Obviously, however important Puschkin may have thought himself, Serck couldn’t simply accept the Russian’s schedule. Vassiliev had in the end persuaded him that meeting the oligarch could be worth his while, though, and so two weeks later the Leopard-Star Gulfstream flew him in to Geneva. He was a couple of days ahead of the scheduled meeting, to give himself time to have a talk with Eisenstadt and agree what their approach should be.
For the latter, it was a no-brainer. He’d been trying to find a good answer to his dilemma for quite some while, and this looked like it was a gift dropping into his lap.
“Whatever they are prepared to sell us at a discount to the new tariff price, take it. I’ve got plenty of open sales against which I can use it, but any more we can get will of course put us in a very strong position. If they need us to sell it for them, hey, that’s what we’re here for.”
“Mmm. Yeah, I can see that. My question really is why do they think they need us?”
Eisenstadt made a raised hands to the sky gesture. “I don’t know. Obviously we have far more knowledge of the US aluminium market than they do, so maybe they just want to get shot of the stuff as quickly as possible. I’m assuming, incidentally, that it’s metal that’s repaying some sort of inter-oligarch deal. Presumably, Puschkin did a favour for Denis Menkov, the ally king - or the President himself, since Menkov is basically Ansonov’s man. But we don’t need to know that. What we do need to know is that the metal is legit; if I’m putting it into US corporations, I can’t risk anything coming back to bite them. That means Puschkin has to guarantee us that it’s kosher - duty paid, legally imported metal, with all it’s correct certification and documentation.”
Serck nodded. “Yeah, of course.” He pause for a moment, then continued. “Max, what I don’t fully understand is why you effectively got short of the duty in the first place?”
Eisenstadt grimaced. “Mistake, frankly. I didn’t think your man over there would go ahead with the sanctions - or indeed the tariffs; it doesn’t make economic sense.”
“Yeah. Well, not in the long run. But what you’ve got to understand is that he’s playing to his own gallery, and the short-term is what he’s focussed on and what they want to hear. It’s only just dawning on most of us in the US what we have in the White House, and the rest of the world needs to sit up and take more notice. It’s not just saying crazy things.”
Eisenstadt laughed. “You’re damn right I don’t understand it. Still, if this all works out, it’s going to make us some money, that’s for sure.”
The day before he left Moscow, Puschkin had a private meeting with Denis Menkov. Although there are no more than a handful of genuine oligarchs running a large part of the country’s industries, it would be wrong to imagine them living in each other’s pockets. In fact, Puschkin was no fan of Menkov, seeing in him the KGB/FSB fixer and hitman he had been before his mentor Yuri Ansonov had made it to the Presidency. It was to that that Menkov owed his place at the top of the Russian aluminium industry, rather than any financial or strong-arm tactics at the time of the privatisations. To Puschkin, that made him a political not a business animal. But, of course, from time to time their interests might coincide, and that overruled any personal feelings. Anyway, given that Menkov was very close to Ansonov and that the latter seemed currently happy to go along with anything that stirred up discontent or dissension in the US, Puschkin was confident that his suggestions would fall on fertile ground.
Menkov did indeed immediately go to report the conversation to Ansonov.
“Well, Denis, what they propose would suit us, as long as it is deniable. But I don’t understand Puschkin’s motive? Why does he want to cause trouble like this?”
“There’s bad blood over a deal that went wrong for him a while back. He got burned, and he sees this as a way to get revenge. Our part of it is quite straightforward, and entirely above board. The only record of the meeting he and I had is with me, and that’s how it will stay. It’s quite an elegant little plan; I take my hat off to him.”
Ansonov chuckled. “Ah, Denis, just the kind of thing we would have done ourselves, back in the old KGB days. Sometimes I find myself thinking back fondly of that time; where has our youth gone, Denis; where has it all gone?”
Menkov laughed. “All gone. All gone. But now we get to do anything we like, without anybody else interfering. Or rather, you do,” he added quickly. He wouldn’t want to commit lèse-majesté. Ansonov just looked at him.
Puschkin arrived at the Metal-Exx building and was whisked straight up to the top floor boardroom, which Serck used as his office when he was in town. Serck stood to greet him. They had never met before, and he was surprised at how slight the Russian seemed - a good six inches shorter than he was, and looking a lot of pounds lighter. They made their introductions and sat at a low table in front of a window looking out over the rooftops down to the lake, the fountain rising dead centre.
“I appreciate you coming all the way from New York for this meeting; I hope we can have a useful discussion.”
“It’s a great pleasure to welcome you here to Metal-Exx. I guess it’s a little strange that we haven’t met before. After all, my people here have been a consistently big buyer of your metal for many years - until recently, of course.”
“Ah yes, our little misunderstanding last year. That was unfortunate. I suppose a little bit of crossed wires was responsible.” He made a conciliatory gesture. “But that’s all over. We’re both grown men, with a lot of experience of business. Sometimes things do not always pan out as we would like. We have to learn to take these setbacks in our stride. The plan was good, the execution left something to be desired.” He pushed his hands out in front of him, as though pushing the memory away. “ We must put this behind us and move forward. Let us look at future opportunities, not stress over past errors.”
Serck wasn’t really buying all this. He’d thoroughly stiffed Arctic Mining last year; it wasn’t just a minor misunderstanding. Without them as the fall guy, his whole play on the nickel price would not have worked. True, von Resch had made the whole situation a lot worse for the Russians by his reckless trading on their account, but the author of the whole deal had been Serck.
Puschkin sensed Serck’s doubts. “Mr Serck - Jason, may I call you?” - Serck nodded - “I sense that you are perhaps not convinced that I am prepared to let bygones be bygones. Well, what can I say? You outsmarted me - I don’t like that, obviously. Will I try to do the same to you one day? It may well be. But we’re not talking about that now. We’re talking about something which can benefit us both; so let’s take advantage of the situation now, and let other things take their course in the future. Also, frankly, my anger was greater towards Hugo von Resch than towards you. He worked for me, and let me down badly. You were another player in the game, which this time I lost. Sadly, Hugo died, otherwise I could have dealt with him.” He sat back and stared at Serck, with cold unblinking eyes. Mmm, thought Serck; I don’t think Hugo just died. I think somebody else was involved as well.
“OK,” he said. “We can talk about what you propose. From what I understand from Mr Vassiliev’s outline, it concerns your stock of aluminium in the US, which you would suggest we could dispose of for you.”
“Exactly. Politicians rarely do anything which favours those of us in the resource industry - despite loving our taxes and the fact that we support the whole of the industrial economy - but this time your President appears to have opened a window for us. It will only be a short-term benefit, but right now we are in a position to make quite a lot of dollars. Right now, we have a large tonnage - several hundred thousand tonnes - of material in the US which can be sold with the benefit of the new tariff, or sanction, call it what you will.”
Serck didn’t let his surprise show; the briefing Eisenstadt had given him had suggested a far lower number. Indeed, he struggled to imagine where it all was. A while ago, whilst negotiating warehouse storage deals for some Leopard-Star’s financing operations, he had seen the space occupied by about a few hundred thousand tonnes of aluminium, so he knew what sort of size was involved. Still, he said nothing; the USA is a big place. He let the Russian continue.
“We know our limitations. We could spend a lot of time trying to drum up customers ourselves, and then we could try and get involved in the logistics, the timing of deliveries, establishing relationships with US freight companies, and so on. That would take time, and who knows what degree of success we may have. Or we could propose a deal to you, to make some kind of profit-sharing arrangement based on the fact that Metal-Exx has already got in place all those factors I have just mentioned.”
He stopped, and looked expectantly at Serck.