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How a Russian aluminum giant escaped the noose of US sanctions

An aerial view shows the Rusal Achinsk Alumina Refinery, near the Siberian town of Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk region, Russia, April 29, 2018.

An aerial view shows the Rusal Achinsk Alumina Refinery, near the Siberian town of Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk region, Russia, April 29, 2018. 

Credit:

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

They were supposed to be the toughest sanctions the United States had ever imposed on a Russian oligarch. Seventeen days later, Washington watered them down.

On April 23, the US Treasury eased restrictions on billionaire Oleg Deripaska's aluminum company Rusal. Instead of barring Rusal from international markets, which is what the United States originally intended to do, the Treasury suggested it might lift the sanctions altogether.

Washington's change of course says a lot about the leverage held by the supply chain of a widely used commodity such as aluminum. 

It also suggests the Trump administration is hard-pressed as it juggles international economic battles it has opened on various fronts, including with China and Iran. 

Several European governments, including Germany and France, lobbied Washington to back down, according to more than a dozen US and EU officials and industry sources who spoke to Reuters.

Multinationals Rio Tinto and Boeing also appealed to the US Treasury, seeking a softening of the terms on Rusal. 

All made the same argument, the sources said: A squeeze on the largest producer of aluminum outside China would hit businesses around the world, disrupting production of myriad goods from cars and planes to cans and foil, and putting jobs at risk.

Unlike previous cases of sanctions on Russia, European countries did not have a chance to consult with Washington on punitive moves that would have ripple effects in the European economy, the sources said. One reason for the lack of dialogue: The US State Department no longer has a Sanctions Policy Coordinator to liaise with other governments, according to three US sources familiar with the matter and one European source. 

The former coordinator, Daniel Fried, retired last year and has not been replaced because of a hiring freeze ordered by the Trump administration at the department.   

Rusal, Rio Tinto and Boeing declined to comment.

The US Treasury, whose Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed the measures, said it worked to mitigate the sanctions' impact on allies and industries that faced "undesired collateral consequences." It did not comment on lobbying efforts. 

When asked if the lack of a sanctions coordinator had hindered international consultation, the State Department said it had held several discussions with European countries over the past year about sanctions and maintained a dialogue with them. It did not specify if it had discussed Russian sanctions.

The sanctions were the toughest the United States has imposed on a listed Russian company since Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea. The notice on April 6 gave buyers a deadline of 30 days to receive supplies from Rusal before dealings in dollars were prohibited.

Any individual or company that failed to comply would themselves face being shut out of the financial system, while the Treasury could seize any dollars paid to Rusal.

The effect was immediate. Prices for aluminum surged 15 percent as Rusal stopped supplying customers. As well as producing aluminum, the company produces alumina, a raw material needed to make aluminum. 

"They [the Treasury] destabilized the global aluminum industry. This is unprecedented and a massive overreach," said Anders Aslund, senior fellow at US think tank Atlantic Council.    

Rusal told metals and mining conglomerate Rio Tinto that it was suspending deliveries of alumina from its Irish plant in Aughinish to Rio's Dunkirk aluminum smelter in France, Europe's biggest aluminum production facility, according to the industry sources. The Russian company feared any payment it received would be seized by US authorities, the sources said.

Rusal also informed Trimet Aluminium it was halting alumina deliveries to the German firm's smelter in the French Alps and three factories in Germany, in Essen, Hamburg and Voerde. 

Trimet declined to comment.

The suspension of alumina deliveries risked halting Rio Tinto and Trimet's aluminum smelting operations and hitting businesses throughout the metal's supply chain. 

Governments take action

The market ructions set off a different kind of activity.

In the days following the sanctions notice, French, German, Irish and Italian officials lobbied against the restrictions, according to the EU sources. 

Many were worried the measures could lead to the closure of those plants and businesses in their countries that relied on Rusal supplies, and the potential loss of thousands of jobs. 

Ireland's foreign ministry complained to US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin after Dublin officials met Aughinish management on April 13 and were told the plant could shut down, threatening hundreds of jobs, an Irish government spokesman told Reuters. 

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire discussed the issue by phone with Mnuchin in the days following the sanctions notice and then in person in the week of April 16, during International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, according to a French finance ministry official. 

"We got in touch with the Americans as soon as it became clear there was an impact on some companies operating in France," the official said. He added that hundreds of jobs were at risk in France. "The Americans were constructive from the start." 

An Italian government source said Rome also lobbied Washington to soften the sanctions. 

Multinationals make move

Companies lobbied, too.

Rio Tinto contacted the French government and Trimet went to the German government, asking them to intervene with Washington, according to the industry sources. Rio Tinto also complained directly to OFAC, said two U.S. officials familiar with the developments. Trimet makes aluminum products for the auto, construction and packaging industries.

While most of the lobbying came from Europe, according to US officials, there were also concerns in the United States about the sanctions.

After the April 6 notice, planemaker Boeing expressed concern to the US government about rising aluminum prices, according to two industry sources familiar with the matter. Carmakers also complained about the possible impact of the sanctions on their businesses, said the sources, who declined to name the companies.

One of the sources said that, in addition to aluminum, carmakers were worried about a possible disruption to supplies of palladium, used in catalytic converters. Rusal doesn't produce palladium but it supplies soda to Norilsk Nickel, the world's biggest palladium producer.

American trade body the Aluminum Association told Reuters that, shortly after April 6, it shared market data with the Trump administration showing that last year the US industry imported 680,000 metric tons of Russian primary aluminum, or 12 percent of US demand.

The association raised concerns about the Rusal sanctions at meetings with the White House's National Economic Council and the US Trade Representative. It said the measures could constrain supplies for aluminum processors.

On April 23, little more than two weeks after imposing sanctions, OFAC softened the measures. It gave businesses six months instead of 30 days to wind down dealings with Rusal and said it might lift the sanctions altogether if Deripaska ceded control of the company. 

The announcement had an immediate market reaction, with aluminum prices falling as much as 10 percent. Aluminum prices now stand at $2,300 per ton, down from the $2,700 level they rose to following the April 6 sanctions notice, but still above the $2,000 seen before the measures were imposed.

David Mortlock, who designed earlier sanctions against Russia when he was Director for International Economic Affairs at the White House National Security Council in 2013-15, said such measures were not a precise science.

"Don't forget, sanctions can be adjusted if the impact is larger than OFAC wants," added Mortlock, now a partner at legal firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. 

"Every time you do it, you learn from your experience."

 

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