Russia And ESG Contagion Risk

The silence was deafening. Where were Vladimir Putin’s supporters as the rebel Wagner tank column rolled up the M4 highway towards Moscow last Saturday? The oligarchs’ private jets raced to Dubai, Istanbul and Yerevan. China stayed “forever” quiet. And, the far-right Vlad ‘fan boys’ in the GOP, NRA, Fox News, GB News and Mar-a-Lago steered clear of the airwaves. For a brief moment I dared to hope. The war crimes trial of Putin in The Hague, peace in Ukraine and the unmasking of Russia’s secret enablers in the West over the past 20 years were further dreamy leaps into fantasy. Sadly, we must wait. The Wagner mercenary army “coup” was abandoned within 24 hours as negotiations quickly moved away from political revolution to contract dispute territory. Clearly, the political successors of Lenin and Gorbachev don’t do big picture wealth distribution; it’s purely transactional, not philosophical, and just between friends or crime gangs. Meanwhile, financial markets barely moved on Monday suggesting business as usual. However, I’m concerned this investment capital calm smacks of complacency.

The brutal truth is that our world has become far more unstable at exactly the same time as one of the key weapons for global “good” is in danger of being stood down. The instability bit is informed by a very real prospect of a weakened Putin losing power (and thousands of nuclear weapons) to an even more extreme crime gang. Even the Chinese sound a bit unsettled by Putin’s apparent weakness but the aligning of interests on a global scale just became a lot more difficult to achieve. North Korea and Russia watchers will know that a key weapon in enforcing discipline on rogue regimes has been financial capital. However, the umbrella movement for “doing good” in finance is driven by the sustainability principles contained in global environmental, social and governance standards, or ESG. And, ESG is in trouble. The CEO of the world’s largest asset manager with almost $10 trillion of funds under management, Blackrock’s Larry Fink, has ditched the term ‘ESG’ because it has become “entirely weaponised”. Oh, the irony. Nuclear weapons on the cusp of going on sale but no, it is investment principles to do better which have been turned into weapons. Thank Russia again and its spectacularly successful use of social media to sow chaos in US political discourse. Think I’m giving Russia too much credit? Think again.

ESG principles, in particular energy conservation and progressive social empowerment, have become a lightning rod for ambitious Republican (GOP) leaders to polarise debate by promoting climate change denial and fears of liberal “woke” social decay. In turn, social media in its all-too-familiar echo chamber way has mobilised the lost, the lonely and the lunatics. Over recent months red (GOP) states like Texas and Florida have banned ESG-committed companies like Blackrock and Goldman Sachs from state commercial contracts while the citizens of these same states pay the price of polarisation with higher insurance costs and reduced pension returns. Russia happens to have a self-interest in defending its fossil fuel riches but its overarching geopolitical goal is to undermine social and political harmony in geopolitical rival nations. We also know the key protagonists.

If Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prighozin, sounds familiar then you will recall that in 2018 he and his Internet Research Agency were criminally indicted by a grand jury for “2016 interference with US political and electoral processes”. Of course, the Russians must be delighted to see ESG join guns, immigration and abortion as polarising political debates. But, even better for the Kremlin, it could potentially undermine a globally co-ordinated acceleration of financial pressure on Putin’s regime to abandon the criminal invasion of Ukraine. This muddying of ESG aspirations has also had some very willing non-Russian accomplices. Earlier in this article I had hoped for an eventual unmasking of Russia’s secret enablers but it might not be as far-fetched as I thought. Just as ESG has been caught up in Russia contagion, there are increasing signs that Kremlin contagion might accelerate the downfall of some very significant masters of disinformation and their discredited supporters. Consider the following….

Boris Johnson and his lies have departed Westminster; and hopefully dignified political discourse will recover swiftly. However, the Brexit disaster will have generational impact. In time, there will be a serious national reflection on how so much disinformation entered the political debate before 2016. But for now, Nadine Dorries won’t be the only one miffed with interference in the dear leader’s honours list. The recent revelations that Johnson ignored MI5 warnings in 2020 about Evgeny Lebedev being appointed to the House of Lords are stunning. Apparently, the alarming MI5 assessment that Lebedev’s father was still an active KGB agent was not enough to dissuade Johnson. Then again, he liked the wild parties of Lebedev senior at his luxury Umbrian villa. The Italian intelligence services less so. The Italians were monitoring the Lebedev villa “being used for espionage purposes” in 2018 when Johnson (Foreign Secretary at the time) ditched his security team to attend a Lebedev party. Not sure the “only a cake” defence will work this time. But, at least there are no tapes….

Ah yes, Agent Orange himself, Donald Trump, has had decades of Russian mafia fingerprints all over his business and political career. But not even his most fervent apologists really expected him to play fast and loose with the nation’s military secrets. When his 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, shared election polling data with Russian agents his GOP party leaders, enablers and media fluffers held their noses and closed their eyes. However, their ears will be burning with the latest tape to emerge on CNN of Trump bragging to staff and visiting journalists about top secret military documents sitting in his Bedminster office. As Putin potentially becomes weaker do not be surprised to see further incriminating revelations appear. Rats, ship, succession….you know, like Goodfellas and a great Layla soundtrack. Obviously, in the event of a Kremlin transfer of power, there will be a huge number of politicians, business leaders and media players extremely anxious that their complicity in the Putin disinformation wars does not emerge. We will see; literally I would think.

Today, ESG is facing a challenge which can be connected to Russia. That is not good for our rapidly warming world. However, if those leaders in the West, who willingly enabled political interference and adopted a ‘transactional’ approach to power, can finally be exposed….. then I’m all for bringing on Russian contagion right now.

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