Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch whose name this week was thrown into the Trump administration’s unfolding Russia saga, is no stranger to allegations of shady business dealings. He is also known as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most loyal and valued allies.
On Wednesday, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort confirmed that he worked for Deripaska but denied that his services included a plan to “greatly benefit the Putin government,” as documents obtained by the Associated Press reportedly reveal. Deripaska’s links to Putin are so well known that when the AP reported the nature of Manafort’s business relationship with the aluminum tycoon, analysts weren’t all that surprised.
“Deripaska plays a key role in the Kremlin’s contacts with Western politicians and political parties,” said Marcel Van Herpen, author of the book “Putin’s Propaganda Machine.” “His contacts with Western PR firms and former politicians turned consultants predate his contacts with Manafort.”
Deripaska was once described by U.S. officials in a leaked cable published by WikiLeaks as “among the 2 to 3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.” And the billionaire, known for reinvesting his fortune back into Russia while other oligarchs looked abroad, has often fashioned himself as a patriot.
Russia’s richest man until the financial crisis of 2008 wreaked havoc on his fortune, Deripaska has been publicly linked to Putin repeatedly — as both friend and foe. Putin traveled to one of Deripaska’s plants in 2009 and publicly ridiculed the billionaire, likening him to a “cockroach” as they toured a factory town hit hard by the global economic crisis. However, the public flogging was largely understood to be a political charade meant to pacify growing outrage at Russia’s oligarchs.
Deripaska managed to save his fledgling business during the crisis, thanks in no small part to a bailout from the Kremlin.
In 2014, Putin leaned on the country’s oligarchs, including Deripaska, to finance the bulk of the Sochi Winter Olympics construction. (The investors were widely believed to have taken a loss.) Deripaska even made headlines during the Games when he stepped in to fix the city’s stray dog problem by opening and funding an animal shelter for all strays nearby.
Deripaska is just one of a cadre of oligarchs that Putin uses in a variety of ways to advance his causes around the world, analysts familiar with Russian politics told VICE News. “Russian oligarchs have dazzled the Western imagination,” said Natalya Antonova, a commentator on Russian and Ukrainian affairs, “and the Kremlin will leverage that when it can.”
The oligarchs and the Kremlin have a mutually beneficial relationship, Antonova said. “The Kremlin allows the oligarchs to thrive financially, and the oligarchs are willing to support the Kremlin in its interests.”
According to former U.S. Ambassador Bill Courtney, who served as senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasian affairs in Bill Clinton’s administration, private business-sector oligarchs like Deripaska often play an outsize role in Russia because “other parts of civil society have been weakened under Putin.”
Deripaska’s interactions with Western politicians and lobbyists are well-documented. In 2008, it was revealed that Conservative MP (and later Chancellor) George Osborne met with the Russian and was entertained by him on his “superyacht.” Reports alleged that Osborne went out of his way to meet Deripaska, hoping for a donation to his party — but because Deripaska is not a U.K. national, such a donation would have been illegal.
The allegations caused considerable embarrassment for Osborne and his Conservative party, which eventually admitted that a potential donation was discussed while strongly denying any suggestion that Osborne or his aides sought to bend U.K. political fundraising rules.
On multiple occasions in the 2000s, Deripaska, whose visa was revoked by the U.S. government due to his alleged links to organized crime, hired former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and his lobbying firm Alston & Bird to improve his standing in America and win him approval by the State Department. Despite Dole succeeding temporarily on a few occasions, Deripaska’s visa woes persisted, and he reportedly enlisted Manafort to help.
Around the same time, Deripaska entangled Sen. John McCain in controversy. While running for president in 2008, McCain faced criticism when it was reported that his campaign manager, Rick Davis, had once helped arrange a dinner meeting between the oligarch and a small group of U.S. senators — including McCain — at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Davis was also a longtime business partner of Manafort’s.
Deripaska is known both for his prowess in Russia’s private business sector and his knowledge of industry, which began when he was 12 and he worked in factories during the summer with his mother, who was an engineer. The 49-year-old had a tough upbringing, raised by his grandparents in a Cossack village near Krasnodar while his mother travelled to find work. In 1993, he obtained a degree in nuclear physics from Moscow State University. At 25 he went into business for himself just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and state-run industries were being sold off. He emerged a decade later — years dominated by organized crime and violence — as Russia’s youngest billionaire. By 2008 Forbes declared him Russia’s richest person with a fortune of $28 billion.
Deripaska isn’t shy about his past experiences with Russia’s shadier businesses. In a 2010 interview with the Financial Times, Deripaska revealed how he learned to deal with criminal elements: “Don’t forget I’m from a military family. I was in special training in the army. I am tall, sporty and — how do you say — you can always protect yourself… I have very strong security. Even now.”
The billionaire recently appeared on CNBC, offering a cautiously optimistic view of what Trump’s presidency would mean for Russia and industry titans like himself, while expressing doubt as to whether Trump would be able to solve long-simmering U.S.-Russian tensions.
Deripaska’s relationship with Manafort ended on a sour note over a failed venture called Pericles Emerging Markets that cost the Russian billionaire $19 million. In 2014, Deripaska filed a legal action in the Cayman Islands in an effort to recoup his investments in Pericles.