Is Russia Worthy of Hosting the World Cup?

Russia isn’t the first country to be faced with threats of boycotts or being stripped of its hosting rights, but it is something of a standout case.

By The Conversation, Contributor |June 13, 2018, at 11:22 a.m.

Is Russia Worthy of Hosting the World Cup?
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and  FIFA President Gianni Infantino (C)  shake hands following  the ceremony to launch the volunteer program of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow, Russa on June 1, 2016.

Russia is the host of the 2018 World Cup. (Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

By David Rowe

With the FIFA World Cup just days away, I have been chatting with people on my travels through central and northern Europe to gauge their opinions about Russia being the host.

Several people have simply sighed, resigned to the fact that nefarious FIFA politics won the day. One Prague taxi driver, remembering the Soviet-led invasion of his country in 1968, hated the idea, but another Czech shrugged and said that most people, especially those too young to remember Communist rule, would just focus on the football.

Indeed, many football fans will be thinking only of stoppage-time goals, dubious penalties and defense-splitting passes when the tournament kicks off on Thursday. But it’s also worth reflecting on Russia and the ethics of selecting hosts for major events in today’s commercially driven and politicized sports world.

The Case Against Russia

Every time there is a contest to host a World Cup or Olympics, debate ensues about the criteria for selection. These include technical matters like the economic and infrastructural capacity to stage a massive spectacle, and an overarching belief in spreading sports like football to new corners of the world.

But non-sporting matters also come into consideration. Organizers always consider the potential that awarding hosting rights to the wrong country could bring a major sporting event into disrepute.

Cases have been made against a string of host cities and countries over the years. These include the 1978 Argentina World Cup (military coup), the 1968 Mexico City and 1988 Seoul Olympics (popular demonstrations and violence), the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics (bribery), the 2008 Beijing Olympics (human rights and crackdowns in Tibet) and the 2010 South Africa and 2014 Brazil World Cups (financial mismanagement and lack of preparedness).

So, Russia is by no means the first country to be faced with threats of boycotts or being stripped of its hosting rights. But it is something of a standout case, because of the spectrum of its egregious behavior since being awarded the World Cup (and 2014 Winter Olympics). What’s remarkable is that Russia has stains on its record both in and outside the sporting world.

Inside sport, Russia is most notorious for its wide-ranging state-sponsored doping program, which included swapping positive-testing urine samples for negative ones through a “mouse hole” in the wall of the anti-doping laboratory at the 2014 Sochi Games. Russian athletes were subsequently banned from flying their national flag and competing under the Team Russia name at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

When it comes to Russia’s misdeeds outside the sporting world, the list is lengthy:

For foreign football fans visiting Russia, there are additional concerns over hooliganism and the “racism, nationalism, homophobia and sexism” that has been well-documented in Russian football.

FIFA’s Culture of Money and Influence

Russia, of course, has furiously denied everything, making much outraged noise while pointing out the hypocrisy of its most vocal detractors. The latter reaction has some legitimacy – Russia does not have a monopoly on external aggression, calculated corruption and internal repression.

And although the process by which Russia and Qatar won their World Cup bids was undeniably flawed, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy among the losers who played their part in the whole charade. Few of the bidding countries for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments came out of American prosecutor Michael Garcia’s lengthy but imperfect investigation of the decisions unscathed. This includes Australia, which burned a cool $AU45 million of public money on a futile attempt to work its levers of access and persuasion.

But Russia’s sheer effrontery in recent years makes it an especially conspicuous target for those wondering what it would take for a country to be barred from hosting the world’s largest sports party on ethical grounds.

That it hasn’t been stripped of the World Cup says much about global sport’s intensely commercial and political imperatives. Nothing exemplifies this state of affairs more than the emergence of FIFA as a machine of money, influence and subterfuge under the presidencies of João Havelange and Sepp Blatter from 1974 to 2015.

FIFA’s moment of truth came with the arrests of a coterie of top officials at its 2015 Zurich congress – a very different image of the organization than the one propagated in FIFA’s absurdly self-aggrandizing 2014 docudrama film United Passions.

Blatter and many of his associates have since been swept away. But there’s been little appetite for voiding the controversial Russia and Qatar victories and re-opening the bidding process, despite the efforts of politicians like former British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Nor have there been realistic calls for team boycotts of the 2018 World Cup. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop briefly flagged the idea of a World Cup-related action against Russia, but said a boycott was not under consideration. So far only a few countries have confirmed boycotts by dignitaries, such as the U.K.Poland and Iceland.

New Standards for Selecting Hosts

Has FIFA reformed itself sufficiently under new President Gianni Infantino to ensure that a country like Russia will never again be rewarded after fueling so much international condemnation with its actions?

We may soon get an idea. On June 13, the day before the opening match, the 68th FIFA Congress in Moscow chose CanadaMexico and the United States to host the 2026 World Cup. There are new rules in place for making the decision, including a more stringent bid appraisal process and an open ballot of all FIFA member associations. Among the stipulations are:

Whoever ends up hosting the FIFA World Cup must prove that they know and have what it takes to deliver the tournament. Not only that, they must also formally commit to conducting their activities based on sustainable event management principles and to respecting international human rights and labour standards according to the United Nations’ Guiding Principles.

There were only two bids for 2026 – Morocco and the joint North American joint proposal. The former has its own human rights issues, while the latter has U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed travel bans and implied threats to countries who do not support the bid.

Will the new process result in a fair, transparent outcome? Not according to Bonita Mersiades, the whistle-blowing former head of corporate and public affairs at Football Federation Australia and author of “Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way”, and her fellow campaigners at the reform advocacy group New FIFA Now.

New FIFA Now, and the recently formed Foundation for Sports Integrity, argue that a new FIFA governance model under the control of fans and players is required. Among New FIFA Now’s guiding principles for FIFA reform is this recommendation on selecting future hosts:

Establish a one-off committee of relevant experts from around the world to investigate and recommend on the staging of future men’s World Cup tournaments. The objective would be to ameliorate the World Cup as a vehicle for geopolitical soft power and brand building of nation states, as well as the construction of ‘white elephants’ and the demands of government guarantees made by FIFA to host nations that compromise and jeopardise international and domestic law.

Reformist proposals like these are gaining traction as part of widespread push-back against the excessive demands and massive costs of hosting mega sport events. The questions posed by Russia’s winning bid should only add to the calls for change.

It’s expected that more than 3 billion people will catch at least some of this year’s World Cup over the next month. Let’s hope they look beyond the spectacle to ponder how the beautiful game made its way to Russia at this point in its history and whether it was worth the ethical price.

This article was written by David Rowe, emeritus professor of cultural research in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, for The Conversation on June 11. It is republished with permission.

Tags: World Cupsoccersportspoliticscorruptionhuman rightsRussia

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The U.K. Moves to Clean Up Laundered Money

A Ranking from U.S. News & World Report |

An attempted murder of a Russian former spy sparks a policy change targeting Russia.

(Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

By Thomas K. Grose, Contributor | June 13, 2018, at 11:29 a.m.

The U.K. Moves to Clean Up Laundered Money

LONDON — Chelsea’s soccer team won the United Kingdom‘s coveted FA Cup in May but its owner, Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich, wasn’t on hand to savor the victory. His visa expired in April, and since then the 51-year-old oil tycoon — who is worth $11.5 billion and also owns a $121.5 million house in London — hasn’t been able to re-enter Britain because his application for a new visa remains under review.

While the British Home Office won’t comment on specific cases, it appears that Abramovich – who has not been accused of any crimes, but is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin – is one of around 700 wealthy Russian visa-holders in Britain who are being asked to provide proof that their wealth comes from legitimate sources.

That crackdown is a sea change in British policy. For the past two decades, the U.K. had put out the welcome mat to Russian oligarchs and asked few questions about the origins of their riches.

It also may be the first of more steps to come. The British government of Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May is under pressure to stanch the flow of ill-gotten gains into the country via wealthy Russians in the wake of the attempted murder in March of Sergei Skripal. A Russian former spy, Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the cathedral town of Salisbury with the nerve agent Novichok. May’s government says Moscow was behind the attack, a charge that Moscow stridently denies.

“The Skripal affair is a game-changer that has changed the politics of this issue,” says Nigel Gould-Davies, a Russia expert and associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a London think tank.

Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, in a report released in late May, urged Downing Street to “show stronger political leadership in ending the flow of dirty money into the U.K.” Despite tough talk and the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain after the attempted assassination of Skripal, allies of Putin “have been able to continue ‘business as usual’ by hiding and laundering their corrupt assets in London,” it said.

Moreover, the report added, Russian cash in Britain – which also includes Moscow’s use of Britain’s financial services sector to issue sovereign debt and float Russian companies – directly and indirectly supports Putin’s aggressive foreign policies by helping to give his regime a financial underpinning. Putin’s overseas adventures include military action in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, meddling in U.S. and European elections, and supporting far-right populist parties in Europe. “This has clear implications for our national security,” it warned.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, wealthy Russians have “wanted a hedge against instability at home, so they tend to keep their money abroad,” explains Richard Connolly, director of the Center for Russian, European and Eurasian studies at the University of Birmingham. London is a favored destination because the U.K., particularly its financial-services sector and property market, emphasized its “light touch regulation of foreign, not just Russian, money,” Gould-Davies says.

[READ: Companies Use These Countries to Reach Tax Havens]

Unsurprisingly, “many hundreds of billions of pounds” a year of corrupt proceeds are laundered through Britain, the National Crime Agency says, although it doesn’t say what percentage of that amount is Russian. Expensive London properties are a big draw for oligarchs. “They’re allowed to buy up houses, many of which have no one actually living in them. They’re just a place to park their wealth,” Connolly says. Transparency International estimates that $5.9 billion worth of U.K. property was bought by suspicious wealth, and Russians account for nearly $1.2 billion of that amount.

But Connolly says calculating how much Russian money pours into Britain is difficult because it’s often funneled through other countries, making it hard to trace. “Establishing the total amount of Russian assets in London is next to impossible.”

In the recent past, Tier 1 visa holders such as Abramovich were given 40 months of residency if they invested at least $2.7 million in the country. But in 2015, the rules were tightened, and after the attack in Salisbury, the Home Office ordered a review of the sources of wealth of some 700 current Russian holders.

In January, a new law came into effect that allows U.K. authorities to scrutinize “unexplained wealth” and take civil actions against assets held in Britain that fail to pass muster. This law, which Gould-Davies says “could prove significant,” will likely be used primarily against officials whose London lifestyle appears beyond their obvious means of income. One example cited by Transparency International is Igor Shuvalov, a former Russian first deputy prime minister. A company Shuvalov owns spent $15.4 million in 2014 on two apartments, but he’s declared his official annual salary is around $151,000.

Parliament approved in May a Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act that includes a so-called Magnitsky amendment that will allow officials to ban individuals suspected of human-rights violations and freeze their assets. The U.S. passed a Magnitsky Act in 2012, a law named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who blew the whistle on state corruption and died in police custody.

The U.K. version has “real, though limited, significance,” Gould-Davies says. It’s not as comprehensive as the U.S. law because it only covers human-rights abuses, but not serious corruption.

[READ: These Countries Are Viewed as the Most Corrupt.]

Gould-Davies says the new laws and visa-tightening could help ease the contradiction between confronting the growing Russian threat and “helping to make secure the wealth of elites who play an important role in Putin’s regime.” It’s not certain, however, that May’s government will take full advantage of the laws – it lobbied against adding the Magnitsky amendment to the sanctions law, but was forced to back down by a cross-party group of supporters. Connolly says he believes Britain will eventually dust off the welcome mat to Russian oligarchs, once the spotlight lit by the Skripal poisoning dims, because of the revenue they bring in.

Even if the government does opt to crackdown on corrupt Russian assets, Gould-Davies says, the impact is uncertain. “We can’t be sure (if) the oligarchs will try, or be able, to exert a moderating influence on Putin.”

But Connolly doubts it will change anything, partly because money is fungible. If Russian oligarchs no longer believe London is a safe haven for their assets, they’ll move them to someplace that is. The crackdown, he says, “is cathartic, we’re seen as ‘doing something,’ which may play well to the domestic audience, but it won’t change Moscow’s behavior.”

Tags: RussiaUnited KingdomVladimir PutinTheresa Maypoliticsdiplomacymoneywealth,economy

Thomas Grose is a freelancer based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

Donald Trump’s Call for Russia to Rejoin G-7 Jolts Start of Summit

Tensions among members, already high after public trade disputes, loom large in geopolitical talks

Clockwise from background center, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits with President of France Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.S. President Donald Trump as they take part in the Group of Seven industrialized nations summit in Canada, on June 8, 2018.
Clockwise from background center, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits with President of France Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.S. President Donald Trump as they take part in the Group of Seven industrialized nations summit in Canada, on June 8, 2018. PHOTO: SEAN KILPATRICK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Donald Trump’s suggestion to have Russia rejoin the Group of Seven industrialized nations and his recent imposition of metals tariffs on U.S. allies rattled the start of the G-7 summit, exposing fissures among the group’s members.

The summit is emerging as a test of whether the exclusive group of major industrialized economies can overcome growing tensions to focus on more common-ground issues such as bringing stability to the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East—including the complex question of the Iran nuclear accord.

An afternoon session on the economy and trade was predictable and inconclusive, and saw Mr. Trump pitted against the six other countries, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. There was strong disagreement among the leaders but no significant clash, the person said.

Mr. Trump’s surprising comment ahead of the summit for Russia to be allowed back into the G-7, four years after it was expelled over its annexation of Crimea, added to the uncertainty.

“Why are we having a meeting without Russia?” the president asked as he left the White House for the summit Friday. “We have a world to run…We should have Russia at the negotiating table.”

The comment added another wrinkle to a two-day gathering already rife with tension over U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum produced by its closest Western allies—and triggered sharply different responses from other G-7 members.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Friday inviting Russia back is a nonstarter: “There are no grounds whatsoever for bringing Russia with its current behavior back into the G-7.” ​

Hot Button IssueTrade plays an increasingly important role in the global economy. And concerns about recent U.S. tariffs willlikely take center stage at the G-7 meeting.Trade as a share of GDP for G-7 countriesSource: World Bank

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said in an interview with Sky News the G-7 needed to be wary of Russian re-entry.

“Before discussions could begin on any of this, we would have to ensure Russia is amending its ways and taking a different route,” said Mrs. May.

Yet Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, backed Mr. Trump’s suggestion on Friday. “I agree with President Trump: Russia should re-enter the G-8. It’s in everyone’s interests,” he said on Twitter.

Moscow appeared indifferent in its initial response to Mr. Trump’s comment.

“We are concentrating on other formats” apart from the G-7, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian state news agencies’ reports.

European Council President Donald Tusk said Friday that it was evident that Mr. Trump and the leaders of other G-7 countries continue to disagree on trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.

“The rules-based international order is being challenged, quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor, the U.S.,” he said during a briefing in the Quebec resort town of La Malbaie, where the G-7 summit is being held.

A Japanese official said Japan is in sync with the Europeans on trade and is trying to persuade the U.S. to rethink its tariffs, which the Trump administration imposed on national-security grounds.

G-7 leaders posed for the customary family photo during the summit Friday.
G-7 leaders posed for the customary family photo during the summit Friday. PHOTO: /AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Mr. Tusk said a priority is persuading the U.S. to strengthen the current format of the G-7 as a guarantor of the world order.

John Kirton, head of the University of Toronto’s G-7 research group, said it is for the best that Mr. Trump is at the table talking to America’s longstanding allies.

“It’s much better to talk to him face to face and ask him, ‘What’s on your mind? What do you want? Isn’t there a deal to be done?’” he said.

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Tensions escalated between Mr. Trump and President Emmanuel Macron of France, who until now has been Mr. Trump’s closest ally in the European Union, on Thursday.

Mr. Macron said at a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Thursday that the U.S.’s steel and aluminum tariffs against the European Union and Canada are pushing the six remaining nations of the G-7 to become a force of their own.

“Maybe Mr. Trump doesn’t mind that he’s being isolated,” Mr. Macron said, “but these six countries have shared values that represent an economic market of true international strength.”

Uneven RecoveryWhile most advanced economies have rebounded from the global economic crisis, some still lag.Change since 2007 in inflation-adjusted GDP among G-7 countriesSource: International Monetary FundNote: Germany’s 2016 data and all 2017 and 2018 data are estimates.

Mr. Trump fired back with a message on Twitter that said, “Please tell Prime Minister Trudeau and President Macron that they are charging the U.S. massive tariffs and create nonmonetary barriers. The EU trade surplus with the U.S. is $151 Billion, and Canada keeps our farmers and others out. Look forward to seeing them tomorrow.”

Eswar Prasad, senior professor of trade policy and economics at Cornell University, said Mr. Trump’s actions and words leading up to and at the G-7 meetings “punctuate his dismissive view of multilateralism.”

“It is remarkable to see the U.S. so isolated amidst a gathering of longstanding allies that have traditionally shared similar economic and political systems and a common set of values,” he said.

Statements from some leaders ahead of the G-7 gathering warned that blunt talk with Mr. Trump would be likely and that the seven countries might fail to agree to a summit-ending communiqué, which would buck tradition.

“We will see where we land,” Ms. Freeland said about plans to issue an agreed-upon communiqué.

A European official said officials are exploring a final statement that would list the countries’ different views, but a failure to agree on a common document is still possible.

Mr. Trump leaves Saturday around mid-morning, before the G-7 tackle issues surrounding climate change, and the protection of coastal communities. The other G-7 leaders will hold press conferences late Saturday afternoon.

This week, Germany showed signs of trying to dial down tensions. Germany is one of the world’s largest exporters, and its economy is highly dependent on trade.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to increase Germany’s defense budget in a partial concession to the U.S., which has long objected to Germany’s relatively low military spending.

Mr. Trump had raised the pressure on Berlin in recent weeks by linking the issue to his attempt to rewrite the terms of the U.S.-Europe trade relationship.

Write to Kim Mackrael at, Paul Vieira at and Rebecca Ballhaus at


Russia and China Show Off Ties With Putin Visit

On the first day of a trip to China, the Russian president receives the newly created Friendship Medal

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin after presenting him with the Friendship Medal in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin after presenting him with the Friendship Medal in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Russia and China have signed a raft of deals and pledged tighter coordination on security and foreign policy, underscoring how disputes with the U.S. are drawing the neighbors closer.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the first day of a three-day trip to China on Friday, and Chinese President Xi Jinping flaunted their relationship as Mr. Putin received the newly created Friendship Medal from his host in an extravagant ceremony.

“Cooperation with China is one of Russia’s top priorities and it has reached an unprecedented level,” Mr. Putin said.

Russia has increasingly looked to China for investment and as a political ally as the U.S. and its partners have piled sanctions on Moscow over its military adventures abroad and interference in Western countries.

Concerns in Beijing that President Donald Trump could forge closer ties with Mr. Putin and leave China as the odd one out among the world’s largest powers have dissipated as Washington and Moscow continue to feud. Now, Russia and China are coordinating in places of mutual interest like Iran and North Korea, presenting a united front in criticizing U.S. sanctions and tariffs, and deepening business ties.

On Friday, Russian and Chinese officials signed nuclear, space and transport deals, among others, as well as a statement condemning the Trump administration’s withdrawal from a nuclear deal with Iran and pledging further military and diplomatic cooperation.

The relationship has been buttressed by a close personal connection between the presidents. State broadcaster China Central Television aired an interview with the Russian leader on Wednesday in which he recalled celebrating a birthday with Mr. Xi over shots of vodka and sliced sausage.

“I haven’t established this kind of relationship or made similar arrangements with my foreign colleagues, but I have with Chairman Xi,” Mr. Putin said in the interview.

CCTV inserted the birthday comments in an online video entitled “A Kind of Internet Star Called Putin,” that also featured shots of him playing piano, strutting past applauding crowds and meeting—repeatedly—with Mr. Xi.

The Chinese leader, who recently engineered a scrapping of presidential term limits in China’s constitution, has said he and Mr. Putin are “similar in character.” He was quick to call with congratulations after the Mr. Putin rode a landslide election victory to his fourth term in March.

“Together we’ve ensured that Sino-Russian relations have withstood the test of global uncertainty and arrived at their best point in history,” he told Mr. Putin.

China has plowed billions into Russian companies owned by the Kremlin or people close to Mr. Putin, providing Russia with some relief from Western sanctions. But the economic relationship is an unbalanced one; aside from hydrocarbons and weapons, China imports little from Russia.

Chinese leaders continue to see Russia as a vital counterbalance to the U.S. in Asia and elsewhere, analysts say, especially after the U.S. national security strategy labeled them as America’s top adversaries.

Russia and China have increased military cooperation in recent years, holding joint drills in the North Pacific and the Baltic Sea last year.

“Russia increasingly plays on team China as a junior partner,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia is punching above its weight in geopolitics and doing things that the Chinese are not capable or daring enough to do.”


After Military Push in Syria, Russia Plays Both Sides in Libya


After Military Push in Syria, Russia Plays Both Sides in Libya

Kremlin-backed businessman befriends Tripoli government while Moscow shows support for its powerful opponent

Forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, who has received Russian backing and dominates much of Libya’s east, prepare for military operations in April. ABDULLAH DOMA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—When Russia welcomed a Libyan warlord aboard its aircraft carrier last year, it looked like the Kremlin was throwing its weight behind a rival to the United Nations-backed government in the North African country.

But by that time a Russian businessman was already one year along on a quieter Kremlin-backed mission to court the official administration in Tripoli.

The envoy’s pursuits have confuted expectations that Moscow could give Khalifa Haftar, armed forces chief of the second of Libya’s two rival governments, the kind of decisive military clout that turned the tide in Syria in favor of leader Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, Russia has staked a foothold in Libya’s future by cultivating allies on opposing sides of the conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shows the way to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, center, during a meeting in Moscow in August.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shows the way to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, center, during a meeting in Moscow in August. PHOTO: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS

“We haven’t placed a bet on one player,” said Lev Dengov, the 34-year-old businessman who has spearheaded the Kremlin’s strategy in Libya. Leaders of the Tripoli government are now regular visitors to Russia, and Russian companies are exploring businesses opportunities in Libya.

Moscow’s efforts have extended its reach from the Middle East to North Africa and made it a central player in the resource-rich country.

While the U.S. is rival to Russia for influence in Syria, President Donald Trump said in April 2017 that he saw no role for the U.S. in Libya beyond combating Islamic State. Since then the U.S. has supported U.N. peace efforts and focused on counterterrorism, including airstrikes against militant groups.

Leaders of Libya’s warring political factions, including Fayez Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli government, and Mr. Haftar, who controls much of eastern Libya, set a path to elections later this year at a meeting in Paris on May 29. Moscow said it supports international mediation efforts.

Libya remains the main route for waves of undocumented migrants bound for Europe via the Mediterranean. Islamic State and other extremist groups that target Europe are ensconced in lawless areas throughout Libya.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala said in an interview that the Tripoli government wanted Russia to take on a bigger role. “We want a balance between the external players,” he said.

Mr. Dengov’s role in Libya highlights how businessmen sometimes work to further the Kremlin’s power while advancing their own interests, goals that are often intertwined.

The Soviet Union had close ties to longtime Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin sought to rekindle on a visit in 2008 that brought billions of dollars in arms, oil and rail contracts.

Mr. Dengov said he began visiting Libya that year. Through various business projects he built relations with officials in Gadhafi’s administration, some of whom are now serving in rival governments, he said.

Lev Dengov, who has built ties for Moscow with the Libyan government in Tripoli, speaks at a May conference in St. Petersburg, where he encouraged Russian countries to invest in Libya.
Lev Dengov, who has built ties for Moscow with the Libyan government in Tripoli, speaks at a May conference in St. Petersburg, where he encouraged Russian countries to invest in Libya. PHOTO: DMITRI BELIAKOV FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

During the uprising in 2011 that took down the regime, Russia initially didn’t object to airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against Gadhafi’s forces. But after Gadhafi was captured and killed, Mr. Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of overstepping their mandate.

Mr. Haftar, a Soviet-trained former commander in Gadhafi’s military, had turned against the Libyan ruler and lived for two decades in exile in the U.S. before joining the uprising.

In 2014, he led a military campaign that he said was aimed at ridding the country of terrorists, bringing together disparate militias to take control of a swath of eastern Libya, including most of the country’s main oil-exporting ports.

At the end of that year, Mr. Dengov was made head of a diplomatic outreach to Libya under the supervision of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya in southern Russia.

Mr. Kadyrov, an ally of Mr. Putin, is a central figure in Russia’s efforts in the Middle East, where he has myriad contacts and significant sway, Mr. Dengov said.

After Mr. Dengov arranged for a delegation led by Mr. Haftar’s son to visit Russia in 2015, Moscow started providing support. Ignoring protests from Tripoli, Russia printed Libyan currency in 2016 for the government allied with Mr. Haftar. As well as his trip on the warship, Mr. Haftar visited Moscow in 2016 and 2017.

A U.S. official said Russia had furnished Mr. Haftar’s forces with weapons and military advisers. Russia has denied this, saying it abides by a U.N. arms embargo. A spokesman for Mr. Haftar didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Russian government sought to build international support for Mr. Haftar, including in the Trump administration. He has gained backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—though both endorsed the plan to hold national elections.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dengov was working in Tripoli with a lower profile. One of his first tasks was to wrangle the release of 11 Russian sailors held over alleged oil smuggling. He succeeded, bringing them out in three groups in 2015 and 2016.

Libya’s opposing parties agreed at a meeting in Paris on May 29 to hold national elections in December. Participants included, from left: Khalifa Haftar and his ally Aguila Saleh from the leadership in eastern Libya, Fayez Sarraj, prime minister in the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State Council, an advisory body based in Tripoli.
Libya’s opposing parties agreed at a meeting in Paris on May 29 to hold national elections in December. Participants included, from left: Khalifa Haftar and his ally Aguila Saleh from the leadership in eastern Libya, Fayez Sarraj, prime minister in the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State Council, an advisory body based in Tripoli. PHOTO: ETIENNE LAURENT/PRESS POOL

To build trust, Mr. Dengov said, he also worked to dispel the image of Russia as siding with Mr. Haftar. “When we came to Tripoli, they said: ‘You are with Haftar,’” he said. “We offered them friendship.”

“The Russians realized they have to diversify their contacts,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They sense an opportunity to play the role of a power broker.”

Russia’s reputation in Tripoli has been burnished, Mr. Dengov said, by the success of Mr. Putin’s military backing for Mr. Assad in Syria, which Moscow portrays as support for a legitimate government.

“People see that Russia is confident in the steps it takes. In Libya, they saw that our leader was a person who could take autonomous decisions,” said Mr. Dengov.

Mr. Dengov heads the Russian-Libyan Trade House, formed in 2017 by businessmen from the two countries to increase economic links. Russia is interested in reviving old deals made under Mr. Gadhafi, including in oil exploration and the construction of a railway line, and exploring new areas, such as agriculture and information technology, he said.

Mr. Dengov uses his contacts to help Russian companies establish connections in Libya and arranging security for visiting executives.

“We can use business to build up relations,” he said.

Russian state oil giant PAO Rosneft began purchasing crude from Libya’s state oil firm last year.

A delegation of Libyan security-service officials came to Moscow to meet Russian counterparts in April, Mr. Dengov said. Mr. Siala, the foreign minister, visited Russia twice in May, most recently for an economic forum in St. Petersburg where he appeared on a panel with Mr. Dengov and encouraged Russian companies to invest.

Mr. Siala didn’t indicate concern about Russia’s relations with Mr. Haftar. “Anyhow we are happy now that Russia is giving the same footing of importance for all the Libyans and all the political players,” he said in the interview.

Mr. Dengov is also making efforts to extend Tripoli’s influence in Libya’s oil-rich south by brokering peace at a local level. In November, he said, he met with tribes in the town of Ubari in the lawless region and persuaded them to align with Mr. Sarraj’s government in return for recognition of their municipal government.

On the panel in St. Petersburg, Mr. Dengov described efforts to convince disparate local groups of the value of having a Russian company invest in an oilfield, without giving further details.

“Political and economic links are inseparable,” he said.

Write to James Marson at


U.S. in Early Talks for Potential Summit Between Trump and Putin

Meeting would bring to the international stage one of the world’s most enigmatic political relationships

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017. PHOTO:JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

WASHINGTON—The White House is planning for a potential summit between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, according to people familiar with the efforts, a meeting that would bring to the international stage one of the world’s most enigmatic political relationships.

A senior administration official said Friday that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, has been in Washington to help arrange a meeting between Messrs. Trump and Putin.

The planning is still at an early stage, the official said, with the two nations needing to agree on a date and location.

“This has been an ongoing project of Ambassador Huntsman, stretching back months, of getting a formal meeting between Putin and Trump,” the official said.

Any meeting between the two presidents would be expected to include discussions on Syria, Ukraine and nuclear-arms control. The summit’s purpose would be to resolve longstanding differences, people familiar with the matter said.

The summit would mark the third meeting between Messrs. Trump and Putin, who held discussions on the sidelines of two international meetings in 2017—one at the Group of 20 summit in Germany last July and at a November summit in Vietnam.

The potential meeting comes as special counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether associates of Mr. Trump colluded with Moscow. Mr. Trump has denied any collusion and has described the probe as a “witch hunt.” Russia has denied meddling in the election.

Asked about a summit taking place amid Mr. Mueller’s investigation, another administration official said, “Of course there are discussions of the political perception.”

In April, Yuri Ushakov, a former Russian ambassador to the U.S. and now an aide to Mr. Putin, said Mr. Trump had invited Mr. Putin to Washington during a March 20 phone call.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, responding to questions about Mr. Ushakov’s revelation, confirmed the invitation. “The two had discussed a bilateral meeting in the ‘not-too-distant future’ at a number of potential venues, including the White House,” Ms. Sanders said at the time.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Russian news agency in late April that “President Putin is ready for such a meeting.”

Mr. Trump is currently focusing on the summit with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, according to an administration official. “If negotiations there continue, [work on the Russia summit] will be delayed,” the official said.

The Russia summit “will be focused on specifics, not grand bargaining,” the official said. “Those things need to be negotiated.”

Before any summit takes place, a meeting is likely to occur between Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, the official said. These talks would focus on de-escalation of the conflict in Syria.

Mr. Trump has long said he wanted to improve relations with Russia, while at the same time bemoaning the poor state of Russian-U.S. ties.

As president-elect in January 2017, he made clear he wanted a cordial relationship with Mr. Putin. “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference.

Three months ago, after he spoke to Mr. Putin on the phone and congratulated him on his election victory, Mr. Trump tweeted that “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing…”

The following month, though, he wrote in a tweet that “our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War.”

He added: “There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy.” He went on to suggest that a more collaborative relationship with Russia could curb the arms race.

As he has sought better ties with Moscow, Mr. Trump has been shadowed by the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race.

Mr. Mueller has been questioning former Trump aides and associates about whether the campaign colluded with Russia in an effort to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Mr. Mueller is also examining whether the president obstructed justice in firing former FBI Director James Comey ; Mr. Trump has denied any obstruction of justice.

Meeting Mr. Putin last year on the sidelines of a G-20 summit meeting in Germany, Mr. Trump voiced concerns about Russian interference in the election, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the time. Mr. Putin, during a two-hour meeting that lasted twice as long as planned, denied any involvement.

At the meeting in Vietnam, also on the sidelines of a summit meeting, Mr. Putin reiterated that his country didn’t meddle in the U.S. elections.

On Air Force One, Mr. Trump said: “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”

Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama each held summits with Mr. Putin within six months of taking office. Mr. Trump has now been in office more than 16 months.

Write to Brett Forrest at and Peter Nicholas at

Appeared in the June 2, 2018, print edition as ‘U.S. Plans For Trump Meeting With Putin.’


Mueller’s Investigation Crosses the Legal Line

It’s unconstitutional under Morrison v. Olson—the decision, not the dissent.

Judge T.S. Ellis has expressed skepticism about the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. “What we don’t want in this country is . . . anyone with unfettered power,” Judge Ellis, who is to preside over the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, told prosecutor Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben May 4. “So it’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me that the special prosecutor has unlimited powers.”

Judge Ellis is right to be skeptical. Mr. Mueller’s investigation has crossed a constitutional line, for reasons the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in the 1988 case Morrison v. Olson. That case is best known for Justice Antonin Scalia’s powerful lone dissent arguing that the post-Watergate independent counsel statute was unconstitutional. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s opinion for the court, while upholding the statute, set forth limits that the Mueller investigation has exceeded.

U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 1990.
U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 1990.PHOTO: CYNTHIA JOHNSON/GETTY IMAGES

At issue is the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, which provides that “principal officers” must be appointed by the president with the Senate’s consent. Rehnquist wrote that independent counsel Alexia Morrison qualified as an “inferior officer,” not subject to the appointment process, because her office was “limited in jurisdiction” to “certain federal officials suspected of certain serious federal crimes.”

Mr. Mueller, in contrast, is investigating a large number of people and has already charged defendants with many different kinds of crimes, including—as in Mr. Manafort’s case—ones unrelated to any collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia. That’s too much power for an inferior officer to have. Only a principal officer, such as a U.S. attorney, can behave the way Mr. Mueller is behaving. Mr. Mueller is much more powerful today than any of the 96 U.S. attorneys. He is behaving like a principal officer.

Rehnquist’s majority opinion has never been overturned. In Edmund v. U.S. and in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Oversight Board, the justices said that an officer cannot be inferior unless he has a boss—as Mr. Mueller does in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed him. But that’s not a sufficient condition. As a principal officer, Mr. Rosenstein could legally have brought all the indictments Mr. Mueller has. But he may not delegate that authority to Mr. Mueller, any more than President Trump could delegate his veto power to Mr. Rosenstein.

The Framers struggled long and hard over the Appointments Clause. For better or worse, they arrived at the process of presidential nomination with senatorial consent. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel should confirm the analysis set forth above in a legal opinion to guide Mr. Rosenstein in the exercise of his duties. Judge Ellis should dismiss the indictment against Mr. Manafort on Appointments Clause grounds. All other defendants Mr. Mueller charges, and witnesses he subpoenas, should challenge the constitutionality of his actions on Appointments Clause grounds.

Mr. Calabresi served as a special assistant to Attorney General Edwin Meese (1985-87) and a law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia (1987-88). He is a co-author of “The Unitary Executive: Presidential Power from Washington to Bush.”