US Senate narrowly blocks retention of Aughinish sanctions

Democrats fall three votes short of target despite support of 11 Republicans

A vote to maintain sanctions on Russian energy giant Rusal has failed to pass in the US Senate in a move that will be welcomed by the Irish Government and the European Union. Rusal controls the Aughinish Alumina plant in Co Limerick

A resolution to disapprove the US treasury's decision to lift sanctions on three companies controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska was moved to the senate floor on Wednesday, but needed 60 votes to pass. Though 11 Republicans broke ranks with the Trump administration and voted with Democrats on the matter, only 57 senators voted in favour of the resolution.

It is not yet clear if the House of Representatives will move forward with similar legislation.

Opposition to the treasury's decision in December to ease sanctions on Rusal and two other companies after Mr Deripaska's share in the companies was reduced to below 50 per cent, has been building in Congress in recent weeks. In particular, focus has turned to Mr Deripaska's ties to Paul Manafort, US president Donald Trump's former campaign manager.


Ireland's Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall and ambassadors from Germany, France, Italy Britain, Sweden and Austria had been lobbying heavily behind the scenes in recent weeks to persuade members of Congress not to vote against the decision.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell accused Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of politicising the issue. The treasury's decision to lift the sanctions was "nuanced", he said, arguing that Mr Schumer's resolution "would overrule career civil servants at the treasury department and fire from the hip on one of the top foreign policy concerns of the United States".

Russian interference

The senate overwhelmingly voted in April last year to impose sanctions on Russian individuals, including Mr Deripaska, and his companies, over Russian interference in the 2016 election and the country’s incursion into Ukraine.

While the sanctions on the businessman remain, the treasury decided to lift the sanctions on three companies controlled by him in December following heavy lobbying from the EU in Washington. Under the original legislation, Congress has the right to oppose the decision within 30 days of being notified by the treasury.

Speaking earlier this week, Mr Schumer said the decision to grant sanction relief was “deeply flawed and wrong”.

He said the changes to the ownership structure of the companies secured by officials “fails to sufficiently limit Mr Deripaska’s control and influence of these companies”, noting that other Russian interests with links to the oligarch will still yield considerable control, including his ex-wife and father-in-law.

“There is no doubt that Mr Deripaska continues to control the company,” he said.

He also highlighted the links between Mr Deripaska and Mr Manafort, noting that last week it was reported that Mr Manafort passed on polling data to a close associate of Mr Deripaska during the presidential campaign.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent