The most prominent Russian oligarch caught up in the latest round of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration is a man with strong ties to some Canadian business leaders.
On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department moved to slap sanctions on Oleg Deripaska and six other Russian business leaders, freezing their assets and prohibiting dealings with them. The government attributed its actions to these business tycoons’ propensity to benefit from harmful Russian government actions, such as “attempts to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”
Mr. Deripaska, who controls several industrial and aluminum businesses, including Basic Element and power-plant operator En+ Group, was singled out for tight ties to the Russian state, possessing a Russian diplomatic passport and allegations of criminal activity. More than half of the 12 businesses that were sanctioned on Friday fall under his control.
Canadian officials responded cautiously to these actions. “Decisions whether to sanction certain individuals and entities are made strategically and in close co-ordination with our partners,” Elizabeth Reid, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement. “Details surrounding the process are not discussed publicly in order to preserve the integrity of the process.”
Still, the move to limit Mr. Deripaska’s activities in the United States calls attention to his long history of working contacts to drum up business opportunities, including those in Canada.
Mr. Deripaska burst onto the Canadian scene in 2007, when he connected with Frank Stronach, who was chairman of Magna International Inc. at the time.
The Russian oligarch invested US$1.54-billion to obtain 20 million Magna shares and also paid US$150-million to Mr. Stronach’s personal consulting firm to gain a stake in a holding company that would control the auto-parts giant Mr. Stronach founded in 1957. Mr. Deripaska and Mr. Stronach were to exercise joint control over the holding company in a deal that won the personal blessing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Deripaska was forced, however, to sell his shares in Magna in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008 when he needed to raise money to cover a margin call. Several of his businesses were in financial turmoil at the time.
Siegfried Wolf, as co-chief executive officer of Magna through that period, played a key role in bringing Mr. Stronach and Mr. Deripaska together. Mr. Wolf later left the Canadian firm to join one of Mr. Deripaska’s companies.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Deripaska was making waves in other ways. He joined Barrick Gold Corp. chairman Peter Munk and other partners to build Porto Montenegro, a luxury super-yacht marina that could house their boats and those of other wealthy business elite.
At the time, Mr. Deripaska was being billed as the richest man in Russia, and among his ventures owned an aluminum business in Montenegro that, while small by his standards, made up a major portion of the Balkan country’s exports. He and Mr. Munk became friends as well as business associates, with Mr. Munk once giving Mr. Deripaska’s son a load of maple syrup, which was transferred between the moored vessels.
The two men would mull forging other ventures together over the years. In the mid-2000s, Barrick explored getting more active in the Russian market, but never made a concrete move. As of now, there are no current ventures between Mr. Deripaska and Barrick, and the company has no active interests in Russia, according to a spokesman.
Mr. Deripaska made other forays into Canada that didn’t amount to major investments, either. In 2012, his company United Co. Rusal signed a memorandum of understanding with Quebec-based junior mining company Orbite Aluminae Inc. that was aimed at building its first smelter-grade alumina production facility. A spokesman for the company, now called Orbite Technologies Inc., confirmed that the arrangement never amounted to anything and was wound up in 2015.
Over the years, Mr. Deripaska’s relationship with Canada hasn’t always been smooth. Disclosures related to the initial public offering of his aluminum business United Co. Rusal Plc in 2009 noted that he was twice denied visas to Canada in 2003 and 2006 “based on alleged criminality.” The document states that Mr. Deripaska challenged these denials, and was then issued visas in subsequent years.
Mr. Deripaska has been spotted in Canada recently, including rubbing shoulders with the leaders of major lenders and pension funds in the audience of various Munk Debates. Late last year, he was in attendance at a discussion with Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Attendees recall that Mr. Deripaska was characteristically quiet at these events, which he attended in the capacity of a friend of Mr. Munk.
The sanctions on Mr. Deripaska have raised questions. It’s difficult to understand the U.S. sanctions policy, one source close to Mr. Deripaska said Friday, noting that it’s not clear why some people are on the list and others are not. Sanctions are not good for anyone because they discriminate against some people and cause mistrust that makes it harder to do business, the source said.
Mr. Deripaska, who has long been the target of civil lawsuits questioning the methods he used to build his aluminum empire, expressed frustration with the reputation that he and other Russian business men had developed over the length of his career in an open letter posted to his website last year.
“Russians are systematically portrayed in traditional US media (and in all messaging by US government officials) as savage barbarians, thieves, aggressors, and as a people who despise and oppose liberty and its principles,” he wrote. “These clichéd and false demonizations do little to foster constructive relations between our countries.”
With reports from Michelle Zilio and Rick Cash