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Boozman, Cotton resist lifting Russian's sanctions

by Frank E. Lockwood | January 17, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
U.S. Sens. John Boozman, left, and Tom Cotton are shown in these file photos.

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas' two U.S. senators broke with President Donald Trump's administration Wednesday, opposing efforts to ease Russian sanctions.

John Boozman and Tom Cotton were among 11 Senate Republicans supporting a resolution targeting businesses tied to Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska, a Russian billionaire and key Kremlin insider.

Facing opposition from the White House and from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the resolution's supporters needed 60 votes to move the proposal toward a final vote. The vote was 57-42.

Passage of a resolution of disapproval by the House and the Senate would have prevented the sanctions from being lifted.

Democrats had argued that the sanctions decision shouldn't be made until after special counsel Robert Mueller completes his investigation, which has scrutinized Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Ties between associates of Trump and Russian officials have been scrutinized. Court documents last year showed that Deripaska has had financial dealings with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted last year of tax and bank fraud.

In April, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against Deripaska and six other Russian oligarchs in April, citing Russia's "malign activity around the globe."

Twelve companies owned or controlled by the oligarchs were also sanctioned, as were 17 senior Russian government officials.

At the time, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin cited Russia's occupation of Crimea and its efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine, its military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, its "malicious cyber activities" and its attempts "to subvert Western democracies."

"Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government's destabilizing activities," Mnuchin said when the sanctions were unveiled.

A Treasury Department news release said Deripaska had been "investigated for money laundering, and has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering. There are also allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group."

But in December, the Treasury Department announced that it was lifting sanctions against three companies with ties to Deripaska, including United Co. Rusal, one of the world's largest aluminum companies. Mnuchin said the companies had "committed to significantly diminish Deripaska's ownership and sever his control."

In order to lift sanctions, Deripaska would lower his stake in En+ Group, Rusal's holding company, from about 70 percent to roughly 45 percent. He had already resigned from the boards of Rusal and En+.

Sanctions against Deripaska personally would remain.

While that satisfied the White House, it wasn't enough to sway Boozman.

"Even though this oligarch had divested substantially his interests in the company ... I felt like he would continue to have control, and this is a bad guy," the Republican from Rogers said.

Now is not the time to roll back sanctions, he said.

"I think that we need to stay firm with Russia," he said.

"We have evidence that they interfered with our election and are continuing to try to interfere," he said, referring to the 2016 elections.

Russia is attempting to destabilize Ukraine and Georgia, contributing to the bloodshed in Syria and committing cybercrimes, he said.

"The list just goes on and on," he said. "I think in this situation I wanted to continue to show our displeasure because of those things and not reward bad behavior."

At a luncheon with Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Mnuchin asked lawmakers to support the rollback of sanctions on the companies.

The Treasury Department's argument for lifting the sanctions was reasonable but didn't change Boozman's mind, the lawmaker said.

Cotton said he also was unswayed.

"Over the last eight months, the Treasury Department has worked very hard to try to reduce Oleg Deripaska's operational control of those companies. I commend them for those efforts. However I don't think the proposed deal adequately accounts for the way power and influence work in Moscow around [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's inner circle," the Republican from Dardanelle said.

With Deripaska continuing to have extensive ties to the companies, the problems will continue, Cotton said.

"I believe that Oleg Deripaska is a very bad actor who consistently works with Vladimir Putin and other Russian oligarchs to undermine U.S. interests around the world and that these companies will, in effect, remain under his control."

Putin and his allies are adversaries of the United States and Western democracies, Cotton said.

"Vladimir Putin is an aggressive dictator who consistently tries to undermine the United States and our interests around the world. He has meddled in our elections, he has invaded countries who are friendly to ours. He has harassed Americans through his government agents in countries all over the globe. He kills his own people. He denies them human rights. He consistently tries to undermine international security and peace," Cotton said.

While Cotton disagreed with this particular sanction decision, he said Trump's overall Russia policy is solid.

"President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama did not take seriously enough the threat from Russia," Cotton said.

Trump, on the other hand, has kicked out many Russian diplomats, closed some of its diplomatic facilities, increased U.S. military spending and supplied Ukraine with defensive weapons, Cotton noted.

"I don't think we've had an administration this tough on Russia since Ronald Reagan," he added.

The other Republican senators who voted with Democrats were Susan Collins of Maine; Steve Daines of Montana; Cory Gardner of Colorado; Josh Hawley of Missouri; John Kennedy of Louisiana; Martha McSally of Arizona; Jerry Moran of Kansas; Marco Rubio of Florida; and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Photo by AP file photo
In this July 2, 2015, file photo, Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska attends Independence Day celebrations at Spaso House, the residence of the American Ambassador, in Moscow, Russia.

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