New Russia sanctions: A European concern

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US President Donald J. Trump (L) talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R), at a G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 8 July 2017. [Felipe Trueba/ EPA]

Washington-Moscow relations are threatening to plummet even further after the US decided to impose new sanctions. The new penalties are likely to have an impact on European companies too. George Voloshin examines the situation in the second part of this op-ed.

George Voloshin is head of the French branch of Aperio Intelligence, an independent corporate intelligence consultancy based in London. He is the author of two books on the geopolitics of Central Asia and over a hundred articles on international affairs, with a focus on Russia and the former Soviet Union.

The CAATSA provides for additional sanctions against foreign persons responsible for ‘serious human rights abuses in any territory forcibly occupied or otherwise controlled by the Government of the Russian Federation’.

This broad definition can potentially allow the US to prosecute for human rights violations not only in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria where Russia stations its troops, but also in the Donbass, eastern Ukraine.

The contested territory is currently held by the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, but Russia is rightly believed to be their main financial and military sponsor through a porous border beyond Kiev’s effective sovereignty.

Section 231 imposes restrictions on persons engaging in transactions with the Russian intelligence and defence sectors, likely in response to the Russian cyber meddling during 2016.

Section 234 does the same to foreign persons (no longer limited to Russian-owned or -controlled, as is currently the case) involved in the transfer of arms and related materiel to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Section 233 outlaws ‘direct and significant’ investments in or the facilitation of privatisation of Russian state-owned assets, in the amount of at least $10 million (at once or through a combination of investments of not less than $1 million each over a period of 12 months), if they ‘unjustly’ benefit Russian government officials or their family members.

Yet, the biggest surprise lies in the preceding section, which prohibits investments in and the provision of goods, services and technology – with a fair market value of $1 million or more or an aggregate fair market value of at least $5 million over 12 months – to Russia’s energy export pipeline projects.

Any such pipeline is fair game, but the US Congress seems to be taking aim at Nord Stream 2, a 1,200 km twin pipe which should connect Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea and start delivering first gas to the EU in 2020.

The CAATSA’s ‘Countering Russian Influence In Europe And Eurasia’ subtitle, which originally comes from a bill introduced in early June by the fiercely anti-Russian senator Benjamin Cardin, explicitly notes the ‘detrimental impacts’ of Nord Stream 2 on the EU’s ‘energy security, gas market development in Central and Eastern Europe, and energy reforms in Ukraine’.

The pipeline sanctions provision has been strongly opposed by both European energy companies and governments. Nord Stream 2 is a joint project between Gazprom, on the Russian side, and Engie, Royal Dutch Shell, OMV, Wintershall and Uniper, on the EU side.

The governments of Germany and Austria have been voicing their concerns since June about the real purport of US intentions, with Angela Merkel standing out as one of the most vocal critics.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has requested official exemptions for EU companies since many within Europe suspect the Trump Administration of trying to use sanctions in order to promote US economic interests on the continent.

The CAATSA states in Section 257 that ‘the United States Government should prioritise the export of United States energy resources in order to create American jobs, help United States allies and partners, and strengthen United States foreign policy’.

The ‘America First’ strategy clearly takes precedence over all other considerations, but the import of US LNG instead of cheaper Russian gas could cost the EU billions of euros in additional expenditures.

Russian oligarchs, beware!

Finally, the CAATSA requires (Section 241) the Secretary of the Treasury, acting in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of State, to submit within 180 days of its enactment a detailed report to Congress about ‘senior foreign political figures’ and oligarchs in Russia.

The report should identify their degree of closeness to Vladimir Putin and members of his entourage, their net worth, any indices of corruption committed by those individuals, the known sources of income of themselves and their family members as well as their non-Russian business affiliations.

A second reporting requirement concerns Russian parastatal entities, in particular their role in the broader Russian economy, leadership, beneficial ownership and any existing non-Russian business links, for instance assets and investments abroad.

The US Government is also required to assess the exposure of key US economic sectors to Russian PEPs and parastatal organisations, with a special emphasis on banking, securities, insurance and real estate.

Further evaluations comprise assessing the effects of imposing secondary sanctions on Russian oligarchs, state-owned and parastatal entities, and their consequences for the economies of Russia, the US and American allies.

Similarly, they should assess the effects of imposing debt and equity restrictions on Russian parastatal entities as well as potentially adding them to the list of specially designated nationals (SDN) and blocked persons as maintained by OFAC.

At present, a limited number of Vladimir Putin’s associates among high-profile businessmen have been sanctioned by the US authorities, including such well-known figures as Yuri Kovalchuk, the Rotenberg brothers and Gennady Timchenko.

The CEOs of Rosneft and Rostec, respectively Igor Sechin and Sergey Chemezov, are under sanctions as well although they can hardly be called oligarchs under a standard definition of someone with a considerable documented wealth.

New sanctions against Russian oligarchs could have tremendous implications for a wide group of Russia-focused businesses and individuals – from joint venture partners in strategic projects to private wealth managers operating out of London, New York, Monaco, Geneva, Hong Kong, etc.

There does not seem to be much difficulty in singling out many wealthy Russians, such as Alexey Mordashov of Severstal and Oleg Deripaska of UC Rusal, who have made their billions of dollars and seen their companies thrive under the Putin Administration.

As a result of sweeping restrictions, severe disruptions could occur to the global supply chains of diversified industrial companies, leaving thousands of their suppliers, intermediaries, employees and customers at risk of being the ultimate losers.

Meanwhile, the impact of such drastic measures on the strength of the current Russian regime is exceptionally hard to measure, let alone predict.

The initial round of sanctions dating back to 2014 had the opposite effect of boosting Vladimir Putin’s popularity and providing his regime with fodder for ramping up the anti-Western rhetoric and portraying Russia domestically as a fortress under siege.