Trump admin hits Putin's inner circle with sanctions on Russian oligarchs, senior officials

April 06, 2018, 7:14 PM

The Treasury Department Friday sanctioned more than three dozen Russian leaders and businesses as the Trump administration ramps up its pressure on Russia for what it calls its "worldwide malign activity."

It's the latest step to punish Russia's President Vladimir Putin by a U.S. president who has talked of warmer relations with Moscow – and critics are split between praising it as a good first step or still not enough.

In total, the Treasury Department announced sanctions on seven Russian oligarchs, 12 companies they own or control, 17 senior Russian government officials, and one state-owned company and its subsidiary bank.

The list includes key figures in Putin's inner circle and some of his closest associates, including his estranged son-in-law and heads of many of Russia's most important banks and state-owned companies.

"Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities," said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

PHOTO: President Vladimir Putin speaks as he meets with confidants at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2018.
President Vladimir Putin speaks as he meets with confidants at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2018.
Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The sanctions are in part authorized under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA – the law that Congress passed overwhelmingly last summer and President Donald Trump begrudgingly signed and that his administration has been slow to implement, missing key deadlines in the past.

Many of the names here come from an "oligarchs report" that CAATSA required the administration produce in January — a report officials admitted was in part cribbed from a similar list produced by Forbes magazine, garnering criticism.

IS THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION DOING ENOUGH?

CAATSA did not require the administration to sanction any of the oligarchs, but after the alleged poisoning of an ex-spy in the United Kingdom and increased political pressure in the U.S., the administration made Friday's move to show strength against what many have warned is Russia's increasing aggression.

"The new sanctions announced today will further the administration’s efforts to confront destabilizing and malicious behavior by Russia," the White House said in a statement, pointing to sanctions levied in March for Russia's cyber activity, including the alleged 2016 election interference, penalties in December for alleged human rights abuses, and sanctions last June for Russia's incursion in eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea.

Those sanctions are in addition to other steps, like the expulsion of 60 Russians – 48 of whom the U.S. alleges are intelligence operatives – from the U.S., the closings of Russia's Seattle and San Francisco consulates, and the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine.

PHOTO: A sign and Russian flag are pictured at the residence of the consulate general of Russia at the historic Samuel Hyde House in Seattle, Washington, on April 2, 2018.
A sign and Russian flag are pictured at the residence of the consulate general of Russia at the historic Samuel Hyde House in Seattle, Washington, on April 2, 2018.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

While still bashing Trump's praise for Putin, some critics have begun to applaud the forceful response.

"This is huge," tweeted Bill Browder, a British-American businessman who has made a life-long campaign out of exposing alleged corruption in Russia after he says his company was targeted by a massive tax fraud and a lawyer working for him, Sergey Magnitsky, was murdered for uncovering it. "Finally hitting Putin and his cronies where it counts," Browder added.

Putin's most prominent political opponent, the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, also tweeted his more muted praise, writing "Oh ho, not bad." Navalny specializes in uncovering alleged ill-gotten gains of the elite around Putin and has called for the U.S. and European countries to go after them, saying it is the only way to inflict real pain on the Kremlin and create opposition to Putin within Russia.

But others said Friday's actions were not enough to change Russia's behavior.

"There is a high threshold for economic discomfort in Russia, especially among the ruling class... This idea of we're going to press on one part of the Kremlin's power structure and that will add pressure to Putin is misguided at best," said Brett Bruen, the former Director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin stands on the stage while addressing the Federal Assembly at Moscow's Manezh exhibition centre, March 1, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands on the stage while addressing the Federal Assembly at Moscow's Manezh exhibition centre, March 1, 2018.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

"We have to create better deterrence, better disincentives for Russia to decide that the pain that our response will inflict on them is too great to risk using" their information warfare, he added, calling for U.S. counter campaigns that expose corruption and mismanagement in Russia – a "taste of their own medicine" approach.

Instead, more sanctions will do little, as they have in the past, he argued: "Simply adding more onto the individual sanctions isn't going to markedly change Putin's calculation, and I think we're sorely misguided and fooling ourselves if we think it will."

WHO IS ON THE LIST?

Still, the list includes some big names, such as Kirill Shamalov, the son of a longtime Putin associate who until recently was the husband of Putin’s younger daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, officials said. After he married Putin’s daughter he reportedly briefly became a billionaire overnight when he was given a giant loan to buy out shares in a Russian energy company, Sibur, according to Treasury officials. Despite his separation from Tikhonova, he remains in Putin's inner circle, the department said.

PHOTO: In this photo taken on Wednesday, July 29, 2015, Sibur stockholder Kirill Shamalov speaks to the media during an interview in Moscow, Russia.
In this photo taken on Wednesday, July 29, 2015, Sibur stockholder Kirill Shamalov speaks to the media during an interview in Moscow, Russia.
Kommersant Publishing House via AP

Viktor Zolotov, the former chief of Putin's personal bodyguards, is now the head of Russia's National Guard, a recently-created force empowered to put down unrest. An adviser to Zolotov dismissed the effect sanctions would have on his boss, telling Russian media, "Sanctions virtually make no sense" because he has no assets in the U.S. Instead, sanctioning the National Guard chief "is a stimulus for even more efficient work, because we view his inclusion in the list as recognizing the Russian Guard's high effectiveness."

Other VIPs on the U.S. list include Alexey Miller, the head of state-owned energy giant Gazprom, and Andrey Kostin, the head of the major state-run VTB bank.

Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate and close friend of Putin, hired Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, for investment services, according to court documents. Senior administration officials did not mention the connection, but they warned of Deripaska's criminality, alleging ties to organized crime, ordering the murder of a businessman, and illegally wiretapping a government official, among other alleged crimes.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and billionare, businessman Oleg Deripaska (L) are seen visiting the RusVinyl Russian-Belgian joint polymer plant, near Nizhny Novgorod, 430 km. East of Moscow, Sept. 19, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and billionare, businessman Oleg Deripaska (L) are seen visiting the RusVinyl Russian-Belgian joint polymer plant, near Nizhny Novgorod, 430 km. East of Moscow, Sept. 19, 2014.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Also on the list is Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank, who reportedly was found trying to cultivate ties to the Trump campaign through the National Rifle Association.

Sanctioning these leaders' companies as well gives Friday's action deeper impact, according to some experts.

"Putin will be pissed off since these go after key oligarchs and enablers with personal ties to the Kremlin," tweeted Michael Carpenter, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Eurasia, and the Balkans and Russia Director at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. But he added, "These sanctions target their companies too, which packs a bigger punch than just individuals."

The list also includes a state-owned military firm, Rosoboroneksport, that the U.S. says has been selling arms to the Assad regime in Syria, "enabling Assad to continue to carrying out attacks against Syrian civilians," including chemical weapons attacks, the Treasury said.

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