After Mueller findings, US-Russian relations can hopefully 'start again,' VTB's Kostin says

Key Points
  • Relations between Russia and the U.S. have been strained since the former was found to have meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.
  • Following a 22-month investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller concluded in March that President Donald Trump did not collude with Russia to influence the vote, however. 
  • Russia is still subject to various U.S. sanctions. 
VTB Bank chairman: Russia could be 'hostage' in US political battle

The Mueller report's findings that President Donald Trump did not collude with Russia to influence the 2016 election should help to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia, Andrey Kostin, the chairman and president of VTB Bank, told CNBC.

"Hopefully, the Mueller report will help to start a rethink (of) the attitude of American politicians towards Russia and maybe we'll have a new start in our relationship with the United States, hopefully," Kostin told CNBC's Geoff Cutmore in Moscow, Wednesday.

Relations between Russia and the U.S. have been strained since the former was found to have meddled in the 2016 election and was punished with U.S. sanctions.

Following a 22-month investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller concluded in March that Trump did not collude with Russia to influence the vote, however.

Andrey Kostin, chief executive officer of VTB Group, sits on the plenary panel at the annual VTB Capital 'Russia Calling' Forum in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"For a long time the Russian side was saying that the Mueller report would not find any relationship, or behind-the-scenes relationship or agreement, between Trump and Russia because there are none," Kostin said.

"Two years or so were spent on asking hundreds of people about this and you see the results are zero."

Russia has constantly denied any meddling in the U.S. election and Kostin said evidence was lacking.

"I can neither confirm nor deny it, I just haven't received enough information about this from the Mueller report or other sources to justify the accusation against the Russian side," he said.

How much wider political appetite there is in the U.S. to forgive Russia, which has labored under various sanctions relating to election meddling and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, remains under scrutiny.

Majority state-owned VTB Bank is no stranger to sanctions. Russia's second-largest bank was placed on a U.S. sanctions list in 2014 following this annexation and support for a pro-Russian uprising in the east of Ukraine.

In 2018, the U.S. added Kostin to a list of sanctioned individuals as he was deemed to be a government official and close to President Vladimir Putin. He told CNBC last May that the decision to put him on the list was "unfair."

Russia 'hostage'

In March, the U.S. extended Ukraine-related sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on Russia and certain individuals for another year. Kostin told CNBC Wednesday that "political infighting" in the U.S. could prevent a thawing of relations.

"Unfortunately, Russia could be hostage in this battle because even though the Mueller report did not have any proof of Mr Trump's relationship with Russia, there are still many voices on Capitol Hill saying there should be an impeachment, that they should remove Mr Trump, so I'm afraid Trump will continue to struggle for his survival," he said.

Sanctions have prompted structural changes at the Russian bank.

VTB chairman: Hope Ukraine-Russia relations improve under Zelensky

In September 2018, VTB sold its U.S. unit, VTB Capital, to the division's management in a likely bid to mitigate sanctions. And in November its Ukrainian subsidiary was declared insolvent; this followed a Kiev court ruling in September that assets should be seized from the Ukrainian subsidiaries of VTB and other Russian state-owned banks Sberbank and VEB.

With Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian-turned-politician who campaigned on an anti-corruption message, winning Ukraine's presidential election last weekend, the direction of Ukraine-Russia relations is also now in focus. For his part, Zelensky has said he favors dialogue with Moscow but wants to see two self-proclaimed, pro-Russian republics in east Ukraine returned.

Kostin said he didn't know Zelensky — a man better known for his acting than his politics — and that time would tell.

"It's very early to say and I think we should at least see the first 100 days of his presidency, but there's definitely hope that with a new president might come new ideas and maybe a new page in our relationship."