U.S. intelligence agencies are reportedly looking into dozens of wire transfers sent from Russia’s foreign ministry to Russian embassies worldwide after investigators found that many of the transactions contained a suspicious memo line: “to finance election campaign of 2016.”
Using a Kremlin-connected bank as middleman, the foreign ministry apparently transferred more than $380,000 to 60 embassies across the world between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20 last year, including a $30,000 transaction to the embassy in Washington, D.C., according to BuzzFeed News. An overwhelming majority of the wire transfers included the eyebrow-raising memo line.
All transactions originated from VTB Bank which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and moved through Citibank accounts across the world, eventually landing in Russian embassy accounts. After noticing the memo line pattern, Citibank flagged the transactions and the FBI began looking into the matter this September.
Off the bat, the transactions are suspicious, considering the fact that the U.S. intelligence community concluded in January that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in order to get President Trump elected. But Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev pointed out Tuesday afternoon that the transactions could actually be completely innocuous.
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Responding to a tweet from an American reporter expressing incredulity over why the Russian foreign ministry would include such a glaring memo line, Kovalev wrote, “Because we had parliamentary elections in September and expats vote in embassies?”
Russia indeed held parliamentary elections on Sept. 18 last year and the foreign ministry could feasibly have wired money to embassies to facilitate voting for Russians living abroad.
An FBI agent said that even if there’s a legitimate explanation for the transactions, it would be “irresponsible” to not follow up on all leads especially ones as conspicuous as this one.
“We had an election and the intelligence community concluded Russia interfered in it,” the agent told BuzzFeed. “How could we not investigate a suspicious financial transaction that contained a memo that said, ‘finance election campaign 2016?’It’s a good lead.”