To Russia with love: the travels of Joseph Mifsud

This is one in a series of articles about the Trump-Russia affair and the characters involved.

Misfud (centre) outside Moscow State University in 2014

A document released by the US Justice Department last month described contacts between George Papadopoulos, an adviser for Donald Trump’s election campaign, and an unnamed “professor” who offered to help fix a meeting between Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

It didn’t take long for journalists to identify the “professor” as Maltese-born Joseph Mifsud who promptly disappeared leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Some of those questions relate to his activities in Britain and Italy but perhaps more important is the question of his connections in Russia: what were they, and how did they come about?

His career began at the University of Malta where he became head of the education faculty in 1997. He also claims to have “served prominently” in the Maltese foreign ministry and to have played a “vital” role in Malta’s joining of EU in 2004 — though it’s doubtful whether he actually did.

In 2008, rather surprisingly in view of his modest academic record, Mifsud became president of the new Euro-Mediterranean University (Emuni) — unanimously elected by its general assembly.

Based in Slovenia, Emuni was a product of international cooperation. It had been formed under the auspices of the intergovernmental Union for the Mediterranean and co-founded by four existing universities: the University of Haifa in Israel, the University of Maribor in Slovenia, the University of Sousse in Tunisia and the University of Urbino in Italy.

Mifsud at Campus Mare Nostrum, Murcia, in 2012

Mifsud was a hyperactive networker and the idea of international collaboration among universities clearly appealed to him. Whatever else that achieved, it gave him plenty of opportunities to travel around making speeches, signing partnership agreements and generally being treated as an important person.

Judging by several videos on the internet, he was not a particularly inspiring speaker and he tended to talk in generalities. Here is a video of him at the University of Barcelona in 2011, waffling for 43 minutes about the concept of Emuni. There’s another here, at Campus Mare Nostrum, Murcia, in 2012.

Cultivating Russian links at Emuni

Shortly after becoming head of Emuni, Mifsud began developing its relations with Russia — though Russia was not itself a member of the Union for the Mediterranean. In June 2009 he travelled to Moscow and signed a letter of intent with the Peoples’ Friendly University of Russia regarding joint research and study programmes. He also gave a lecture in St Petersburg at the state university’s School of International Relations.

He returned to Russia in March 2011, giving a presentation at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) — an academic institution run by the Russian foreign ministry — plus others at the Peoples’ Friendly University and the School of International Relations in St Petersburg. He also had meetings with the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Solzhenitsyn Foundation and the Russkij Mir Foundation. During the visit he signed a memorandum of understanding with the foreign ministry’s MGIMO with a view to organising joint degrees and joint conferences.

Mifsud’s time at Emuni came to an abrupt end in July 2012, however, when he left under a cloud. Emuni said he owed €39,332 for wrongly-claimed expenses, mobile phone “over-usage” and penalties regarding “incompliance”. According to an audit report, he had run up a mobile phone bill of €13,767 during one financial year, when the university’s upper limit was €3,600. Mifsud later dismissed this as a “non-issue” stirred up by political foes in Malta.

Meanwhile, Mifsud was beginning to establish himself at two other institutions: the London Academy of Diplomacy and Link Campus University in Italy.

‘Globalistics’ in Moscow

In 2013, he attended a “Globalistics conference” at Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) and during his visit invited MSU to “join a project to reform Link Campus University in Rome to give it the nature of a genuinely international educational institution”.

Yuri Sayamov of the Faculty of Global Processes at MSU described Mifsud’s proposal in an article for the Russian publication, International Affairs:

Joseph Mifsud … proposed an overhaul of Link, a project that would combine some of the best aspects of the Anglo-Saxon and classical European systems of higher education and involve use of achievements by Russia, China and India and other non-Western nations that are higher education leaders and have made significant contributions to current formats for training excellent specialists in various fields.

One of the borrowings from the Anglo-Saxon model was the campus principle. The campus would be fitted with facilities for recreation, sports and participation in public affairs as well as with residences. The classical European system would be the source of standards for education.

Non-Western achievements would be used to make education meet modern and future practical needs, and for this reason the authors of the project were keen to cooperate with Lomonosov Moscow State University, one of the world’s leading universities and the flagship of the Russian higher education system, a system that has rich traditions and unique experience.

This international center for research and education is expected to represent a new model of campus, a campus that, on the one hand, provides students with all they need for education, development and a fulfilling life but, on the other, does not isolate itself and intensively builds external ties in a bid to raise the university’s education standards and ensure the organic involvement of its graduates in international processes. Hence the words “link” and “campus” in the university’s name.

An agreement between Link and MSU came to fruition and it is now one of 25 international partnerships between Link and other universities. Of the 25, seven are in Russia:

* Lomonosov Moscow State University
* Kuban State University of Physical Education, Sport and Tourism
* Kaliningrad State Technical University
* Sholokhov Moscow State University for Humanities
* Ural State University of Economics
* Baikal State University of Economics and Law
* Saint Petersburg State University of Services and Economics

Whatever benefits these hook-ups bring, they are not something Link highlights in its video for prospective students. The video talks about the delights of campus life in Rome, Italian food and wine, but not the benefits of cooperation with Baikal or Kaliningrad.

On 24–25 April 2014, Mifsud attended the Global University Summit in Moscow, representing the London Academy of Diplomacy. His colleague, Nabil Ayad also attended, as did Professor Richard Harvey and Dr Francis King from the University of East Anglia which at that stage was validating the academy’s courses.

Talks with the ambassador

Ambassador Yakovenko (left) with Mifsud on 29 May 2014

Back in London on 29 May, visited Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko at his residence and the pair posed for a photograph in front of a huge fireplace. The embassy reported their meeting on its website, saying that Mifsud had “presented his views on the results of the Global University Summit” and they “also discussed different issues of the Russian-British cooperation in the sphere of international relations, diplomacy, science and education”.

On 10 July, Russian embassy official Ernest Chernukhin and a delegation from MSU visited Mifsud at the London Academy of Diplomacy. The embassy’s website said they discussed “different issues of Russian-British cooperation in the sphere of high education” including the collaboration between MSU and the London Academy of Diplomacy.

Embassy official Chernukhin (left) with Mifsud at the London Academy of Diplomacy, 10 July 2014

Author’s note: The embassy’s report gives the date as 10 July, without stating which year. Some published articles have assumed it happened this year — 2017 — which is impossible because by then the academy had closed. Further searches of the website have revealed a page showing the year was actually 2014.

On 19–20 October 2014, Mifsud was back in Moscow. On behalf of the London Academy of Diplomacy he signed an agreement with the Faculty of Global Processes at MSU which provided for “joint research, exchanges of trainees and teachers, the possibility of creating joint Masters programmes, holding conferences and publishing joint training materials”.

By this stage Mifsud’s Russian connections were moving up a notch and becoming more political: he was starting to be treated in Moscow as an expert on international relations.

The Valdai Club

Immediately after his visit to MSU Mifsud attended a gathering of the Valdai Discussion Club — apparently for the first time.

Valdai has been described as the Russian equivalent of Davos, though
other descriptions have been less complimentary: “a swanky high-level conference put on by the Russian elite”, “a project used as blatant propaganda by the Kremlin” and “Putin’s Useful Idiots”.

The October 2014 Valdai conference was especially significant because of a speech by Putin (transcript here). The political backdrop to this was the growing crisis over Ukraine and the conflict in Syria, and some regarded it as Putin’s most important speech for seven years. A news report by Reuters, on the other hand, described it as “a 40-minute diatribe” and said:

“The speech was one of the most hostile Putin has delivered against the West and it appeared partly intended to show Russian voters he will stand up to the rest of the world and defend their interests.”

Following Putin’s speech, Mifsud was interviewed about it for the government-controlled Sputnik News.

Mifsud’s connections with Valdai continued after that. In November 2015 he wrote an article for the Valdai website about international diplomacy. Russian “military participation” in Syria, it said, “was clearly organised in such a way as to ensure that diplomacy also takes its course”:

“The United States administration is on the defensive, still heavily labouring under the internal repercussions of the nuclear deal with Iran, the ‘fiasco’ in Libya, the heating up of the presidential race, the dismantling of the ‘iron partnerships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the overt economic power struggle with China.

“On the other hand, the Russian leader has walked the talk with ‘facts on the ground’ and has ensured that the Russian presence emanating from its direct involvement in the war in Syria will have a major impact on the shared solution and on the continued Russian naval presence in Tartus.”

The article also mentions a question that Mifsud posed to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and Lavrov’s reply — though it’s not clear whether this was a personal conversation with Lavrov or a question Mifsud had raised from the audience at Valdai.

Another of Mifsud’s articles for Valdai, in February 2016, talked about preparations for the Brexit referendum and praised British prime minister David Cameron for his “astuteness”. It hasn’t aged well.

The ‘MFA connection’

As far as the Trump/Russia affair is concerned, Mifsud’s most intriguing visit to Russia came in April 2016.

By that stage, George Papadopoulos had been formally appointed as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump election campaign and was in contact with Mifsud, hoping to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin (see chronology).

On or about April 18, according to the document released by the US Justice Department, Mifsud sent Papadopoulos an email introducing him to someone in Moscow with connections to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The person is not named in the document and is referred to only as the “Russian MFA Connection”.

In the ensuing weeks, Papadopoulos and the “Russian MFA Connection” had multiple conversations over Skype and email about setting “the groundwork” for a “potential” meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials, according to the document.

The Valdai panel discussion, 19 April 2016

Mifsud was probably in Russia when he sent his April 18 email to Papadopoulos because the following morning he took part in a Valdai event in Moscow — a panel discussion on global energy.

The panel consisted of Mifsud, Professor Igor Tomberg of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Stephan Roh, a Swiss lawyer who officially resides in Monaco. A short report of the discussion appears on the Valdai website.

Chairing the discussion was Ivan Timofeev, who is programme director of Valdai and also programme director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) — a think tank established in 2010 by presidential decree.

A video apparently recorded on the same day shows Timofeev interviewing Misfud about energy.

Subsequent press reports in the US (here and here) have pointed to Timofeev as the “Russian MFA Connection”, and it is now confirmed that Timofeev did correspond with Papadopoulos.

Three days after the Valdai event, Papadopoulos received an email from the “Russian MFA Connection” offering to meet in London or Moscow with a view to “moving forward” on the proposed Trump-Putin meeting.

But that was not all. On April 26, having returned from Moscow, Mifsud met Papadopoulos for breakfast at a London hotel and informed him — and indirectly the Trump campaign too — that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”. Mifsud said he had learned about this during his Moscow trip.

Another little puzzle in this story involves Monaco resident Stephan Roh. For the purposes of the Valdai discussion he was introduced as the president and chief executive of ILS Energy, a consultancy firm based in Hong Kong, but some of his other business interests have connections with Mifsud.

The website of his law firm, RoH Attorneys at Law, names Mifsud as its consultant. Roh is also on the administrative council of Link Campus University in Italy and has a company called Drake Global which is reported to be investing in Link.

More mysteriously, in February 2016 Roh registered another company called London Centre for International Law and Diplomacy — a name which sounds oddly like a blend of the London Centre of International Law Practice (where Mifsud and Papadopoulos both worked) and the now-defunct London Academy of Diplomacy (where Mifsud was director). So far, internet searches reveal nothing about its activities.

UPDATE 3 May 2016: Mifsud visited Moscow in October 2017 as a member of a Saudi delegation headed by King Salman, according to a report by Alberto Nardelli for BuzzFeed. Mifsud is said to have taken part in a seminar about security challenges in Yemen organised by the Russian Council of International Affairs (RIAC) and the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.