Carter Page is a Rosencrantzian go-between who makes few but intriguing appearances in the ongoing drama of Mad King Donald. Trump might well say of him, as Hamlet said of Rosencrantz and his doppelgänger Guildenstern, that he is “not near my conscience.”
But a news report from Moscow recently about a Chinese government investment casts new light on how the Russian government sought to engage with candidate Trump. The Russian business newspaper Vedomosti wrote that two state-controlled Chinese companies have become major shareholders in CEFC, a nominally private Chinese oil company that is acquiring a large stake in Russia’s huge state-owned oil company, Rosneft. Through this maneuver, the Chinese state now owns about 15 percent of Rosneft.
Vedomosti did not note that Page features as a character in what has been a long-running Rosneft drama. It’s a story of a privatization deal gone bad, and a feckless American intermediary whose only credential seems to be his peculiar presence in the court of the Mad King.
Over the past two years, that big chunk of Rosneft has had a tortuous journey. In July 2016, the British ex-spy Christopher Steele, in his so-called dossier, reported to his client, Fusion GPS, that Page had met earlier that month in Moscow with Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin. Sechin, according to Steele’s source, offered Page a commission if he could place the Rosneft shares with a foreign buyer. For many months, Page, already on the FBI’s radar for having met with Russian faux diplomats trying to recruit him, denied meeting with Sechin or any other Russian officials. Finally, before the House intelligence committee, he did admit to meeting with Sechin’s number two, head of investor relations Andrey Baranov.
On the face of it, the offer seemed preposterous. Sechin, a close ally of Putin, a former spy, and one of Russia’s powerhouse leaders, was offering a €10 billion ($11 billion) deal to an obscure, undistinguished, self-styled oil and gas expert. But Page had something else going for him. In 2016, he had become one of Trump’s top five foreign policy advisers. For financial reasons, if no other, Sechin had been tasked by Putin himself to get the Rosneft transaction done. The Russian federal budget had been decimated by low oil prices. Putin needed cash. He also wanted to show Barack Obama and European leaders that Russia was attractive to foreign investors despite the sanctions imposed after the March 2014 seizure of Crimea by Russia’s “little green men.”
Russia could sell up to 19.5 percent of its enormous state oil company and still keep control. For Page, who had traveled to Moscow to make a speech, Russian largesse had the potential to put him in the big leagues. If he could find a buyer, even a small finder’s fee would be worth tens of millions of dollars. This would not have been the only act of Kremlin kindness seen that summer. A month earlier, as is now well-known, a Russian lawyer had offered dirt on Hillary Clinton to candidate Trump’s top advisers at a Trump Tower meeting.
The sale happened, or so it seemed, five months later, on Dec. 7, 2016—a month after Trump’s upset victory. Igor Sechin announced that 19.5 percent of Rosneft had been sold to two big investors: a Qatar sovereign wealth fund and Glencore, the Anglo-Swiss commodities trading firm.
We do not know if Page played any role in contacting Glencore or the Qatar government, but within 24 hours of Sechin’s announcement, Page—no longer on Trump’s team—was on a flight back to Moscow. Even if he had played no role, the sale opened a window on what Steele’s source had said was the main topic of the Page-Sechin meeting: Sechin’s offer of “future bilateral energy cooperation and prospects for an associated move to lift Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia” in a Trump administration. If a major European commodities firm and a Mideast oil producer now owned a big piece of Rosneft, closer Russo-American cooperation on oil issues became feasible. Five days after the sale to Glencore and the Qataris was announced, President Trump appointed an oilman, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state.
The Rosneft deal, described as a 50-50 acquisition, soon went off the rails. Glencore said it had offered only token cash for the transaction. The Qataris, who had reportedly put €2.5 billion into the transaction, said nothing. An Italian bank, Intesa, appeared to be guaranteeing $5 billion on behalf of a Cayman Islands company whose ownership no one would divulge. A Reuters analysis found reason to think that a state-controlled Russian bank had channeled the entire sale through a Singapore shell company.
In other words, Putin got the appearance of a private deal for Rosneft, to show he could withstand sanctions, but the deal as presented was at best murky. Fortune wondered aloud whether Russian state-controlled institutions were the real purchasers—in a back-door arrangement that would, if exposed, cause the ruble to collapse.
To show his appreciation for their contribution to “strengthening cooperation with Russia,” in 2017 April Putin bestowed state medals upon the Qatari leader, Glencore’s CEO, and the head of Intesa Bank. But five months later, the deal came undone. The three named financial participants abandoned the pretense that they wanted to invest in Rosneft.
Then, in September, Sechin announced that Glencore and the Qataris were selling the bulk of their shares—$9 billion-worth—to a Chinese firm, the China Energy Corporation (CEFC). CEFC is one of the largest “private” companies in China, and one of the most closely held. Given the back-alley character of the transaction, it is unclear whether the sellers realized any gain.
Meanwhile, oil income was down, Russian expenditures—especially pensions—were up, and Russia was still starved of Western financing. Multilateral organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, were pressing Putin to privatize state companies. The new Chinese owners might have passed the privatization test—until two weeks ago, when the takeover of CEFC by two state-controlled Chinese companies was reported. One report suggests that CEFC’s head was looting the company and did not have the cash to buy the Rosneft shares. The Chinese government stepped in.
China’s Ministry of Finance, in combination with a state-controlled insurance company, will become owners of more than one-third of CEFC’s shares, giving the Chinese government effective control over the Rosneft shares, and with that, a major voice in Rosneft decision-making. Rosneft shares traded in the London market moved down sharply in late February, perhaps on rumors of the impending deal.
Now back to Carter Page. Why was this man, described by his Russian handlers as “an idiot,” offered any role whatsoever in this transaction, let alone a fee likely to run into the tens of millions of dollars? In retrospect, it seems clear that Sechin was desperate to find a partner to buy Rosneft shares. Putin needed the appearance of a privatization deal to prove he was invulnerable to sanctions. No Western investment bank would buy Rosneft shares, no matter how lucrative the package. Sechin had run out of options. As unimpressive as Page was, he was apparently worth a try.
Moreover, no matter how minimal his qualifications, Page simultaneously fit another bill: He was a conduit to Trump, helping to support Russia’s efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton and to install in Washington an American government friendly to Russia. The Russians were probing for multiple access points to Trump. They had seated the testy, mercurial Gen. Michael Flynn at Putin’s side during December 2015 festivities in Moscow. Page’s appointment to the Trump foreign policy team gave Russia another point of entry into Trump’s entourage. Sechin would seem to have had no other reason to deal with Page in the first place—unless Sechin thought that discreet coordination with the United States on oil and gas production, along the lines of OPEC production quotas that Putin had negotiated, was possible, and that Page could start that discussion.
For Russia, the stakes were very high, and however unlikely a player Page appeared to be, he might be useful. Ukraine’s break with the Kremlin threatened control over gas transit lines through Ukraine to Europe and forced Russia to make massive pipeline investments. If Russia were to lose its dominance in supplying Europe with gas, it might find itself courting domestic political crisis. Shoring up Rosneft’s oil revenues and with it the state budget was a high priority; taking a chance on a Page connection would be low-risk.
Russia’s oil-and-gas strategy continues to stumble along. Rosneft’s privatization, likely a Potemkin facade, has ended with China likely controlling a major chunk of Russian oil. Carter Page’s dream of a transcendent payday was a bubble that burst. As Guildenstern might have said, “the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.”
Steven E. Halliwell was Citibank corporate finance head for the former Soviet Union and CFO of several investment funds for Russia. Todd Gitlin is the chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University and author of several books on American politics and culture.