LONDON – A former Russian official with close ties to Vladimir Putin who was put on a US sanctions list in 2014 is set to speak at a conference funded by the European Union, according to an agenda of the event seen by BuzzFeed News.
Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways, Russia’s powerful railroad monopoly, is scheduled to speak in Brussels on Feb. 27 at “Against the Nationalist Tide: A Role for EU Cultural and Science Diplomacy.”
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 European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm 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 funded anti-LGBT organizations.
Still, Yakunin’s presence at the event is being seen by some EU officials as part of a broader trend in which Mogherini and her closest advisors 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.
The EEAS has been contacted for comment.