The Trump administration is lifting sanctions on three companies controlled by a Russian oligarch with links to Vladimir Putin.
Following an aggressive lobbying campaign, led by a British lord who chairs one of the firms, the Treasury Department announced it would end sanctions against aluminium producer Rusal, its parent En+, and JSC EuroSibEnergo.
In return their owner, Oleg Deripaska, agreed to reduce his stakes in them to less than 50 per cent, the treasury said. The billionaire businessman, who has been accused of links to organised crime, will remain on the sanctions list.
Mr Deripaska, his companies, and a number of other figures with close ties to the Kremlin were hit by the sanctions in April in retaliation for alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
That interference also saw the Treasury Department on Wednesday impose fresh sanctions on several Russian intelligence operatives.
The department said in a statement it was placing sanctions on individuals and entities involved in US election meddling, the hacking of the World Anti-Doping Agency and other "malign activities”.
The actions, which include sanctioning 15 members of Russia's military intelligence agency, were taken "in response to Russia's continued disregard for international norms", the statement added.
The decision to lift sanctions on Mr Deripaska’s companies, however, attracted criticism from some quarters that it would send the wrong signal to Moscow over its conduct abroad.
Paul Ryan advocates sanctions on Russia: It is a 'menacing government'
“How does Deripaska reducing his ownership stake in his company, Rusal, advance US national security interests? I don't understand the logic at all,” Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter.
Lloyd Doggett, a House Democrat for Texas, told the New York Times the move amounted to Donald Trump “sliding another big gift under Vladimir Putin’s Christmas tree” and suggested Mr Deripaska, “one of Putin’s closest buddies”, would find a way around the agreement to reduce his stakes.
In a statement, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the three companies were initially sanctioned because of Mr Deripaska’s ownership, “not for the conduct of the companies themselves”.
“These companies have committed to significantly diminish Deripaska’s ownership and sever his control,” he said. “The companies will be subject to ongoing compliance and will face severe consequences if they fail to comply.”
The agreement comes after a lobbying campaign led by Lord Gregory Barker, a former UK energy minister and now chairman of EN+.
Lord Barker reportedly used lobbyists with ties to the Trump administration, law firms and public relations experts to make the argument Mr Deripaska was committed to giving up control of his companies.
Mr Deripaska is one of Russia's wealthiest men. He amassed his fortune under Mr Putin and has bought assets abroad in ways widely perceived to benefit the Kremlin's interests.
US diplomatic cables from 2006 described him as “among the two or three oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis” and “a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin's trips abroad".
The 50-year-old achieved a deal of fame in the UK in 2008 when the then-business secretary, Lord Mandelson, and shadow chancellor George Osborne found themselves aboard his yacht off the coast of Corfu last summer.