One on One: Why we let the Russians off the hook

Published 11:16 am Saturday, March 2, 2019

Would you like to know why U.S. sanctions against companies owned by Russian billionaire and businessman Oleg Deripaska are being lifted?

You are the reason.

Me too.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

And so is everybody else who lives and votes in North Carolina.

Last April, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Deripaska and three of his companies for interfering in U.S. elections and for “money laundering, extortion and ordering the murder of a businessman.”

Deripaska is a friend and ally of Vladimir Putin and connected to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Shortly after Trump’s nomination, Manafort offered to give him private election briefings.

Last month the Treasury decided to remove sanctions on the three Deripaska companies, explaining that corporate arrangements would restrict Deripaska’s control. Congress can reverse the removal of sanctions.

The House, with 136 Republican members joining the Democrats, voted to reverse the Treasury’s action. But in the Senate the reversal got only 57 votes of 60 needed.

According to Benjamin Parker, writing in The Bulwark, several Republican senators voted to reverse because they did not believe these corporate arrangements would prevent Deripaska from influencing his companies’ actions. Senator Susan Collins: “He still would maintain significant control given his ties to Putin.”

Senator Josh Hawley: “I think he’s a bad a guy and he’s still in working control.”

Senator Marco Rubio “I still think he retains operational control.”

The New York Times journalist Kenneth P. Vogel writes that the corporate arrangements to limit Deripaska’s control of the companies “may have been less punitive than advertised. The deal contains provisions that free him from hundreds of millions of dollars in debt while leaving him and his allies with majority ownership of his most important company.”

Coincidentally, while Deripaska was in the news, I was reading another version of how business works in Russia as set forth in Bill Browder’s 2015 book, “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice.”

Browder tells how he made billions of dollars buying undervalued Russian stocks and properties after Communism ended in that country. Then he tells how Putin and his oligarch allies plotted to take it all away from him and his investors.

Browder fought back. In doing so he gained the ire of Putin and became, according to Browder’s book, Putin’s number one enemy. Russia declared Browder and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to be criminals. Browder fled Russia. Magnitsky stayed and was jailed, tortured and ultimately beaten to death by Russian prison officers. Browder documents the horrors of Russian business and government practices including corruption, torture and murder. Those facts played a role in Congress’s 2012 decision to impose sanctions on Russian individuals in a law designated as the Magnitsky Act.

Putin retaliated by terminating the program that allowed Americans to adopt Russian orphaned children.

Relief from the Magnitsky sanctions was one of the objectives of the Russians in their now famous Trump Tower meeting with Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. in July 2016.

Perhaps the conduct of Deripaska was not as bad as those who tortured and killed Magnitsky. But backing away from the sanctioning of his companies sends a wrong signal about the determination of Americans to take strong action when corrupt Russian businesses cheat, steal and murder.

So, why are you, I, and other North Carolinians responsible for the lifting of Deripaska sanctions?

The proponents of the sanctions needed only three more votes to win. Senator Bernie Sanders did not vote, but would have voted for the sanctions. The two other necessary votes were those of our Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. If you and I had let them know how strong we were for maintaining the Deripaska sanctions, I think it would have made a difference.

But we just did not get around to making a call to them.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.