Over the weekend, information tied Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to a shipping company connected with Russian oligarchs working closely with Vladimir Putin.
The shipper, Navigator Holdings, earns millions of dollars a year transporting gas for one of its top clients, a giant Russian energy company called Sibur, whose owners include the oligarch and Mr. Putin’s family member. Despite selling off numerous other holdings to join the Trump administration and spearhead its “America first” trade policy, Mr. Ross kept an investment in Navigator, which increased its business dealings with Sibur even as the West sought to punish Russia’s energy sector over Mr. Putin’s incursions into Ukraine.
Ross didn’t disclose his connection to Sibur when he was asked about any Russian connections in his fiscal portfolio. And he says that’s “evil.” Not evil on his part. Evil on the part of people who’ve called him on it.
“The fact that [Sibur] happens to be called a Russian company does not mean there’s any evil in it. Where there is evil, is the misstatement that I did not disclose those holdings in my original form," he said.
Ross seems to be claiming that he revealed his partial ownership of a shell company—he simply failed to draw the line from the shell company to Navigator to Sibur to Putin. So the fact that his shell company made its money by shipping Russian oil and working with both a sanctioned oligarch and Putin wasn’t worth mentioning. And honestly, Ross is an expert on Putin and shell companies.
Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration’s new commerce secretary, presided over a deal with a Russian businessman with ties to Vladimir Putin while serving in his previous role as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus.
Ross’s Cyprus bank proved handy for many oligarchs moving funds out of Russia or former Soviet states—including some who were routing those funds to indicted money-launderer Paul Manafort.
That’s where Ross picked up the experience that made him the established expert on dealing with oligarchs who are under US sanctions.
In 2015, while [Ross] served as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, the bank’s Russia-based businesses were sold to a Russian banker and consultant, Artem Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. At the time, Sberbank was under US and EU sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Avetisyan had earlier been selected by Putin to head a new business branch of the Russian president’s strategic initiative agency, which was tasked with improving business and government ties.
So Ross connections to Navigator are really nothing new.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Monday that there is “nothing whatsoever improper” about the relationship between an American shipping company he holds significant investments in and a Russian energy company whose owners include an oligarch subject to U.S. sanctions and a family member of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And it’s not as if Wilbur Ross has been directly connected to Russian oligarchs.
Ross was appointed vice-chairman at the bank after his investment in 2014, a post he shared with a deposit holder-turned-shareholder, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, referred to in Russian media as a former KGB official and Putin ally. According to the bank’s annual reports, the two attended two board meetings together in 2014 and as many as five together in 2015 before Strzhalkovsky’s May 2015 resignation from the board.
New information about Ross’s business dealings have emerged from a set of documents distributed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The first set of such documents—over 11 million items—was widely known as the “Panama Papers.” This new collection has been labeled the “Paradise Papers” and it involves a similarly large set of entities created as tax-havens by companies and individuals from many nations.