Russian President Vladimir Putin has been one of the most consequential world figures of the past two decades, and yet it wasn’t until last year that an English-language writer delivered a definitive account of his rise. Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, by Reuters correspondent Catherine Belton, detailed Putin’s transformation from democratic reformer to dictatorial revanchist, painting him and his cronies as a sordid cabal motivated by greed and grievance alike. The book was widely praised but has also made Belton a target: Several Russian oligarchs filed lawsuits earlier this year against her and her publisher, HarperCollins, alleging defamation and libel, with hearings beginning this week.
The most prominent of the angry oligarchs is Roman Abramovich, a billionaire investor perhaps best known as the owner of the Chelsea soccer team. (Belton’s publisher recently settled with two other Russian oligarchs who filed similar suits, agreeing to change a handful of paragraphs in the book.) As Putin’s People details, citing several sources, Abramovich’s 2003 decision to buy the storied football club didn’t come because of any love of the game, or any desire to improve Chelsea’s strategy. Rather, Putin allegedly directed Abramovich to purchase the football club. Abramovich is just one of many post-Soviet oligarchs who have purchased significant assets in the West—especially in the United Kingdom—to ingratiate themselves into the highest rungs of cultural and political power.
Now Abramovich, who has denied Belton’s claims, has turned to the British court system in the apparent hope of stifling further investigation into his past or the provenance of his funds. He has hired a top-flight British law firm, launching what The Telegraph said “may prove to be the most lucrative libel case in British legal history,” both for the size of the legal teams involved and the rates they charge. It’s also one that “is being seen as a test of England’s libel laws and their impact on investigative journalism,” added The Guardian. Abramovich’s lawyer even admitted as much, saying that the case could be viewed as “an attack on free speech and public interest journalism” (though he naturally disagreed). Still, while British law is especially favorable to powerful interests who want to silence journalists, it’s certainly not the only Western nation where oligarchs have sought to do so. Look no further than the United States, as you’ll see below.
The practice is known as “lawfare.” By using their billions-deep pockets to hire the best lawyers and firms—and knowing that lawyers, especially in places like the U.S., rarely bother to do due diligence about the source of clients’ funds—the oligarchs aim to spend journalists and their outlets into submission. This strategy appears to have spiked in recent years, on both sides of the Atlantic. A recent survey from the U.K.’s Foreign Policy Centre found that a majority of investigative journalists around the world have received legal threats because of their reportage. But the most common jurisdiction for these legal threats came from one nation: the U.K., which was cited nearly as frequently as the EU and U.S. combined. The U.K.’s role “both as a facilitator of crime and corruption through the highly reported misuse of its financial systems as well as the source of a great number of legal communications threatening journalists around the world … sets it apart from other countries,” the FPC wrote.
“Libel tourism” has become synonymous with the U.K. The country maintains a far lower legal threshold for filing these kinds of so-called “vexatious lawsuits” (also called “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or “SLAPP” suits) than many other countries, putting a greater burden on journalists to prove their claims. This remains true even after reforms in England and Wales in 2013. And things may even be getting worse. As one British investigative journalist told me last year, these figures “hint that they’re very rich, while we have limited financial resources, and they will just close us down. That doesn’t always work, but that does have a chilling effect. It’s intimidating, and it’s gotten out of control.” The specter of such lawsuits is enough to stall investigations. The late Karen Dawisha, widely regarded as one of the leading researchers on post-Soviet corruption, experienced this in the mid-2010s when her British publisher suddenly pulled out of publishing the seminal book Putin’s Kleptocracy. The reason was clear: The oligarchs mentioned in the book “would be motivated to sue and could afford to do so,” the publisher wrote.
Dawisha eventually found a U.S. publisher for her work. This isn’t surprising, as America’s First Amendment protections remain broad. The courts maintain a far higher threshold for plaintiffs who sue journalists, putting the onus on the former to prove maliciousness by the latter. But even those protections have been under assault in recent years—often from those who’ve turned British courts into their own carousel of libel lawsuits.
In 2017, sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska filed a lawsuit in the U.S. against the Associated Press alleging that the outlet defamed him in reporting on his ties with Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman. Other oligarchs filed a SLAPP suit against British national Christopher Steele in the U.S. over BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the so-called “Steele Dossier”—a series of documents Steele compiled regarding the supposed cultivation of Donald Trump by Russian officials—while Russian national Aleksej Gubarev, who is mentioned in the Dossier, sued BuzzFeed itself. American judges eventually ruled in favor of the defendants, but they nonetheless pointed to the holes remaining in America’s legal regime—such as the fact that the U.S. lacks a federal anti-SLAPP statute, or that state-level anti-SLAPP statutes have been watered down in recent years.
As in Britain, the mere threat of such lawsuits is having a deleterious effect in the U.S. One journalist at an American publication, who’s done groundbreaking work investigating how these oligarchic figures launder their reputations in the West, told me that upward of 50 percent of their reportage on certain oligarchs and their networks remains unpublished due to legal concerns. As someone who’s spent the past few years covering this subject—and who’s writing a book looking at how post-Soviet oligarchs, among others, have wormed their way into American politics, policy, and industry—I’ve lost track of how many conversations with other journalists I’ve had about these legal concerns, even before any lawsuit ever comes.
The recent lawsuits against Belton and her publisher should concern the American media not just because one of its distinguished colleagues across the pond is being targeted but because oligarchic castes have spread their influence throughout the West—and we know about only a fraction of their shady dealings. They intend to keep it that way, at all costs.