Vladimir Putin’s interest in Latin America is well documented. In Venezuela, Russia has gained a foothold in the energy sector and vast oilfields in exchange for financing Nicolás Maduro’s regime. It should come as no surprise that Russia has refused to recognize Juan Guaidó’s interim presidency or that the Kremlin’s RT website repeatedly parrots Maduro’s deceitful talking points. But with Maduro’s government now on the brink of collapse, Russia has begun to look elsewhere. If a recent high-level conference is any indication, Putin and his cronies have managed to find a new willing partner even closer to the United States: Mexico.
In a Feb. 7 meeting, covered with great fanfare by both RT and state-run news wire Sputnik, Mexican lawmakers welcomed a Russian delegation to discuss investment opportunities in Mexico’s energy sector. Congressman Manuel Rodríguez, who chairs the lower chamber’s energy commission, sang the guests’ praises. “It’s a great honor to be here among members of the Russian legislature and a group of businessmen from Russia, a great nation and a friend of Mexico,” Rodríguez said. Cora Pinedo, a senator, told reporters that, given its “vast experience” in the field, Russia has “plenty to teach” Mexico. She then echoed her colleague Rodríguez’s excitement: She had been “honored” to host the Russian delegation.
By itself, the meeting might not be newsworthy: Members of the Mexican Congress have the prerogative to open the Senate’s doors to guests from abroad, and they certainly have the right to be overwhelmed with fervor for whomever they see fit.
But this Russian group wasn’t just any group. The delegation that visited Mexico was led by Sen. Alexander Babakov, deputy chair of the Russian Federation’s Council Committee on Foreign Affairs. Babakov has become a poster boy for the brazen kleptocracy that has made Russia one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Though in recent years his reported annual income has only been $128,000, he is reportedly building a fortune. Property records, for example, indicate that the humble Babakov and his family own a chateau in France and an apartment in Paris. Babakov’s name also appears in the Panama Papers as the likely beneficiary of dishonest enrichment schemes in Ukraine through a company called VS Energy. Babakov has been sanctioned by the United States and the EU for his role in the annexation of Crimea and is also believed to have been a crucial player in the financing arrangements between Russia and Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France.
As if Babakov’s presence wasn’t enough to give Mexican lawmakers pause, the Russian group also included a woman by the name of Anastasia Samarkina, who praised her Mexican hosts for having plenty of “soul.” Samarkina was introduced as the head of a company called Bureau Legint. There is scarce information available on the business—founded just a year ago—and even less so on the woman who runs it. The company’s very basic website, made up primarily of stock photographs, does not list any clients or employees. It does offer a summary of Bureau Legint’s services, including things like “investigation activities” and “political technology services” (such as “study and analysis of problems related to military and political security in the country and in the region”). Samarkina herself is mostly a ghost as well. There is no information available that would justify the presence of the company or its CEO as viable international partners in an interparliamentary forum in a country like Mexico. This didn’t stop Samarkina from promising Mexican lawmakers prompt results. In the Mexican Senate, Samarkina announced she would head back to Moscow where she would prepare a report that she would the share with the country’s “most important companies.”
How does a woman with no discernible public presence have connections in such high places? Perhaps the answer involves Victor Boyarkin, the man who, according to public registries, was in charge of Bureau Legint until a few weeks ago (Boyarkin even represented the company at a conference in April as its CEO). A former Russian spy and alleged arms dealer, Boyarkin has been identified by U.S. investigators as the link between Paul Manafort and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally who has built a fortune in the aluminum industry. Boyarkin apparently collected debt from Manafort on behalf of Deripaska and, according to the U.S. Treasury (which has sanctioned him), also helped his boss intervene in the 2016 elections in Montenegro—where Deripaska has major investments—by financing a local political party. In December, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee applauded the sanctions on Boyarkin. “The addition of Victor Boyarkin, one of Mr. Deripaska’s key lieutenants, to the sanctions list will help counter some of Russia’s malign influence efforts, and is a welcome step,” read a statement from the committee’s leadership.
Russia’s interest in Mexico should come as no surprise. Like Venezuela, the country is an important player in the energy sector and a valuable piece on the geopolitical chessboard. Russia will probably seek to consolidate a presence in the Mexican market through liquefied natural gas and coal. But Russia is not a normal investment partner. In Venezuela, it has used its vast economic influence to stake a crucial regional position that has helped sustain the country’s corrupt and brutal dictatorship.
Perhaps coincidentally, a couple of days after the Russian delegation’s visit, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced his intention to open the country to investment from “countries known for their honesty.” Surely, one hopes, he’s not thinking of Vladimir Putin’s cesspool.