Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch at the center of a widening scandal over influence peddling by President Donald Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, has been banned from doing business in America under U.S. sanctions. But as of this week, Vekselberg was still the chairman of a U.S. nonprofit group that boasts support from several Fortune 100 corporations and one of Trump's top advisors.
Named for Renova Group, Vekselberg's sanctioned Russian holding company, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation was established in 2010 to preserve an unlikely historic landmark: a California state park situated along the state's wild northern coastline two hours north of San Francisco. The park contains a 19th-century fort built by early Russian settlers in America. At the Kremlin's request, Vekselberg delivered it from dire financial straits.
Under Vekselberg's patronage, the Fort Ross State Historic Park became a cause celebre among corporations and institutions doing business in Russia. Donors and supporters have included U.S. oil giant Chevron, PepsiCo, Cisco Systems, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also among the foundation's donors is American billionaire Steve Schwarzman, founder of the Blackstone Group and former chairman of Trump's Strategic and Policy Council.
The rescue of Fort Ross, and its transformation into a platform for the Renova Group's American outreach efforts illustrates how Russians closely linked to President Vladimir Putin's government have used philanthropy in the United States to gain access to the corridors of American power. But now, with U.S.- Russian relations under ever-increasing strain and American officials targeting Putin's inner circle, Vekselberg's decade-long charm offensive appears to be faltering, with both his companies and his most vocal allies seemingly in retreat.