TIME

Putin’s Wealthiest Operatives

To understand how Russia penetrated the 2016 campaign, look to the oligarchs
Putin relies on Russia’s richest men to project power. From left: ViktorVekselberg, Oleg Deripaska, Evgeny Prigozhin and Aras Agalarov. Paul Manafort, center, worked for Deripaska.

THE MESSAGE FROM MOSCOW REACHED Paul Manafort at a crucial moment in the U.S. presidential race, just as he was about to secure the official Republican nomination for his client, Donald Trump. Manafort’s overture had been received, the July 2016 message informed him. And Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, would be back in touch soon.

In the months before the 2016 elections, Manafort, then Trump’s campaign chairman, had tried repeatedly to reach out to Deripaska through intermediaries, according to emails revealed last year by the Washington Post and the Atlantic. The two men’s relationship went back a decade; Manafort had worked as a political consultant for Deripaska’s business interests in Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s.

The messages used coded language—apparent references to money, for instance, were sometimes rendered as “black caviar.” But the aim of the exchange seems clear. Manafort wanted to offer “private briefings” about the Trump campaign to one of Russia’s wealthiest men.

That offer has since come under the scrutiny of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential race. His investigators want to know whether the Trump campaign had a secret back channel to the Kremlin, and Manafort has agreed to help them answer that question. As part of his guilty plea on Sept. 14 to charges stemming from the Mueller investigation, Manafort agreed to cooperate “fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” with the special counsel.

Already Mueller’s probe has shown the range of assets Putin brought to bear on the 2016 campaign. Russian hackers stole and leaked the private emails of Trump’s opponents and worked to polarize and enrage voters by manipulating social media, according to evidence made public by Mueller. Russian diplomats wooed Trump’s advisers, who were eager for information that could hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances.

But it is oligarchs like Deripaska, wielding extraordinary wealth and global connections, who may have played the most important role in the Russian influence campaign. Putin himself has suggested as much. Onstage with Trump at a press conference in Helsinki on July 16, the Russian leader said he “can imagine” private Russian businessmen supported Trump’s bid for the presidency. “And so what?” Putin demanded. “They don’t represent the Russian state.”

In fact, their ties

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