What It Means to Have Russian Spies as Clients

The lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. once represented the FSB. But that story is less about espionage than about money.

A disputed office facility taken over by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), reportedly with the help of Natalia Veselnitskaya (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

One day, we may find the smoking gun, or the one thing that unlocks what really happened in that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. But Friday morning’s Reuters story about Veselnitskaya’s legal work for the FSB isn’t quite it.

The story, reported out of Moscow, provides evidence that Veselnitskaya “counted Russia’s FSB security service among her clients for years,” and has been taken by some American observers to emphasize Veselnitskaya’s ties to the world of Russian intelligence. And they could be forgiven for thinking that, given the article’s splashy headline: “Exclusive: Moscow lawyer who met Trump Jr. had Russian spy agency as client.”

But the actual story says something very different about Veselnitskaya and the work she did for the FSB from 2005 to 2013. “The documents show that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, successfully represented the FSB's interests in a legal wrangle over ownership of an upscale property in northwest Moscow between 2005 and 2013,” it says. The work, according to the story, concerned a real-estate dispute in which Veselnitskaya helped the FSB wrest ownership of a valuable building from a private company by alleging that the original sale was based on fraudulent documents.

This is a classic technique used in Russia to raid businesses and extort property owners, and it is a tactic at which both Veselnitskaya and the FSB excel. Veselnitskaya is currently going after IKEA in Russia, on behalf of a private client, using the same legal tactic—the land it sits on is extremely valuable—and the FSB has built an empire in the same way, making minigarchs out of rank-and-file FSB officers whose salaries don’t square with the posh lifestyles they lead.

Under Putin’s leadership, first as FSB head in the 1990s, and then as president of Russia, the FSB has become not just a seat of political and geopolitical power, but also a powerful economic empire. With the specter of state violence and the courts at their backs, officers of the FSB, as well as other security services agencies, have expropriated thousands of small and medium businesses, seized land, run protection rackets, embezzled state funds, and employed every trick under the sun to enrich themselves. Of course, the FSB has denied everything, but extensive reporting in countless independent outlets has borne all this out. And if Americans see the FSB, accurately, as a den of spies, Russians have come to see the FSB, also accurately, as a den of thieves. When I speak to young Russians today, many say they want to work for the FSB precisely because of the economic opportunities it offers, rather that because they are ardent patriots who want to spy on the West.

In other words, the Reuters story is not about espionage but about corruption. It fills in a portrait of Veselnitskaya as well as her connections to the organs of the Russian state, and the methods by which she operated. But it is yet another example of how American readers, frenzied by the drip-drip of Trump-Russia revelations, can take a bit of information, tear it out of its context, strip it of its real meaning, and run with it toward all kinds of political conclusions about the administration’s dealings with Russia. There is plenty of damning information out there, but this particular story isn’t damning quite in the way some people want it to be.