French right-wing politician Marine Le Pen got a loan for her struggling party from an obscure Russian bank that has since gone out of business, and its owner is facing a warrant for his arrest.
The Le Pen loan shows how Russian influence operations work in politics, according to analysts, and offers some of the best evidence of Kremlin efforts to interfere with foreign elections, reported the Washington Post.
The party, then known as the National Front and now called the National Rally, was facing difficulty securing credit from traditional French banks, and Le Pen accused those financial institutions of discrimination against her far-right organization.
Party officials then turned to Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, a member of the European Parliament elected as part of Le Pen’s party bloc who had long sought to build an alliance between Russia and Europe against Asia and the Middle East.
Schaffhauser met Russian businessman Alexander Babakov while working on a bank project in the early 2000s, and he reconnected with him in 2014 through a mutual contact in the Russian Orthodox Church while seeking a loan for Le Pen's party.
Babakov, who had become the Kremlin's special envoy for Russian organizations abroad in 2012, proposed a loan through the First Czech-Russian Bank, according to Schaffhauser.
The bank had secured a European license despite questions about its lending practices and connections to Iran and figures sanctioned by the U.S. for their ties to the Russian mob.
The National Front’s treasurer, Wallerand de Saint Just, went to Moscow in September 2014 to meet with Russian financier named Roman Popov, and the party took out a loan then worth $12.2 million.
Two years later, First Czech started shedding assets, and Russian authorities accused bank officials of pocketing millions of dollars -- including the National Front loan -- as regulators closed in.
The loan transferred in 2016 to a Moscow-based aircraft supply company called Aviazapchast, which works with the Syrian air force and has deep ties to the Russian military -- although the loan's ownership remains in dispute.