LONDON — A former Russian official with close ties to Vladimir Putin who was put on a US sanctions list in 2014 is no longer due to speak at a conference funded by the European Union. BuzzFeed News had earlier revealed his planned participation.
Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways, Russia’s powerful railroad monopoly, was set to speak at a conference funded by the European Union, according to an agenda of the event seen by BuzzFeed News.
Yakunin was scheduled to speak in Brussels on Feb. 27 at “Against the Nationalist Tide: A Role for EU Cultural and Science Diplomacy.”
But hours after this story was published, a spokesperson for the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s foreign policy arm, told BuzzFeed News in an email that Yakunin's participation was "no longer foreseen."
"The event in question is not organised by the EEAS nor the [European] Commission, but by a project co-financed by the Commission," the spokesperson said. "It is the project coordinator who is responsible for the invitation list. When our attention was drawn to the possible participation of Mr Yakunin, the Commission has contacted the project coordinator who confirmed that the participation of Vladimir Yakunin is no longer foreseen."
Yakunin was placed on a US sanctions list in March 2014 as part of the country’s response to Russian actions in Ukraine, including the illegal annexation of Crimea. He was described in the measures as a “close confidant” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a member of the Russian leader’s inner circle. The two have known each other for decades.
He unexpectedly left the job at Russian Railways, one of the country’s largest employers, in 2015.
The Brussels conference is organised by the European Leadership in Cultural, Science and Innovation Diplomacy (EL-CSID), a project that has received funding from the European Union.
The event is due to be opened by the director for strategic communications of the EEAS, which is headed by Federica Mogherini. Mogherini has been criticized by some EU officials for being too lenient towards Russian aggression.
Yakunin has not been the target of EU sanctions. Last year he was granted a visa by Germany, where he had launched the Dialogue of Civilizations think tank, an organisation that focuses on conflict resolution. He is also known as a big supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church, and has reportedly funded anti-LGBT organizations. A representative for Yakunin denied to BuzzFeed News that he had funded anti-LGBT organizations.
“Whatever exchanges may have happened in the past, we are categorically against any views or activities that can incite hatred or in any way that go against the principle of dialogue,” said the spokesperson.
Still, Yakunin’s anticipated presence at the event was seen by some EU officials as part of a broader trend in which Mogherini and her closest advisers are seen as too soft towards Russia. As one of several examples cited, the officials claimed that Mogherini tried to water down references to Russia during the drafting process of an action plan against misinformation published last year.
The EU’s foreign policy chief was ultimately unsuccessful in her attempts, but didn’t attend a press conference announcing the plan, three officials noted. However, the next day she met with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the same officials added.
A spokesperson for the EEAS disputed the assertion that Mogherini was soft on Russia, adding that she has no link to the EL-CSID conference.
A spokesperson for the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute had earlier told BuzzFeed News in an email: “Vladimir Yakunin has been invited in his capacity as Chairman of the DOC [Dialogue of Civilizations] Research Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank in Berlin. The DOC is associated with the G20 and T20 [a group of think tanks associated with the G20], and works to bring together diverse voices from around the world in a spirit of mutual engagement. Both the DOC and Dr Yakunin are natural fits for the conference due to their extensive engagement over a number of years on key issues of relevance to the EU such as migration and inclusion.”
This story has been updated with comments from Yakunin's spokespeople.
This story has been updated with comments from the EEAS that Yakunin is no longer due to speak at the conference.