In Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, Russia works through bribery, fear, and force to destroy its opponents. In the West, it works through Interpol and the U.S. Treasury. If Moscow decides to target you, being in the United States won’t protect you from Russian harassment. In fact, it makes you a better victim.
Contrary to what you see in the movies, Interpol isn’t an international police force. It doesn’t arrest anyone. It’s more like a global bulletin board for national law enforcement agencies. Every country is a member except North Korea. And one of the privileges of membership is that you can request that Interpol issue a “Red Notice,” which asks other members to detain and extradite a wanted individual.
By the terms of its 1956 constitution, adopted in large part to assure Washington that the organization would not pursue asylum-seekers from behind the Iron Curtain, Interpol is not supposed to engage in activities of “a political, military, religious, or racial character.” In other words, it’s supposed to pursue only ordinary crimes. But in 2013, Interpol issued 8,857 Red Notices—about one every hour. At that rate, it’s impossible for Interpol to be sure that it’s only pursuing murderers, child molesters, rapists, and the like. It has to trust its member nations.
And that’s the problem: A lot of Interpol’s members aren’t trustworthy. There is an appeal procedure through the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF), but in 2013 the CCF issued only 122 conclusions. Most Red Notice requests are granted in hours, the process is electronic, and it requires no evidence: All you have to do is assert that a valid warrant exists. In Russia, this is a mere formality.
In his new bestseller Red Notice, U.S.-born British financier and critic of the Putin regime Bill Browder writes compellingly of his fight for justice for Sergei Magnitsky. Browder himself has successfully fought off three Russian requests for Red Notices. But he’s more famous, and richer, than most of Vladimir Putin’s adversaries. And, sadly, he was wrong when he wrote that, though a Red Notice might stop him from traveling, he was at least safe in Britain.
Browder was safe from extradition, yes. But he wasn’t necessarily safe from the U.S. Treasury. On the form you fill out when you request a Red Notice, there’s a box to check if you want to make the Red Notice public on Interpol’s website. And once a Red Notice is public, there are consequences, even if the person targeted is a completely innocent victim of foreign persecution and is never extradited.
Ilya Katsnelson knows those consequences. Much of his harrowing story is public knowledge: A U.S. businessman living in Denmark, he was arrested in Germany in 2008 on the strength of a Red Notice issued at Russia’s request as part of its politically motivated vendetta against Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company. Katsnelson was held for two months in a German maximum security prison.
What hasn’t been revealed before is that Katsnelson wasn’t just imprisoned. His account at Citibank was closed in late 2007—his investment banker told him privately this was because of his “problems with the Russians”—his assets sold at considerable loss, and a cashier’s check sent to his attorney. Even today, his Red Notice asserts that he is wanted for fraud and money laundering.
Katsnelson isn’t the only victim. Pavel Ivlev, a Russian lawyer and now a refugee in the United States, was also charged (as the Red Notice puts it, with “large scale fraud”) in connection with Yukos. In 2014, his cash accounts with Chase were closed and, as a letter from JPMorgan Chase put it, the firm found it “cannot continue to offer you brokerage services.” Several other major banks have also rejected his business.
The same is true of Andrey Leonovich, the former treasurer of Yukos, now living in the United Kingdom and also accused, via a public Red Notice, of money laundering. His firm was kicked out of a prominent U.S. private equity fund, and a major U.K. asset management firm refused his personal business. Not only that, but Ivlev knows of two other cases in Britain and Spain where Yukos veterans were treated similarly, and I know of at least one other Russian-inspired case unconnected to Yukos.