A US lobbying firm sought to recruit the ambassadors of France, Germany and several other countries to demonstrate international support for severing Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska's control of Rusal, the aluminum manufacturing giant sanctioned by Washington.
Documents made public by the Justice Department show that Mercury LLC drafted messages for at least six envoys to send to senior US government officials that expressed support for a plan to eliminate Deripaska's majority stake in the EN+ Group, the holding company that owns nearly 50 per cent of Rusal.
The records are the latest installment in a drama full of international intrigue.
Deripaska's close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin are under a microscope while unintended targets of the US penalties struggle with the punishment's impact.
It's unclear how many of the ambassadors sent the messages. But Jamaica's envoy did, underscoring concerns about the future of a Rusal-owned factory on the Caribbean island.
It fell to Barker, who was installed less than a year ago as chairman of EN+'s board, to persuade the Trump administration to lift the sanctions against both companies. To do that, he will have to assure the US that Deripaska is no longer calling the shots at EN+ or Rusal.
Barker, a former British energy minister, signed a contract with Mercury in early May — a month after the Treasury Department announced the sanctions. Mercury is to earn USD 108,500 every four weeks, according to the contract, to support Barker's efforts to negotiate Deripaska's exit from the EN+ board and "the reduction of his ownership interest in the company."
Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert on Russia's economic policy, said there can be only two possible owners of Rusal: the Russian government or Deripaska. That's because the aluminum company's main assets are giant smelters in east Siberia, a reality he said Treasury officials failed to grasp.
"It appears to me that both parties play the game now: Deripaska reduces his public exposure and the Treasury (Department) pretends that it is satisfied, gradually easing the sanctions," Aslund said.
The letters prepared for the envoys said Deripaska, not the companies, is the "true target" of the US sanctions. He's already resigned from the EN+ board. The Treasury Department has set a late October deadline for his 70 per cent stake in EN+ to be cut back to less than 50 per cent.
The "path for the United States to provide sanctions relief," the department said, is through Deripaska's divestment and relinquishment of control.
The draft messages, along with background material prepared by Mercury, warned that each country would be damaged economically if the sanctions aren't eased.
France and Germany rely on Rusal's aluminum in their automotive, telecommunications and aerospace industries. And Rusal is a full or part owner of factories that employ hundreds of people in Ireland, Sweden, Australia and Jamaica.
The ambassadors of France and Sweden did not send the messages, according to representatives from each embassy. The embassies of Germany, Ireland and Australia wouldn't say.
The Treasury Department announced sanctions against Deripaska in early April as part of an array of measures that targeted tycoons close to the Kremlin, cutting Rusal off from international financial institutions.
In spelling out the penalties, the department said Deripaska had been accused of illegal wiretaps, extortion, racketeering, money laundering and even death threats against business rivals.
Deripaska also has figured into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into links between the Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia due to Deripaska's connection to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who once worked as a consultant to the billionaire businessman. Prosecutors recently disclosed that Deripaska provided a Manafort company with USD 10 million around 2010, a transaction described as a loan on US income tax forms.
Neither Deripaska nor Manafort has been formally accused of taking part in Russian election-meddling; both have denied any involvement. The push to curb Deripaska's influence is playing out as Trump readies for a summit with Putin today in Helsinki.
Putin may try to call for Washington to relax the sanctions, which were triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea, interference in eastern Ukraine's separatist fighting and meddling in the 2016 US election.
The draft messages say that Barker's approach is supported by other board members and EN+'s minority shareholders. The Trump administration is urged to extend any "relevant deadlines" to allow the plan to be fully implemented, according to the messages.
There's no indication, however, of who or what EN+'s new majority shareholder would be. The Treasury Department and the State Department declined to comment on Mercury's lobbying effort.
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