With the European Union and the United States announcing the renewal of their sanctions against Russia at the Group of Seven summit, Russia has been linked to another form of backing separatists in eastern Ukraine, besides its direct military support.
The New York Times has conducted its examination, which found a great number of evidence of financial support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine from Russia’s territory.
It has been long known that there are numerous organizations that conduct online campaigns to raise money for the war in eastern Ukraine. And while there are many organizations that carry out money laundering or theft operations under the disguise of ‘helping the good fighters of Novorossiya’ (as the pro-Russian rebels like to call their self-proclaimed ‘state’), most of the organizations actually transfer the money to kill more Ukrainian soldiers and, as it is believed by Ukrainian and Western authorities, for shelling civilians.
Putin and his government, for their part, are not that eager to stop the illegal fund raising campaigns, thus giving their tacit support. And it is not a surprise since Putin’s regime is believed to fully support and equip the rebels: through both military and financial means.
One of the ways Russian government is supplying its military equipment to the rebels operating in eastern Ukraine is through numerous humanitarian aid convoys. The similar pattern goes for the fund raising organizations: most of them claim that their mission is purely humanitarian, however there are some groups that vow to help equip rebel forces out in the open.
Beware: US and EU financial institutions are at risk
The organizations mostly rely on social media websites, including YouTube and VK – the Russian version of Facebook – to spread the word about donations that are usually transferred through state-owned banks in Russia as well as ATMs owned by a company called QIWI that is affiliated with Visa and traded on the Nasdaq.
Most of the donations come from Russia, but the organizations managed to muster up funds from abroad through large American and European financial institutions, including banks and companies like Western Union and PayPal.
And with these terrorist groups – as they are deemed by the Ukrainian – being under international sanctions and investigations, the fund raising creates certain legal risks for the companies that contribute to such operations. Furthermore, the organizations have gotten smart due to the sanctions and are frequently changing their names and redirecting donations to new accounts to keep the money flowing, according to The New York Times.
Does Russia encourage the fund raising to kill the Ukrainians?
Putin, who continues fueling the eastern Ukrainian conflict that has killed more than 6,400 people, has repeatedly insisted that the rebels have nothing to do with the Kremlin, and are part of a homegrown opposition movement. However, there has been a great number of evidence that proved Russia’s clear involvement in the conflict. In late May, two Russian special military unit soldiers were captured by the Ukrainians and charged with terrorism. Russia kept its comments to a minimum and said that the two men were former military soldiers.
It would be even harder to prove the official Kremlin involvement in the fund raising as it is all kept highly secretive and discreet. However, it doesn’t take to be a genius to understand Russia’s clear involvement in that matter. What is unclear is how extensive the network is and how much money is flowing from Russia to the rebels. According to The Times, the separatists group claim in social media that they have raised millions of dollars.
One of the fund-raising groups, Save the Donbass, announced in May to have raised $1.3 million in donations through Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and other payment systems, including QIWI. Another organization called the Humanitarian Battalion of Novorossiya announced to have raised $213,000 since its founding in May 2014.
What is interesting is the fact that Putin’s government strictly regulates and monitors all nongovernmental organizations in order to prevent and ban any ‘damaging’ opposition political activity and yet it has done absolutely nothing to even come close to investigating these fund raising organizations, let alone banning them.
“Anyone in Russia who wants to provide assistance to the D.P.R. [Donetsk People’s Republic] and the L.P.R. [Luhansk People’s Republic] is encouraged by and gets support from the Russian government,” The New York Times quoted John E. Herbst, a former American ambassador to Ukraine, who is now at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
PayPal could get in trouble
According to The New York Times’ examination, at least five of the organizations raised funds through PayPal, the online payment company based in California that is now owned by eBay. And PayPal could get in trouble for that in case the company comes under the investigation. PayPal has already faced legal trouble for completing financial transactions in Iran, Sudan and Cuba, and recently paid about $7.7 million in penalties.
However, when asked about the organizations that sponsor pro-Russian rebels, a PayPal spokeswoman, Sarah Frueh, said none of the accounts were valid. She refused to give any further information or respond to additional questions on the matter.
It remains unclear how much money have flown into Ukraine from abroad – mostly from Russia – to keep the conflict fueled. But it can be said for certain that Russian government is not interested in ‘closing the valve’.