Something strange happened in mid-December involving Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch.
Late last year, the U.S. government signaled that it was about to level a new round of sanctions targeting people and entities linked to Deripaska, according to two Western officials with knowledge of the communication. Back in April 2018, the U.S. sanctioned the oligarch, who once lent millions of dollars to convicted Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort as part of a decades-long relationship between the two men. Over the following months, Deripaska’s allies made a deal with Treasury to limit Deripaska’s control over the companies in exchange for sanctions relief. Then Treasury lifted the sanctions on the companies—though the sanctions on the oligarch himself are still in place. In the year since then, it’s been all quiet on the Deripaska sanctions front.
Until December, that is. What’s strange is that despite the signal, Treasury didn’t follow through and the sanctions—which would have targeted the unnamed people and entities because of their proximity to Deripaska—didn’t materialize. It’s been two months since the U.S. indicated that the new sanctions were about to come out, and there’s been no movement from Treasury on the oligarch. The two months of inaction has stirred suspicions of political interference in the sanctions process.
“Sanctions are part of foreign policy, as directed by the president of the United States and political appointees that supervise career professionals and not the other way around,” a Treasury official told The Daily Beast.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. A State Department spokesperson said Foggy Bottom does not preview specific sanctions actions and would not confirm or deny whether any specific person or entity was being considered for sanctions.
“We have and will continue to impose costs on Russia until it ceases its reckless behavior,” the spokesperson added.
Brian O’Toole, formerly a senior official at OFAC, said the apparent freeze on pending Deripaska sanctions may be a case of political meddling. If Treasury canceled the sanctions because officials there thought Russian authorities were getting in line and rendering them unnecessary, then that could explain the pause, he said.
“If there was no such promise made or no such deal that was struck, then I think the pulling of the action suggests that there was a political decision to pull it, not a technocratic decision,” O’Toole added. “Somebody overruled OFAC, essentially—that’s the most likely scenario.”
And Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who has focused on Deripaska, said the news concerned him.
“In the latest episode of the sordid spectacle of Trump helping Putin, attempted constraint of a Putin buddy has apparently once again been thwarted,” he said in a statement. “In previous episodes, Trump granted special treatment for Deripaska. A strong bipartisan House vote resolved no way. Trump sycophant McConnell blocks the resolution shortly before the announcement of a new Russian aluminum plant in Kentucky. A year later, even the Trump Treasury Department apparently recognized the wrongdoing, but doing wrong to benefit Putin is always right in the Trump Administration.”
Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate with an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion, entered the Treasury Department’s crosshairs in the wake of the Kremlin’s campaign to shape American opinion about the 2016 election.
Manafort and Deripaska have known each other for more than a decade. Manafort said he represented Deripaska “on business and personal matters,” per a statement to CNN. In 2005, according to the AP, Manafort pitched Deripaska on a public relations campaign that would “greatly benefit the Putin government.”
The relationship grew complicated when, per 2014 Cayman Island court documents, Manafort came to owe Deripaska $19 million. Despite that, they appear to have kept an open communication channel during the 2016 presidential campaign. Manafort’s spokesperson confirmed that he and an associate discussed sharing updates on the campaign with Deripaska during his time as chairman.
“If he needs briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote in one email.
On April 6, 2018, the department announced sanctions on Deripaska and En+ Group, a holding company that controlled Deripaska’s Russian aluminum giant, Rusal. At the time of the sanctions, Deripaska was the majority shareholder of En+.
The sanctions sent global aluminum markets into a tailspin, and many of America’s Western European allies—including Ireland and Sweden—panicked about the impact sanctions would have. Then a mad scramble commenced to find a way to punish Deripaska without upending a major sector of the global economy. Lord Gregory Barker, the chairman of the board of En+, negotiated a deal with Treasury that purported to limit Deripaska’s control of Rusal and EN+ in exchange for sanctions relief. Treasury signed on, and Deripaska began to unwind himself from En+.
But the deal immediately drew criticism. A document reviewed by The New York Times indicated that the agreement would let Deripaska and his allies maintain control of En+ while also letting him get out of nine figures’ worth of debt.
On top of that, Rusal—the aluminum company that En+ controls—picked up a new board chairman as part of the deal for sanctions relief. Its pick was a French national named Jean-Pierre Thomas who regularly appeared on Russian state TV and defended Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as The Daily Beast first reported.
The addition of Thomas was viewed as an apparent effort by Rusal to poke the U.S. in the eye; Treasury specifically said Russia’s enabling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on civilians was part of the reason for the new sanctions. Thomas, however, had pushed conspiracy theories trying to exonerate Assad from responsibility for those very chemical weapons attacks. Two weeks after The Daily Beast story ran, he was kicked off Rusal’s board at the orders of Treasury, per the company.
Treasury’s communication about plans for additional sanctions likely indicates that as of mid-December, the department felt the current measures aren’t doing enough to change the oligarch’s behavior. It’s unclear if the two months that followed got Treasury officials to change their minds or if intervention from some outside force kept them from following through.
UPDATE 2/18/2020: A spokesperson for Deripaska passed along the following letter from the oligarch.
Dear Ms. Swan, I am not going to comment on your bizarre political fantasies regarding the US Treasury’s collective thought processes.
What does concern me is that the article repeats a number of defamatory and simply false allegations. It is a matter of public record that I have not had any dealings with Paul Manafort for several years – long before the 2016 US presidential election – as even some cursory desktop research would have revealed. The only indirect contact has been via my representatives who have been trying to get back the money that Manafort effectively stole from me.
I see how it might be inconvenient for you to acknowledge this point. Without the alleged links to Manafort during the election period, your whole argument falls apart. Evidently, you decided not to let facts get in the way of what you saw as a good story.
I therefore ask you to publish this letter and amend the article to clearly reflect my position.