, highlighting his client’s efforts to support Ukrainians during the war. Davis emphasized that he was Firtash’s defense attorney hired to correct information in the media.

“The oligarch … is usually associated with corruption and association with Russia after the Soviet Union, where great wealth was amassed through corruption,” Davis said. “This has nothing to do with Firtash.”