AT FIRST GLANCE, the American government’s decision to lift sanctions on Oleg Deripaska’s business empire looks questionable. He is a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin and a former business partner of Donald Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Shares in EN+, Mr Deripaska’s holding firm, soared this week after a deal with America’s Treasury department that saw Mr Deripaska reduce his ownership stake below 50% in exchange for the sanctions relief. Given Mr Trump’s alleged fondness for Russia, many in America smelled a rat.
But what unfolded may be less a tale of wrongdoing than of incompetence. Richard Nephew, a former State Department sanctions specialist, compares the debacle to the children’s rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly—officials tried to solve a problem but compounded it. It began with the new Trump administration’s perceived softness on Russia, which spurred a Republican-controlled Congress to pass the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA) act in 2017, mandating the Treasury department to make a list of potential Russian targets.
For political reasons the Trump administration resisted the order and in 2018 published little more than a copy of the billionaires list from the Russian edition of Forbes, a magazine. Facing criticism, the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, sanctioned seven Russian businessmen and their firms several months later, most prominently Mr Deripaska, and his listed aluminium giant Rusal and the EN+ conglomerate that controlled it. Shares in EN+ and Rusal fell; so did the Russian rouble.
Yet Russia is more integrated into the global economy than other countries America has sanctioned. Hitting Rusal, a huge aluminium producer, roiled aluminum markets, disrupted supply chains, and strengthened Rusal’s Chinese competitors. The economic shocks touched American and European firms which relied upon Rusal’s aluminium, as well as EN+’s downstream assets in the West.
Officials in America, Europe and Russia began scrambling for a way out. The Treasury issued a series of exemptions that in effect kept the sanctions on Rusal and EN+ from going into force. Mr Deripaska orchestrated a lobbying campaign in Washington. EN+’s British chairman, Lord Gregory Barker of Battle, began shuttling between Mr Deripaska and the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to try and negotiate a plan.
The deal they cut has been touted by the Treasury as providing “unprecedented transparency”. It seems robust. Mr Deripaska will reduce his stake in EN+ from 70% to under 45%, will control just 35% of voting rights, and will not have access to dividends. VTB, a state-run Russian bank, will take on a large block of the shares, but has been forced to surrender voting rights for them to an independent director. Smaller chunks of shares will go to Glencore, a commodity trader, and Mr Deripaska’s charitable foundation; all stakes held by Deripaska-controlled entities or his relatives will also forfeit voting rights.
In all, two-thirds of the board will be controlled by independent directors; half of the board will come from America and Britain. Mr Deripaska himself will remain under sanctions. In the case of foul play, the Treasury can reimpose penalties on the companies. The deal has drawn support from European governments and prominent Russia hawks in Washington.
Critics contend that focusing on the 50% ownership threshold is overly legalistic. Although wresting control of the board from Mr Deripaska will limit his influence, it will not eliminate it, especially if senior management appointed under his leadership remains loyal. Nonetheless, for the Kremlin, the deal is hardly cause to celebrate. America forced a Russian oligarch to surrender control of a nationally significant company—an unsettling precedent. What is more, lifting one set of sanctions may make Congress and the Treasury eager to demonstrate their tough-on-Russia bonafides by slapping on another.