Secretive Russian billionaire vents to US conservatives

Secretive Russian billionaire vents to US conservatives

Russia's metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, right, walks with President Vladimir Putin, at the Apec summit at Da Nang in November of last year. (AP photo)
Russia's metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, right, walks with President Vladimir Putin, at the Apec summit at Da Nang in November of last year. (AP photo)

It's not every day that a Russian billionaire submits a op-ed piece to the Daily Caller, the conservative US website. When the billionaire in question is as media-shy as Oleg Deripaska, something extraordinary is going on. As the unfortunate recipient of an oversized role in the "Trump-Russia" scandal, he has had enough and is not quite sure how to defend himself.

The famously aggressive media handlers for Mr Deripaska, worth $7.9 billion according to Bloomberg Billionaires, must have chosen the Daily Caller for its deep scepticism of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

In the op-ed, the investigation and surrounding narrative are compared with the satirical film Wag the Dog, in which a US president's staffers invent a fake war to prop him up. Most of the article is invective against the US "Deep State", and in particular against Victoria Nuland, formerly the top Russia hand in the US State Department.

Mr Deripaska claims to have heard her say at last month's Munich Security Conference that she and a group of US senators were "Deep State-proud loyalists" aiming to reassure the audience about continuity in US policy. The "Deep State" is spinning the Russian narrative, Mr Deripaska wrote, to "manufacture a boogeyman" in the interests of the military industrial complex which needs more global defence spending.

Why has Mr Deripaska published this? He is not known as an op-ed writer, and his few interviews have been colourless affairs. He's a man of action, not ideas, the victor of the so-called aluminum wars of the 1990s, a brutal struggle that filled entire cemeteries in Siberia. In his twenties, as manager of a major aluminum smelter in Sayanogorsk, he once got in his car to chase, alone, a column of trucks loaded with stolen metal from his factory.

The closest we get to an answer is this bit of the op-ed: "Unfortunately, I am personally familiar with this group. Before they moved to their current, bigger ambitions of reversing the US presidential election results, they scurrilously attacked me and others from the shadows for two decades."

Because of his history of ruthless corporate invasion, Mr Deripaska, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2000s paying off former partners, has long been unwelcome in the US. He has struggled to get a visa or do business there. In an effort to gain a foothold, he has paid one Washington lobbyist after another, trying different firms with different party affiliations.

He paid Alston & Bird, the law firm of Bob Dole, which managed to get him a visa. That lasted a year, then he was barred again. He also paid Democrat-linked lobbyist Adam Waldman, who has apparently been in contact with Senator Mark Warner and former British spy Christopher Steele, both heavily involved in shaping the Trump-Russia narrative.

But his biggest mistake was working with Paul Manafort, the super-lobbyist and former campaign chairman for Donald Trump. Mr Deripaska bankrolled Mr Manafort's failed Ukraine investment plans, receiving a introduction to Senator John McCain in return. Nothing happened as a result, which would've have been disappointing enough for Mr Deripaska.

But the aluminum tycoon has suffered the further consequence of becoming mired in the Trump-Russia scandal through the association. (Mr Deripaska even sued the Associated Press over a story linking him to Mr Manafort but lost because the judge decided he hadn't been accused of any crime.) To add insult to injury, Mr Deripaska's industry is one of the biggest targets of Mr Trump's new aluminum tariff. Russia, where Mr Deripaska's company is the No.1 aluminum producer, is the second-biggest supplier of the metal to the US.

The Trump-Russia mess hit home for him last month. Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny dug up the Instagram account of an escort who claimed she had spent time on a yacht with Mr Deripaska, who is married, and a Russian deputy prime minister. Among other things, she recorded a brief conversation in which a man closely resembling Mr Deripaska blames Ms Nuland for the sorry state of the US-Russian relationship.

Most recently, the escort, Anastasia Vashukevich, was in detention in Thailand for working without a permit, begging publicly for the US to grant her asylum in return for providing crucial information on Mr Trump's ties to Russia.

Mr Deripaska is angry and frustrated. His remarkable life, which started in a southern Russian village and led him, by way of some of the roughest parts of Russia, to palaces, French villas and yachts, taught him never to be a sucker.

But the US establishment has -- at least as he must see it -- repeatedly suckered him. It has taken his money and continued rejecting him. For good measure, it's now smearing him with this sticky Trump-Russia mud that may never wash off.

It's a plot worthy of a Tom Wolfe novel. I'm not a fan of Mr Deripaska's, having experienced his aggressive tactics as a newspaper editor in Moscow. On the other hand, I don't think the Washington insiders who take his money and deliver nothing are much better than Russian cops who'll extort a bribe and do zilch to earn it.

The Russian system has worked for Mr Deripaska; courts and law enforcement have acted at his behest. The intricacies of American structures, however, have proven too much for him. Mr Deripaska won't change anything by publishing conspiracy theories in the Daily Caller -- but at least he can vent his frustration. - BLOOMBERG VIEW

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin.

Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg View columnist

Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin.

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