Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump
Photo credit: President of Russia (CC BY 4.0), Barack Obama Archives, George W Bush Archives, and President of Russia (CC BY 4.0).

Investigative journalist and former Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton looks at the untold, human, and complex story of Vladimir Putin.

With the exception of Donald Trump, no public figure occupies more of the world’s psychological real estate than Vladimir Putin. From allegedly murdering Russian dissenters to running roughshod over his European neighbors to relentlessly undermining democracy in the United States, Putin has been, in Muhammad Ali’s phrase, the “master of disaster.”

But how much do we really know about Putin, his rise to power, and the internal goings-on in Russia today? Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, investigative journalist Catherine Belton, gives us a lucid account of Putin’s mix of authoritarian state power and the gangster ethos that has brought post-Soviet Russia under his thumb. 

Belton, a long time Moscow correspondent and the author of, most recently, Putin’s People, explains Putin’s rise through the ranks, his shedding of his erstwhile masters, his desire to restore Soviet-era power, his physical and psychological evolution, and his looting of businesses as an instrument of public policy to enrich himself and his friends.

What Belton tells us, as a result of her interviews with disillusioned Kremlin insiders, is really a very American story of how an undistinguished, mid-level former intelligence operative and bureaucrat like Vladimir Putin pulled himself up to the lofty heights that he occupies today.

She also reminds us that — even within Russia — he’s not the untouchable icon he’s often portrayed to be, but rather a vulnerable autocrat with enemies, a sinking economy, and a new generation of leaders looking to replace him.  

It’s a complex story of an empire’s disintegration, one man’s efforts to rebuild it, and its near-collapse once again — a story that holds serious implications for the United States in the era of Trump. 

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its leaders occupied a lot of mental real estate in the minds of Americans. Khrushchev banging his shoe with the UN and touring an American kitchen with Richard Nixon. The Cuban missile crisis, and the threat of mutually-assured destruction. Then Perestroika and Gorbachev and Yeltsin, all are deeply ingrained in the history of the second half of the 20th century.

Jeff Schechtman: In the 21st century, Vladimir Putin occupies all that same real estate in our collective consciousness and certainly, in the mind of Donald Trump. But how did we get here? How did Putin get to be Putin? At one point, it seemed as if the former Soviet Union would give way to some form of constitutionalism. I guess Churchill was right, the Soviet Union and Russia still is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The only thing that was certain was that it would act in its self-interest. With Putin, Trump and the oligarchs, even more so.

Jeff Schechtman: If it’s true that Putin, who is now president of Russia for life, is having that much of an influence on us, that he helped determine the outcome of our last election and is endangering the lives of our troops, shouldn’t we know more about Putin and how he came to power? Certainly a portrayal that’s more than Beck Bennett on Saturday Night Live.

Jeff Schechtman: That’s where my guest Catherine Belton comes in. Catherine Belton is an investigative correspondent for Reuters. For six years, she was the Moscow correspondent for The Financial Times, and she previously reported on Russia for The Moscow Times and Businessweek. Her most recent book is Putin’s People, How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West. It is my pleasure to welcome Catherine Belton here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Catherine, thanks so much for joining us.

Catherine Belton: Hi. Thank you so much for having me on.

Jeff Schechtman: There was a moment in time that it seemed like in the post-Soviet era, that Russia might become somewhat of a democracy. That it might have a real economy. What happened? What destroyed that moment?

Catherine Belton: Yeah. I think that’s a good question. I think what destroyed that moment was unfortunately, Vladimir Putin and perhaps even more than him, the clan of security men surrounding him who came with him to power. I think maybe perhaps Putin himself might have wanted to just serve as president for a few years, but the security men who helped propel him to power certainly weren’t going to have any of that. They were bent from the outset really on restoring Russia’s standing as a global player.

Catherine Belton: They always wanted a redrawing of the post-Cold War geo-political map. They wanted a greater voice Russia. They thought Putin coming to power had ushered in a new era of stability for Russia. They were eliminating political opponents. They were blessed with rapidly rising oil prices, which stabilized the economy. Russia was no longer dependent on handouts from the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank, and they believed that this made Russia kind of qualifiable for a much greater stay in world affairs.

Catherine Belton: But I think the West preferred to see Russia as an economic basket case that was weak. The kleptocracy of its leaders, as Putin and his KGB men rushed to take over greater chunks of the economy, was more about these men lining their own pockets than any potential security threat. But unfortunately as we’ve seen, Putin and the security men around him are very much locked in a Cold War mindset. This is still hard wired into their systems that the West, and the U.S. in particular, is the main adversary.

Catherine Belton: I think that position has evolved also over time as the West has ignored Russia and its demands for a greater say. Now they use the cash at their command essentially as a huge kitty, a slush fund that they can use to try and undermine Western democracies. It’s kind of a repeat of what they did in Soviet times, then they used front men and intermediaries to try and corrupt Western politicians then and fund influence operations for the KGB and disinformation campaigns. Only now what we see, it’s obviously a gazillion times magnified because Russia’s leaders have much more cash at their command.

Jeff Schechtman: How did Putin become the leader of this group that took control at that point?

Catherine Belton: Yes. It’s a good question. He emerged really from nowhere. In the beginning when Yeltsin announced that he wanted Putin to become his prime minister and indeed his successor as president in August 1999, it kind of took everyone in Russia and in the West by surprise, because Putin was this little-known gray figure. He was a bureaucrat who’d served very much behind the scenes in the Kremlin, even though he’d sort of actually very rapidly risen through the ranks there, he sort of had a breathtaking career actually from between ’96 and ’99 when he made it as Russia’s prime minister.

Catherine Belton: His rise was very fast and all the way he was being watched over by a group of security men. One of them, one of his close allies has said that his initial appointment to the Kremlin was never an accident. They were testing him out as a possible future leader. He was always very well equipped. He was very engaging on one-on-one conversations, very charming, very efficient at getting tasks done. But really, he’d been in the background. Yeltsin in 1999 was very weak. He’d been dealt a terrible blow by the August ’98 financial crisis.

Catherine Belton: He was also being hunted by hard-line Russian prosecutors, who, with the help of some of Putin’s allies in the security forces, were threatening Yeltsin’s family with legal investigation. There was a criminal probe going on into their use of credit cards, which had been given to them by a Swiss construction firm, which had landed a huge contract to reconstruct the Kremlin. It looked like these credit cards or some kind of kickback, the sums involved were hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is nothing compared to today’s corruption scandals, but in Yeltsin’s weakened state, it was really a great threat to him and his family.

Catherine Belton: So they were looking for someone to protect them, and Putin did a very good job in pretending he was the one who would protect them. He was always very loyal. He’d showed this through some of his past actions. He protected his former mentor from St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg mayor from another hard-line investigation from hardliners. He’d helped him escape Russia, even broken the law to protect his former mentor. All the while he was paying lip service to the ideals of democracy and the liberal economy. So I think Yeltsin’s family and Yeltsin himself probably very much wanted to think that this young former KGB officer was one of them.

Catherine Belton: Certainly, they were impressed by, firstly by the fact that he was young and he was healthy and he wasn’t ailing like Yeltsin had been for most of his presidency. I think they just didn’t want to examine some of the more disturbing aspects of Putin’s past, particularly when he was running St. Petersburg in the early ’90s as the deputy mayor, when he’d really joined hands with security forces and organized crime to run much of the city’s economy. I think they didn’t want to look past the fact that yes, he had ties in the security services, therefore he could protect them.

Catherine Belton: But he looked like someone who nevertheless was going to try to continue Yeltsin’s legacy and bringing the market to Russia and sort of continue on the path of democratic reforms. But unfortunately for all of this, that turned out not to be the case. In fact, in their desperation, they’d landed on a representative of a KGB clan that was actually the most ruthless of all and was prepared to stop at nothing almost to shore up their own power.

Jeff Schechtman: At what point did Putin and the power that he had amassed supersede the security forces that brought him to power?

Catherine Belton: That’s a very delicate dance that he’s been sort of handling all this time. I think for quite some time in the first years of his presidency, the security men around him, but most of all, Nikolai Patrushev, who is a year older than him. He was head of the FSB, the KGB successor agency, and he was the one who really was sort of leading and trying to make sure Putin remained as president. That he didn’t sort of seek to serve a few years and then step down. All the while he had these other KGB connected allies who were beginning to take over bits of the economy and, as his reign continued, they took over more and more. Indeed, they usurped the entire court system, which allowed them essentially to pick off any strategic business they wanted.

Catherine Belton: So it became imperative for this group of men that Putin remained in power. Really, I was told by one ally that when they met, normally this inner circle would talk equally among themselves. But I think at some point, particularly after 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, it was the Ukrainian territory after Ukraine’s revolution, when the pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled and pro-Western forces, at least temporarily, took over the country. Putin’s Kremlin responded by annexing this peninsula, where Russia had always kept its Black Sea Naval fleet. We all remember the West’s response. We remember the sanctions, this was the first time that really Russia was acting so aggressively and actually annexing and taking over another country’s territory.

Catherine Belton: But for Putin, it provided a huge boost to his popularity. It was seen as this great patriotic move. Most of the population kind of felt humiliated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia had been sort of neglected and it was seen as a weak country, and here was Putin flexing his muscles returning as he saw it a part of the Russian Empire. It really did go down well with the population and it also raised his standing in the eyes of the security men. And so, it began sort of when they’d have these meetings of his inner circle. Instead of speaking equally between themselves, Putin was the one who would hold forth for hours. Indeed, they would not interrupt him. That’s really the moment when he kind of came into his own.

Jeff Schechtman: We hear a lot about the oligarchs, the ones he installed, the ones that really took a lot of money out of the country. Talk about the nexus between the oligarchs that came in and the security forces.

Catherine Belton: Yeah, that’s also a good question. The security forces really led the drive to take over private business in the third year really of Putin’s presidency. This began with the attack on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in those days was Russia’s richest man. He owned the country’s biggest oil company. He was trying to sell his control of his oil company to the West. He was deep in talks with Exxon and Chevron. Indeed, if those negotiations had succeeded, Russia would be a very, very different country today. But he was also embarking on policies that Putin’s security men just couldn’t really stand to see.

Catherine Belton: He was trying to lobby for the construction of privately-built oil pipelines that would be independent from the state. That would remove a crucial lever of control that the state had over the oil tycoons. He was also funding opposition politicians. Indeed, they believe that Khodorkovsky had presidential ambitions of his own. That he might stage a run for the presidency in 2008, and meanwhile, he had billions of dollars of his own, at his command. The security men just really did believe that they just couldn’t allow this, and so it ended up being quite easy for them to persuade Putin to take this tycoon on and actually throw him in jail and gradually take over bit by bit, piece by piece, his oil company.

Catherine Belton: But they did so in quite a gentle and steady way for today’s standards, even though they jailed him on what Khodorkovsky has always claimed were politically-motivated, trumped-up charges. The way they took over his old company was sort of like death by a thousand cuts.

Catherine Belton: First, they pretended to negotiate. They filed back tax charges against the company, which are very selectively and retroactively applied, which allowed some Western investors to think, “Hmm, maybe the Kremlin’s right about this.” Actually, it allowed Western investors to eventually say, “You know what? We don’t care, the Kremlin’s going to take over the energy sector, but you know what, for us profits are more important than how the Kremlin is essentially taking over the rule of law and usurping the legal and political process. We’re going to join the queue to take over chunks of his company too because oil prices are going up and we’re going to make lots of money.”

Catherine Belton: That really undermined the message that some officials in the U.S. state department were trying to make that usurping the rule of law and taking over an oil company in this way was going to be incredibly detrimental to Russia’s investment climate. But the whole message was undermined whenever another Western investor would pop up and join the queue to be part of the Kremlin’s takeover.

Catherine Belton: So the security men did lead the charge, and it was Putin’s KGB-connected allies who were the most immediate beneficiaries of this process. Putin had a very close ally named Igor Sechin, who was eight or maybe 10 years younger than Putin. He always followed Putin like a shadow throughout his career, but he was the one leading the legal campaign against Yukos, against Khodorkovsky. He was the one who ended up directly benefiting because he chaired the state oil company, which gobbled up Yukos and took it over.

Catherine Belton: Then there was another KGB-connected ally that Putin had known since St. Petersburg, perhaps even from before, from his time in East Germany, when he served as a KGB officer there, who essentially took over most of Russia’s oil exports. He established a very successful oil trader in Switzerland named Gunvor, which became the world’s third biggest trader. He was sort of swallowing up most of the country’s strategic cash flows. Indeed, as the U.S. treasury later put it, they believe that Putin had a direct investment in Gunvor. But it was more than just about lining the pockets of these KGB allies. Of course, they enriched themselves along the way.

Catherine Belton: Indeed, they thought they deserved it because they’d restored stability to Russia after the chaos of the Yeltsin years. But they also sort of justified it to themselves by saying this also has a strategic purpose. Indeed, it has had a strategic purpose because now we see the web of cash at the command of Putin’s security men and the KGB-connected businessmen who are very close to Putin. They’re deeply embedded in Western markets. They do have a lot of billions and billions of dollars at their command. We’ve seen how entities linked to them have been funding politicians on the far left and the far right in Europe.

Catherine Belton: A bank in the Czech Republic with links to the oil trader that took over the cashflow, Gennady Timchenko, was funding Marine Le Pen’s Front National. For a while, they made quite a substantial loan in 2014 to this political group. Timchenko, of course, denies any association with this, but I think the evidence is clear to see. So we really see this, they’ve got the network of cash across Europe and, as we’ve unfortunately seen, in the U.S. as well. The system doesn’t just extend to Putin’s closest KGB-connected businessmen since the takeover of the court system, and even more so since 2008, when the Kremlin bailed out the more independent Yeltsin-era tycoons in the financial crash. We’ve seen that they’re sort of more and more dependent on the Kremlin too.

Catherine Belton: One of them told me that, “If we get a call from the Kremlin saying, ‘You have to spend 1 billion on this or that strategic project,’ we can’t refuse.” Such is the command of Putin security men now, when they have all of law enforcement at their command and all of the entire court system. You essentially, if you’re a businessman in Russia, particularly in a strategic sector, you own your business through Putin’s grace. Through the Kremlin’s grace. You have to stay on the right side of them. Sometimes you’ll carry out strategic tasks for the Kremlin, without even being asked to. Because you’re trying to get into the Kremlin’s good books, because to do any deals in Russia, you need Kremlin approval.

Jeff Schechtman: We’ve talked a lot about Putin’s consolidation of power and the economics that really brought so many of these oligarchs to power. Has there been an external political agenda, something that might be defined as some kind of foreign policy that Russia or Putin have that was the driving force behind some of these international investments?

Catherine Belton: Yes, I think so. I think they really did want for Russia to be recognized as a kind of important global player. Indeed, we’ve heard this quite frequently from Putin himself. They wanted a redrawing of the post-Cold War era security map. They have asked for this time and again, but essentially, the response that they got was for the West to sort of close its eyes and kind of bat Russia off as a spent force. I think Putin most clearly first raised this issue in 2007 in February, when he gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference. Then he railed against the West’s expansion, as Russia saw it, onto its sphere of interest.

Catherine Belton: The West was continuing to go ahead to build a missile defense shield on Russia’s borders in Romania and Poland regardless of Russia’s protests. NATO was continuing its Eastern expansion. And of course, Western officials would argue that joining NATO was the choice of the individual countries who were applying to join, but the Kremlin certainly didn’t see it that way. They felt that they’d been promised that the Soviet Union collapse by Western leaders, that NATO would not cross a certain line, and that was certainly not being observed. I think for Putin at the beginning of his presidency, he’d also tried to make overtures to the West.

Catherine Belton: For instance, after September the 11th, he’d opened up central Asia as a transit corridor for U.S. troops so they could fight in Afghanistan, but none of his overtures were ever reciprocated. He kind of felt ignored and he just got angrier and angrier. I think they also felt that the West just had this very condescending attitude to them. If you’re a KGB man who grew up in the Cold War, those reflexes are quite hard-wired into your system. So what they did to fight back, rather than build their own economy as a strong, powerful, competitive economy, they returned to the playbook of the ’70s and ’80s, which is when they used disinformation, other plots to undermine political stability in Western countries, such as funding the far left and the far right.

Catherine Belton: They tried this campaign of active measures to essentially, and have tried to sow chaos and leverage existing weaknesses in the West to kind of destabilize the West. Rather than trying to boost Russia’s standing by making it a credible and a respected player by improving its own economy, they just decided that they try to tear up the order in the West. So I guess it’s been an ongoing process, unfortunately.

Jeff Schechtman: How has Putin evolved as a leader? How has he changed since he’s been leading Russia?

Catherine Belton: Well, he’s certainly changed externally. I guess, all of us age. The way Putin looks has certainly changed a lot. People say that he does actually look a bit late Brezhnev. Indeed, his rule is becoming more and more like Brezhnev. We’re entering this era of stagnation. I think when he came to power, he was probably quite unsure of himself. He told everyone he was just the hired manager who would hand over power after a few years. This has proved not to be the case, whether he wants to or not. Because certainly, as we’ve discussed, the security men around him didn’t want to allow him to step down. I think he and his security men have become more and more hostage to the system that they’ve built because they’ve committed so many nefarious acts and shoring up their own power, that it’s risky for Putin to step down now.

Catherine Belton: Indeed, that’s why we’ve seen all these shenanigans around changing the constitution to allow Putin to remain in power for another 16 years. So they’re becoming like Brezhnev-era rulers. Indeed, the prospects for the economy are the same because they’re also scared it seems to make any kind of far-reaching reforms in the economy to boost growth through increasing competition, because that would require them to relinquish some of their hold on the economy. They seem like they just don’t want to risk doing that because they think if anyone else gets a hold of the billions at their command, then their authority could be threatened. So we’re just facing this huge era of stagnation.

Catherine Belton: Indeed, it was very telling that even in this campaign that Putin was holding for the referendum on the constitutional change, he announced some tax changes. That they were going to boost income tax on Russia’s most wealthy. At the moment, income tax is only 13% for all. Yet, Putin only dared to raise it by two percentage points on the wealthy. It’s only risen to 15% and really, I’m sure Russia’s billionaires can afford to share more than that. Especially when the country’s healthcare system is still in a state of dilapidation. Yet, he didn’t dare to go after their pocketbooks anymore because he doesn’t want to destabilize the status quo. They kind of sort of handle everything now with such trepidation.

Catherine Belton: Indeed, one former government minister told me that these guys, all they know how to do, the KGB men around Putin, all they know how to do is run black ops. They know how to essentially take over cashflows, share it and divvy it between themselves, and use the proceeds to destabilize other countries, but they don’t actually know how to develop their own economy and they don’t have a vision for it apart from taking control.

Jeff Schechtman: Is Putin vulnerable in any way?

Catherine Belton: I think the longer the situation goes on, I think he has to be. I mean, really. He has just pulled off this great latest trick, this referendum that he didn’t even need because the laws had already been passed in March by the parliament and the Constitutional Court, which would allow him to remain as president till 2036. Yet, he still wanted a referendum. He wanted this nationwide vote because that would supposedly lend him the legitimacy that he needs to remain as Russia’s unchallenged supreme leader. But really, the longer this situation goes on, the longer Russia’s economy is in a downturn, the more vulnerable at some point he’s going to become to a political challenge. Because, he’s been blessed throughout his presidency really.

Catherine Belton: For the first two times of his presidency, there was soaring oil prices, which really did help him improve the life of the Russian population. There was an emergence of middle class. People could start going to nice restaurants and buy European cars and go on foreign holidays and all this. Then, when that petered out because of his takeover of the economy, he pulled off Crimea. That was a great boost to him, but he’s kind of running out of tricks now. There’s not much he can do now to improve the life of the population, and they can see that he’s still spending enormous amounts of money on foreign adventures, such as the military campaign in Syria and funding other allied countries, such as Venezuela.

Catherine Belton: But in the meantime, he’s raised the pension age. The economy is sort of been very badly impacted by the fallout from the coronavirus, and we’re expecting wave after wave of bankruptcies after a debt moratorium is lifted in October. Already, unemployment has been soaring. Russia hasn’t been bailing out small and medium enterprises, as we’ve seen in some Western countries. He’s starting to lose support from his core, which is Russia’s industrial heartland, the working class. Because their lives are starting to be impacted. They’re no longer seeing an improvement in their lives. In fact, they’re getting worse. But how any opposition can actually emerge in a condition where the Kremlin controls the whole of the media landscape, there is no independent television, all the newspapers are now under Kremlin control, it’s very difficult to see.

Catherine Belton: The security men, they have control of the courts, as we said. One tycoon said to me, he said, “Look, how can we oppose it when they have all the power?” So I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Some suggest that if there were ever to be a threat to Putin, it would come from his own inner circle. Indeed, there are voices, some within the intelligence establishment, who complain of Putin’s lack of vision for the economy. I guess we just don’t know how bad things have to get before a challenger emerges. Indeed, if there is a challenger, can they do so in such a subtle way that they’re not picked off before they can mount their bid? I guess we’ll see. But for Putin, it’s kind of unchartered territory for him, because he’s never had to deal with such bad conditions before.

Jeff Schechtman: What internal credit has he gotten for his efforts in destabilizing the West, particularly destabilizing the U.S. and his relationship with Donald Trump?

Catherine Belton: Yeah. I think they’ve been largely applauding those efforts. Like I mentioned, this sort of scene where members of his inner circle now don’t interrupt him and let him hold full for hours without them speaking. I think that’s also partly due to the perceived success of getting someone who, if not their man directly, is certainly someone who very much suits the Kremlin’s agenda in tearing up the post-Cold War rule book, and then disrupting all the alliances between the U.S. and the EU. Disrupting NATO, withdrawing troops from Germany, from the Middle East.

Catherine Belton: The Kremlin’s been sort of lapping up almost each and every one of Trump’s actions, but there are those who do frown on some of the shenanigans, however. In particular, the goings on around the 2016 election campaign. Some believe that Russia’s interference was too obvious that indeed it was kind of a keystone cop operation. And if Russia had been intelligent about it, they wouldn’t have been found out. But then again, maybe that was part of the game. But obviously, it’s a double-edged sword because we have seen the more hawkish members of Trump’s administration.

Catherine Belton: They’ve been able nevertheless, to impose very stringent sanctions on some more and more of Russia’s tycoons. Indeed, it’s a double-edged sword because now we have this very risky prospect that Trump might not be reelected. Joseph Biden could come to power and indeed, they fear even more strict sanctions as a result of that. So I guess we’ve got to see yet whether there is going to be ever a greater blow-back for Russia from its adventures in the U.S. Because we’ve yet to see what the outcome of the 2020 election is. Indeed, will Russia be able to interfere again? But it’s certainly something we should be on the lookout for.

Jeff Schechtman: Finally, what is your reporting tell you about the relationship between Putin and Trump?

Catherine Belton: Well, we’ve all seen and indeed, it was sort of quite shocking to see how Trump and Putin interacted each other in the Helsinki summit when they first met. Trump seemed to be so subservient to Putin that he would take Putin’s denials of interference and meddling in the 2016 election over the words of the U.S.’s own intelligence officials. That he seemed to be sort of kowtowing to Putin and praising him for so successfully holding the World Cup, football championship that year.

Catherine Belton: It was a very strange picture that everyone was greeted by. Because of course, we’d all heard the reports of Russian meddling, but it kind of really slapped everyone very hard in the faces, the reality when you saw how the two of them interacted with each other in Helsinki and Trump’s very subservient stance. It seemed almost then to confirm the worst fears of how Trump is in some way, beholden to the Kremlin.

Catherine Belton: Indeed, we’re yet to really understand the whole web of financial interactions. Much of that information is still subject to disclosure. The Supreme Court is still meant to be deciding on whether Trump has to hand over his financial records, whether Deutsche Bank has to hand over its records and its dealings with Trump and with Russia. So we’re yet to really get to the bottom of how beholden Trump is to Russia, but what we do know is that for many, many years, he was working closely with a group of Moscow money men, who were running an outfit called Bayrock in New York. Who were building three Trump projects together with the Trump organization, for which they paid Trump enormous and as-yet-undisclosed management fees and other licensing fees that we still don’t know the full volume of. This hasn’t been disclosed yet.

Catherine Belton: I mean, Trump was pursuing, of course, the construction of Trump Towers in Moscow. These are projects that never got off the ground. But that’s almost beside the point, because at the same time, this network of Moscow money men, one of whom Felix Sater has admitted to having quite high level ties to Russian intelligence, who is able to get Ivanka Trump into Putin’s office in the Kremlin. I mean, certainly have to be well connected to be able to do that. They had a very, very close working relationship with Trump for quite some years. Indeed, that relationship stems back to 1987. When Trump first visited the Soviet Union, he was wowed by the architecture, the hospitality. The Soviet officials made a beeline for him because they loved the idea of this commercial real estate tycoon, who could … They really did try to recruit him.

Catherine Belton: We don’t know whether their efforts of recruiting him were successful, but one former senior KGB officer has told me that he believed the KGB had recruited him. Whether or not Trump knew he was recruited is another question. But after his first visit to the Soviet Union, the first thing he did was music to the Soviet officials, is because he wrote an open letter published in several major U.S. newspapers, which also called for the tearing up of U.S. alliances across the globe. He wanted to end America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. He wanted to end U.S. support for Japan. This was like a KGB dream. So yeah, I think we’ve still got a lot to learn.

Jeff Schechtman: Catherine Belton, she’s an investigative correspondent for Reuters. Her most recent book is Putin’s People. Catherine, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Catherine Belton: Thank you. Thank you. It’s really good to talk. Thanks a lot.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from President of Russia (CC BY 4.0) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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