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Bill Straub: Following the McConnell footsie game through Russia to an aluminum plant in Greenup

They don’t call him Moscow Mitch for nothing.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, has earned so many derogatory nicknames over the past few years that there are too many to list in a single column.

Some, like Darth Vader and The Grim Reaper, he embraces with aplomb.

But the one that gets under his skin is the aforementioned Moscow Mitch, duly earned for his mind-boggling refusal to allow votes on a series of measures aimed at cutting the Kremlin off at the pass as it seeks to re-implicate itself in America’s electoral process ala 2016. That involvement, you may recall, may have resulted in the election of President Trump, hereinafter referred to as President Extremely Stable Genius, and woe to the republic.

Gov.Bevin and Craig Bouchard

McConnell has indeed become a little snappish about the sobriquet, grousing that he is the victim of a “modern-day McCarthyism.” At the annual St. Jerome Parish Picnic in Fancy Farm earlier this month, facing critics wearing shirts displaying Russia’s hammer and sickle and messages tying old Mitch to Moscow, he said it was “appropriate to see a bunch of Democrats running around with communist flags on their shirts” – a rejoinder more closely akin to comments made by Tailgunner Joe than anything the protestors wore.

McConnell has mounted a defense against those who have dubbed him a Russian asset by citing a number of comments he’s made over the years calling for increased vigilance about the threat posed by Russia President Vladimir Putin. Maybe so. But the problem is many of those comments came in the form of criticism regarding the policies of President ESG’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama. ESG has assumed a more, shall we say, cordial view of Russia since assuming office and, it seems, Moscow Mitch has followed suit, just like a cocker spaniel trailing his master.

Now it’s becoming apparent that ol’ Root-‘n-Branch is doing more than just playing dumb when it comes to the Kremlin and the upcoming 2020 elections. He’s playing footsie over a complicated deal regarding construction of an aluminum plant in Greenup County that includes a once-sanctioned Russia-based outfit as a substantial investor.

It goes something like this:

In April 2017, Craig Bouchard, the CEO of Braidy Industries, announced plans to build a $1.7 billion aluminum mill in the economically depressed Ashland area, with plans to hire about 600 full-time workers.

It was like a call from heaven for the region which has been losing jobs almost as often as the Baltimore Orioles are losing ballgames. The proposal was so welcome that Gov. St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire was on hand for the announcement, grabbing as much credit as humanly possible.

In order to move the project forward, the Commonwealth agreed to a $15 million investment, making it a co-owner of the mill and thus turning the Commonwealth into the Kentucky Socialist Republic – the state assuming the means of production is, after all, a Marxian tenant.

So everyone was pleased as punch, except it turned out that Braidy didn’t have the dough to proceed. In fact, in the fall of 2018, even with the Commonwealth’s investment, it was a few hundred million dollars short and experiencing problems finding someone or something to make up the difference, placing the facility and the accompanying jobs in jeopardy.

Enter Rusal, the Russia-based aluminum giant with deep ties to the Kremlin, owned by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch considered a close Putin ally, who eventually offered to throw in $200 million for a 40 percent stake, thus saving Braidy’s and Eastern Kentucky’s bacon.

But there was one more small, insignificant hang-up – the Treasury Department had instituted sanctions against Rusal and Deripaska in 2018, asserting that the company and its boss had furthered “the Kremlin’s global malign activities, including its attempts to subvert Western democracy.” Additionally, The Treasury Department determined that Deripaska has been “investigated for money laundering, and has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals” and having ties to organized crime.

As a result, it was against U.S. law for American firms, including Braidy, to do business with either Rusal or Deripaska.

Something had to be done. So who did Rusal, Deripaska and Braidy turn to for solace?

Moscow Mitch, of course.

According to Time magazine, Rusal organized a team of high-paid lobbyists that targeted, among others, McConnell. Braidy, meanwhile, hired a couple of ol Root-‘n-Branch’s former staffers in an effort to make the sanctions disappear. The icing on the cake came when Sir Leonard Blavatnik, a Soviet-born British-American businessman, investor, and philanthropist who is a major Rusal shareholder, contributed more than $1 million through companies he controlled to a Republican campaign fund with ties to McConnell leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.

You can guess the rest.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressed an intent to lift the sanctions on Rusal back in December 2018 while keeping the penalties imposed on Deripaska intact. As a result, according to The Washington Post, Deripaska agreed to reduce his stake in En+ Group, the holding company that controls Rusal, from about 70 percent to 44.95 percent, and to limit his voting shares to 35 percent.

That move, Treasury insisted, would protect the companies “from the controlling influence of a Kremlin insider.” Regardless, Senate Democrats in early January sought to kill the proposal easing the sanctions. That effort proved unsuccessful – foes fell short of the required 60 votes even though 11 Republicans also sought to bring the question to a final vote. Both Moscow Mitch and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, of course, sided with Rusal.

McConnell spoke in favor of lifting the sanctions in a Jan. 15 floor speech. . .asserting that the deal worked out by Treasury “would continue limiting” Deripaska’s influence over Rusal, adding that Treasury can reimpose sanctions at any time.

The sanctions on Rusal were formally lifted by Treasury just 10 days after the Senate vote. The Braidy-Rusal alliance was announced in April.

The shares controlled by Deripaska were destined to land, in large part, in the hands of Russia’s state-owned VTB Bank, which itself was added to the U.S. sanction list in 2014 as punishment for Russia invasion of Crimea. Its chairman was added to the list by the ESG administration just last year.

In the end it was Moscow Mitch doing his part, greasing the wheels in the Senate. Now the Commonwealth is in cahoots with a Russian outfit that retains ties to the Kremlin, an outfit still attempting to sway American elections.

In other words, as noted by the legendary Peter Townsend, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

The only thing missing is Daltry’s scream.

NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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