'Russophobic fuss': Kremlin swats at US bill targeting Putin's wealth

A former Treasury official says no one is sure how much money Putin has.

February 28, 2019, 11:39 AM

The Kremlin on Thursday shrugged off newly introduced U.S. legislation aimed at the personal wealth of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that the bill is only the latest sign of "Russophobic fuss" in the U.S. government.

"It can hardly be taken seriously. Most likely it’s just some more Russophobic fuss. We’ve long learned to take that with irony," Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters, according to Russia's TASS news agency.

The legislation, introduced Wednesday by Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., is called the Vladimir Putin Transparency Act and would, in part, require the U.S. intelligence community to provide Congress detailed information on Putin's personal assets or assets believed to be under his control -- an enduring mystery to Russia observers and analysts.

The lawmakers, both of whom sit on the House intelligence committee, indicated that the bill was in response to what the U.S. intelligence community said was continuing attempts by Russia to undermine American democracy.

"The best way to assail the power of Putin and his enablers is to go after the illegal and secret financial streams that fund their operations," Demings said in a statement. "It's time to fight back and protect our democracy."

"Putin and his political allies seek to weaken democracies worldwide by consolidating their political control through unethical means," Stefanik said. "I am proud to cosponsor this bill which aims to identify Putin and his allies for who they are: nefarious political actors undermining democracies."

It's time to fight back and protect our democracy

A Senate bill re-introduced earlier this month also includes a requirement for a report on Putin’s finances from the intelligence community.

Though the former KGB officer-turned-president reported his income at around $300,000 for 2017, in addition to assets that included two apartments and two Russian sedans, according to Russian state media, analysts suspect that official tally is a fraction of the wealth Putin either owns outright or has access to through intermediaries.

On the high end, financier and vocal Putin critic Bill Browder calculated that Putin could be worth up to $200 billion, according to The Atlantic -- which would make him the richest man alive by tens of billions.

Another Putin critic and political analyst, Stanislav Belkovsky, reportedly put the figure at around $70 billion, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization based in London.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a cabinet meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Feb. 27, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a cabinet meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Feb. 27, 2019.
Alexei Druzhinin/AP

A former U.S. Treasury official, who studied Russian illicit finance, told ABC News he was skeptical of any public calculations about Putin's wealth because Russia's financial system is notoriously opaque, and because Putin likely wouldn't hold many assets in his own name anyway.

"Let's say he has assets. He's going to have it held through a layer of very trusted people. His name's never going to be on it," the ex-official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. "Even if that were happening, it would be challenging to penetrate [that scheme]."

The ex-official said it's sometimes difficult to calculate the wealth of individuals in the West, but "then you get to a head of state in an authoritarian, closed society. ... If you have a sophisticated actor like Putin, it would be even harder."

Another former senior Treasury official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Putin's direct wealth may be less important than the value of his control over others inside Russia.

"In general, people believe that Putin's power comes at least in part in his ability to control his oligarchs and other Russian government officials around him," the former senior official said.

The former Russia specialist said it's for that reason he suspects few significant assets could be directly linked to Putin.

"I'm not necessarily convinced that Vladimir Putin needs a foreign bank account with billions of dollars in it. Why does he need that?" said the ex-official. "As an insurance policy? Maybe. But it's also plausible to me that if you control everything, you don't need a ton of money hidden abroad."

We need to pull back the veil and expose how he makes money

In spite of the technical challenges on reporting on the Russian president's finances, former State Department official Brett Bruen told ABC News that "putting Putin's pocketbook in the public view is a smart idea."

"We need to pull back the veil and expose how he makes money," Bruen said. "This is a critical part of understanding what and who motivates Russia's actions. It will also make clear to the Russian people the level of corruption that reigns while they increasingly suffer."

Bruen indicated he was unconcerned about any precedent going after a foreign leader's finances sets.

"I think the precedent it sets is that when you come after the United States, we will strike back," he said. "We will hit you where it most hurts."

Peskov said that U.S. lawmakers should have better things to do.

"Either their own duties are too few, or this is the way they see their main job," he said.

This report has been updated.

Related Topics