A major investor in Twitter and Facebook had financial ties to two Russian government-owned firms known as vehicles for the Kremlin’s politically sensitive dealings, newly unearthed documents show.
The records show that one of the Kremlin-owned firms, VTB Bank, quietly directed $191 million into an investment fund, DST Global, that used the money to buy a large stake in Twitter in 2011. They also show that a subsidiary of the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom heavily funded an offshore company that partnered with DST Global in a large investment in Facebook.
DST Global’s founder, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, and other partners in the deals reaped large gains when they sold their stakes shortly after Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012 and Twitter’s in 2013.
There is no indication that the Kremlin gained influence over Twitter or Facebook or received inside information about the firms as a result of investments associated with Milner. But the disclosure shows that years before Russia meddled in last year’s U.S. presidential election, the Kremlin had a financial interest in American social media.
These revelations come at a time when Congress is investigating the U.S. tech giants’ role in the spread of Russian disinformation during Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the White House.
It’s public knowledge that Milner put together large investments in Twitter and Facebook. The Russian government’s ties to the investments were not previously known.
Facebook and Twitter said they had properly reviewed Milner’s investments.
The details of the Kremlin’s links to the deals were uncovered during a joint investigation, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The New York Times, the BBC and other media partners.
The news outlets’ reporting effort drew on public records contained in the Isle of Man’s corporate registry, documents from the 2016 Panama Papers leak and a new trove of confidential records, the Paradise Papers, obtained by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
In response to questions from ICIJ and its partners, Milner said the investments his firm makes, including the Twitter and Facebook deals, have always been based on business merits and have nothing to do with politics.
Milner acknowledged that VTB, the Russian bank, was one of the partners that helped bankroll the Twitter investment, as well as DST Global’s investment in Chinese e-commerce site JD.com. He said that less than 5 percent of his firm’s investment funding came from Russian government institutions.
He stressed that VTB Bank was a passive investor in the Twitter deal arranged by his investment fund, DST Global. He said the Russian bank, like all of his limited partner investors, did not gain any control over Twitter or DST Global’s investment vehicles.
Milner said he was not aware of any possible financial links between the Gazprom subsidiary and DST Global until ICIJ and its partners contacted him with questions in mid-September.
He noted that the Twitter and Facebook deals occurred during a period of better diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States.
“It was a different time,” Milner said in an interview with The New York Times. “It never even occurred to me back then that VTB Bank was not just another investor for us.”
Russia’s Big players
Gazprom is Russia’s largest state-owned corporation, and VTB is Russia’s second-biggest bank. Questions about their ties to U.S. social media investments are sensitive because of the firms’ controversial histories and ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials.
The U.S. government sanctioned VTB in 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. DST Global had sold its stake in Twitter by then.
The Gazprom subsidiary linked to Milner’s Facebook investment — Gazprom Investholding — was managed for more than a decade by Alisher Usmanov, a politically connected Uzbek-Russian billionaire.
In addition to running the state-owned subsidiary, Usmanov has also been a big player as a private investor. He has built personal stakes in a various industries, including partnering with Milner on the Facebook and Twitter deals and other tech investments.
The Kremlin has used Gazprom Investholding for “politically important and strategically important deals,” Ilya Zaslavskiy, an adviser to the Kleptocracy Initiative, a project of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., told The New York Times. It is a “powerful political and economic instrument.”
VTB is also known as a player in Russia’s political system. VTB’s chairman, Andrei Kostin, is a Putin ally.
“On the one hand it’s a bank, on the other it’s an instrument of the Kremlin,” Sergey Aleksashenko, a Russian banking expert with the Brookings Institution who served on VTB’s board of directors in the 1990s, told ICIJ. “Whatever the Kremlin wants, VTB is ready to do.”
In response to questions from ICIJ and its partners, VTB confirmed that it had invested in Twitter through Milner’s firm DST Global. VTB said it had “sold its stake in the company with a profit, making it a successful transaction for us.” VTB called itself a “solely commercial bank,” asserting that “we have never had any politically motivated deals.”
Milner emphasized that VTB is traded on the London Stock Exchange and has previously had public investment partnerships in Silicon Valley.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Gazprom Investholding confirmed that it had provided loans to an offshore company named Kanton Services, which records reviewed by ICIJ show was a shareholder in investment vehicles used by DST Global in the Twitter and Facebook deals. The spokesperson said no “Russian officials were involved in these loans.”
Yuri Milner the Rising star
For years, Milner has been known as a businessman with a knack for connecting big investors with a wide range of promising tech companies — and he has earned billions for investors who have trusted him to make smart bets with their money.
Milner, 55, was born in Moscow and studied business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in the 1990s, eventually returning home to launch a series of investments that would vault him to the top of Russia’s entrepreneurial elite.
In 2001, he seized on the dot-com bust to become CEO of the struggling internet firm Mail.ru. Under Milner’s leadership the company grew into Russia’s primary email provider and the country’s most prominent tech firm.
In 2005, Milner formed tech firm Digital Sky Technologies. Three years later, he partnered with Usmanov, one of Russia’s richest men. Usmanov became a major shareholder in DST Global, the investment fund Milner established in 2009.
Soon, Milner set his sights on bigger deals in America.
While assessing the Facebook investment in early 2009, Milner befriended Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. His investment in Zuckerberg’s firm later that year made him famous in a Silicon Valley still reeling from the financial crisis.
Milner has said that his strategy of refusing to accept board seats or voting rights at companies in which DST Global invests allows him to put money into competitors without creating conflicts of interest. When it came to investing in Facebook, Milner told Forbes, this strategy “sent a strong message that we are not seeking any influence over Facebook’s operations.”
Between 2009 and 2011, Milner managed a series of investments in Facebook, using both his tech firm Mail.ru and his investment fund DST Global to buy a growing chunk of the social networking platform.
Usmanov’s investments in Milner’s ventures made him a key partner in these deals. DST Global and Mail.ru’s stake in Facebook reportedly grew to roughly $7 billion, making Milner’s firms Facebook’s second-largest group of outside shareholders.
During Facebook’s record-breaking initial public offering on May 18, 2012, existing investors made dazzling returns on the social network. Four days after the IPO, a DST Global subsidiary sold more than 27 million Facebook shares, yielding roughly $1 billion, according to SEC filings.
In an interview, Milner confirmed that Kanton Services was an investor in one of the DST Global vehicles that bought shares in Facebook. Milner said his firm subjected Kanton to rigorous screening before taking it on as a partner. Even if Kanton received Russian government money, Milner said, it wouldn’t be possible to know whether that money found its way into Facebook, because Kanton could have used other sources of funding for the investment.
In response to a question from ICIJ and its partners about Kanton Services’ ties to the Facebook deal, Gazprom Investholding stated that its loans to Kanton “were provided for general corporate purposes.”
“Kanton was being backed by Gazprom,” said David Zweighaft, a New York-based forensic accountant, who has worked for the accounting firm Deloitte and as a contractor for the U.S. Justice Department. Zweighaft reviewed key documents at ICIJ’s request.