As Russian scandals involving sex, billionaires, politicians, and talkative alleged ex-lovers go, this is a crazy one. And it's only getting weirder.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's exposé this week of a meeting between Kremlin-connected billionaire Oleg Deripaska and a top official on a yacht has already triggered a warning of legal action, as well as a rape allegation -- subsequently retracted as a joke -- by a woman who claims to have been the tycoon's lover.
Deripaska said in a February 9 statement that he would vigorously fight "any attempts to create and disseminate false information," vowing to use "all legal measures" and defend his "honor and dignity in court."
His statement came a day after opposition Navalny's salacious exposé of a meeting between Deripaska and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko aboard the tycoon's yacht in the waters off Norway.
Navalny alleges that Deripaska's lavish reception of Prikhodko -- which was documented by video footage posted on social media and appears to have occurred in August 2016 -- constitutes bribery of a senior official.
In his statement, Deripaska denied committing any "unlawful actions" and warned media outlets not to disseminate "these mendacious accusations."
Deripaska's statement did not specify which accusations he was referring to or deny that that he met with Prikhodko on the yacht.
Prikhodko, a former top foreign-policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggested to the newspaper RBK that he would like to fight with Navalny, but he didn't address the allegations in the exposé.
"By all accounts, this deserves a man-to-man response, but we will remain on the legal field," RBK quoted him as saying. "This political loser has yet again tried to spur a provocation and remind [the world] about himself, by chaotically mixing up the possible with the impossible -- from my friend, to the American President Trump, to Manafort, whom I personally don't know."
He suggested that Deripaska was likely to sue Navalny.
Asked if he would comment on the matter, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying, "No, I couldn't, and wouldn't want to do that."
'How To Seduce A Billionaire'
The scandal echoes the 1990s information wars between powerful Russian political players in which kompromat -- or compromising materials -- was frequently deployed to discredit and undermine rivals.
Some have likened it to the sex-tape scandal that led to the ouster of Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Skuratov in 1999.
It has also has left many political watchers in Russia scratching their heads, particularly about the role and motivation of the young woman who posted the video footage at the center of Navalny's expose.
The Belarusian woman, who goes by the name Nastya Rybka, claims to have carried on an affair with Deripaska.
Her Instagram account features a photo of the two together on Deripaska's yacht. She also posted audio in which Deripaska and Prikhodko appear to be discussing U.S.-Russian relations, though it was not possible to conclusively verify that they are the two men speaking.
Rybka is a close associate of a Belarus-born man who goes by the name Alex Lesley and who describes himself as a "sex guru" who teaches classes for men on seducing women.
Lesley, who was profiled in the British media last year over his purported plan to challenge President Vladimir Putin for the Kremlin, is seen in photographs on Rybka's Instagram account cavorting with her and other young women in locations all over the world.
Navalny says he and his team discovered Rybka's social-media posts by chance after looking into a September stunt in which several of her scantily clad associates entered his Moscow office.
After Navalny published the investigation, Rybka took to Instagram to thank the politician for the attention.
Her social-media posts featuring Deripaska remained accessible on February 9.
Rybka is also the listed author of a book published last year titled Diary On How To Seduce A Billionaire that, according to Navalny's investigation, appears to reference the yacht ride with Deripaska and Prikhodko -- though it does not give their real names.
Russian journalist and political commentator Oleg Kashin wrote in a February 9 column that Rybka's behavior was "the most inexplicable aspect" of the scandal.
"Who and in what way guaranteed the safety of the young woman? Why did no one stop her at the very start of her media activities?" Kashin wrote for the Russian news site Republic.ru.
'Wall Of Silence'
Major Russian newspapers avoided reporting on Navalny's investigation in their February 9 editions in what Navalny called a "wall of silence" that is "unusual even for us."
"And we, believe me, know everything about media censorship," added Navalny, a leading Kremlin foe who is barred from running in the March 18 presidential election due to a criminal conviction he calls politically motivated.
His investigation was quickly reported by independent-minded radio stations and news sites, and prominent Russian newspapers and news agencies picked up on the story following Deripaska's statement on February 9.
Deripaska previously did business with Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump who has been indicted in the United States on money laundering, conspiracy, and other charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
Last year he filed a lawsuit against the Associated Press in U.S. federal court, claiming the news agency defamed and libeled him with its report on his business ties to Manafort, with whom the Russian tycoon had formed a joint venture to invest in Ukraine that later fell apart.
A U.S. judge in October dismissed the lawsuit, saying Deripaska had not disputed "any material facts" in the AP story.