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Sunday 20 January 2019

The Russian oligarchs with Irish links on US watch list

Russian embassy Dublin
Russian embassy Dublin

Maeve Sheehan and Cormac McQuinn

RUSSIAN billionaires placed on a watch list by the US Treasury over alleged links to the Kremlin have substantial investments in Ireland.

Eugene Kaspersky was named as one of 96 oligarchs on a list published by the US Treasury in January. He opened a European hub of his cyber security firm in Dublin two years ago.

The ore and metals magnate Oleg Deripaska owns the €950m Aughinish Alumina plant on the Shannon estuary - one of Ireland's biggest manufacturing sites and the largest plant producing aluminium in Europe.

Kaspersky says his inclusion in the list is "incorrect" because neither he nor his company have "political ties" with the Russian or any government.

Kaspersky and Deripaska are among 96 oligarchs published on a list of wealthy Russians identified as allies of president Vladimir Putin. The list was presented to Congress by the US Department of Treasury under the 'Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act', but the US Treasury stressed that the individuals named on the list are not subject to sanctions and their inclusion does not indicate involvement in "malign activities".

The Kremlin dismissed the US Treasury dossier as "nonsense".

Meanwhile, Ireland is on the brink of diplomatic war with Russia this weekend over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England.

The Government is expected to expel a number of Russian diplomats in response to intelligence reports from Gardai and the Defence Forces that raise concerns over suspected spying activities here.

But if they oust diplomats from Dublin, Russia plans to retaliate with the expulsion of an equivalent number of Irish diplomats from Moscow, according to informed sources.

The Taoiseach's expected move against Russia follows the EU's decision last week to withdraw its ambassador from Moscow in solidarity with British prime minister Theresa May.

Ireland is one now of 10 EU countries expected to expel intelligence agents and diplomats in response to Britain's call for action over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent last produced in Russia in the 1990s.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney was presented with an "options paper" of possible sanctions yesterday and was expected to brief Leo Varadkar last night.

The paper was presented by a high-ranking group of senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, officers from the Gardai Crime and Security branch and military intelligence officers.

The briefings centred around general security concerns about spying activity, including industrial espionage on tech firms, and a security assessment of the 17 diplomats who are accredited to the Russia Embassy by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Taoiseach said last week that "we are not going to randomly expel people who are genuine diplomats", suggesting that those facing expulsion are spies.

Last night Labour leader Brendan Howlin called for a full briefing for opposition parties on any security and defence review conducted into possible Russian activities on Irish soil before any diplomatic actions are taken.

The Russian Embassy on Orwell Road, Dublin, is anticipating the expulsion of some of its diplomats, according to informed sources. Officials are awaiting word from the Dept of Foreign Affairs on the Government's expected action as early as tomorrow. "We believe there will be developments in the coming days," a source said. The source said the development would be a setback to the "good relations" Russia has enjoyed with Ireland in recent years.

The source said that if Irish diplomats were expelled, it was "highly likely" that an equivalent number of Irish diplomats would be asked to leave Moscow. "We are not going to act first, we are going to react," the source added.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy declined to comment yesterday. However Russia's Ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov told a press conference last Friday that any attempt to eject officials would be viewed as an "unfriendly action".

Garda sources have told the Sunday Independent that the force's special branch has had ongoing concerns about Russian intelligence-gathering activity in Ireland. Security sources meanwhile said that while gardai did not launch a formal investigation into any specific activity, embassy staff are constantly monitored.

One Garda source said officers have, from time to time, been called to the embassy to respond to incidents. On one occasion, a bag was thrown over the wall on to "Russian territory". On another occasion, Russian officials reported suspicious activity at the embassy.

The Irish Government last expelled a Russian diplomat in 2011 after six Irish passports were used by spies operating in the US.

Sunday Independent

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