MOSCOW—On Tuesday morning, Russia woke to news of the so-called Oligarch List issued by the U.S. Treasury department. On it were more than 200 names of the country’s top bureaucrats and businessmen. But the statement that accompanied it said that it should not be read as a roster of people who were being sanctioned. Or, for that matter, who will not be sanctioned. Some part of it, we were told, remains classified.
Analyzing the list that was made available, Russian observers wondered if its authors had just copied and pasted names of officials from the Kremlin’s website and from the Forbes list of Russian billionaires (this much eventually was confirmed by the administration) without much thought, just to demonstrate to the U.S. Congress that Trump is complying with the letter of a sanctions law he never wanted.
The purpose of the sanctions bill, which Trump signed reluctantly in August only when confronted with a nearly unanimous vote by the Senate, is to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies for the concerted effort to influence American elections and undermine American democracy.
By Feb. 1, the law says, the U.S Congress is supposed to receive a list of Russian decision-makers closely affiliated with Putin. The idea was to name names of the most important players in and around the Kremlin. But what Treasury published to meet the deadline is, to say the least, perfunctory.
“It would have taken our newsroom 15 minutes to put such a list together, it includes most of the names I have in my phone book,” Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of radio the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, told his listeners on Tuesday morning.
Earlier this month Venediktov traveled to Washington, D.C. to report on the process of designing the historical list.
Venediktov’s deputy, Olga Bychkova, sounded astonished at the result.
“The list did not include any of the main propaganda officials, neither did it mention any aggressive MPs pushing for hostile laws, but it included businessmen suffering from state pressure, including Dmitry Kamenishik, the owner of Domodedovo airport, “ Bychkova told The Daily Beast.
A prominent Kremlin critic, Yulia Latynina, told The Daily Beast that she was “shocked” to see the names on the list.
“They included the businessman Yuriy Shefler, who lost his business when it got eaten by Putin’s law enforcement agencies, Mikhail Gutseriyev, also suffering from pressure,” Latynina told The Daily Beast. “But the list did not include Putin’s personal masseur, Konstantin Goloshapov, the nationalist oligarch behind the Donbas war, Konstantin Malofeyev, nor did it mention Evgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s cook suspected of being behind the ‘fake news’ campaign,“ Latynina added.
Conceivably, those latter figures are mentioned in the classified annex to the report, which the Treasury Department said “may include individuals” who “hold a position below those included in the unclassified report or have a net worth below $1 billion.”
Many in Moscow were astonished to see so many people on the list who have nothing to do with President Putin’s politics while at the same time some of the closest members of Putin’s political “family” were left off, including the ruthless Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Sergei Roldugin, whom many consider the key keeper of Putin’s personal treasures.
Presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak wrote on her blog on Tuesday: “This list includes Mikhail Fridman, Sergei Galitsky, Oleg Tinkov, who built their businesses without any Putin, mostly from scratch.” Sobchak said. “The list did not include Roldugin, but there is Yuriy Shefler, who has not lived in Russia for 18 years.” He long ago lost his business to Arkady and Boris Rotenberg who are very close to Putin.
Russia Cries Interference
As Moscow waited for the list to come out, there was a widespread sense that that Washington was determined to treat Russia as an enemy state.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who was also on the list, said on Monday that by listing Putin’s supporters, Washington tried to influence the elite ahead of Russia’s March presidential election. “We really do believe that this is a direct and obvious attempt to time some steps to coincide with the election in order to exert influence on it,” Peskov said on Monday.
Speaking on Echo of Moscow on Tuesday night, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman denied that the U.S. intended to influence Russian domestic politics. "We do not meddle in Russia's political process. As [the U.S.] Ambassador to Russia, I can say that this is not what we do."
President Putin referred to the list as a “hostile action” by Washington.
Putin admitted that the Kremlin was expecting the list to come out. “I won’t hide it, we were ready to take countermeasures, quiet serious, which would have rolled our relations down to a complete zero,” Putin said on Tuesday. “For now we are going to abstain from taking such steps.”
The Russian president added that he did not see any reason for such “hostile action,” pointing out that Russia intended to develop good relations with the United States.
Igor Bunin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, did not expect any countermeasures from the Kremlin in the future. “The biggest concern was that Washington was going to ban Swift in Russia”—a vital part of the international banking system that provides secure financial messaging. That did not happen. “The list is just a formality, a signal for our elite to behave,” Bunin told The Daily Beast.
“The main thing to understand is that this is a different Putin, Putin in transition, planning to pass his power in six years, eager to fix his relations with Washington,” Bunin said.
But not everybody agreed that this transition was going to proceed smoothly.
“The current elite have betrayed Putin by advising him to sit back and not take any countermeasures. When Russia was banned from the Olympics, they tell Putin to stay calm and do nothing now,” said Yuriy Krupnov, a supporter of the Jumpstart Party, a group of conservative politicians pushing Putin to create a new elite of about 100 officials who would quickly implement economic and social reforms.
“Either make a jump or the Americans will take over one trillion dollars of Russian money on offshore accounts,” said Krupnov. “This list might mark the beginning of a perfect storm in Russia, where lots of people are unhappy about their life, and in three days the system would collapse.”
According to a social study by Echo of Moscow, 88 percent of radio listeners believe that the U.S. Treasury Department was fair to the Kremlin. But that was not a good illustration for the general situation in Russia, where 57.7 percent of people said they trusted Putin, according to January polls conducted by Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
Venediktov reiterated that the list published on Monday was not the sanctions list, yet. “There is a classified list, that includes 20 to 25 people who are called SDN [Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons]. “The U.S tells people pushed into the room (from the list): ‘We execute four of you and then, if you do not get it, we’ll execute four more’” Venediktov explained.
U.S. Says More Sanctions Still Possible
The full, classified version of the oligarchs report was sent to Congress on Monday and is expected to remain classified, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast. The law itself, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), stipulates only that a version of the oligarchs report was to be made public, and that a classified annex could be kept secret.
But even though the Trump administration was technically complying with that provision of the CAATSA law, lawmakers and top committee staffers said the White House was doing the bare minimum to show it was complying with the law by simply listing the names of Russian oligarchs and senior political figures.
The bigger issue, they argued, was the fact that the administration was declining to impose or announce congressionally mandated sanctions against foreign governments or other entities that were doing business with the Russian defense and intelligence sectors.
On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced tough questioning from members of the Senate Banking Committee over the administration’s refusal to enforce new sanctions by Monday’s deadline. He told senators that despite that decision, the oligarchs report “should in no way be interpreted as, ‘we’re not putting sanctions on anyone in that report.’”
The State Department said the existing law was already acting as a “deterrent” against foreign investment in those Russian companies that were named in October. But that explanation, lawmakers said, ignores the impetus for passing the law in the first place: to punish the Kremlin for its sophisticated influence campaign during the American election in 2016.
On a conference call with reporters later Tuesday afternoon, a senior State Department official declined to name or discuss specific transactions with Russian defense and intelligence firms that were halted as a result of the CAATSA law acting as a “deterrent.”
The official, though, touted “real money and real revenue that is not going to Russia as part of the intent of this law and the intent of this administration: to remind Russia and remind the Russian government the cost of its malign activity.”
—Andrew Desiderio reported from Washington.