A new “Who’s Who” of Russian business leaders published by U.S. authorities under sanctions regulations risks a sharp escalation from Vladimir Putin, according to one of his toughest and most effective critics in the west — businessman Bill Browder.
Speaking to WikiTribune after the Treasury published a list some said bore an uncanny resemblance to the Forbes magazine list of richest Russians, Browder said that coming two months ahead of elections in Moscow the publication may force Putin to react.
Putin has already called publication of the list a “hostile step.”
Browder, who has led a one-man campaign against what he argues is a kleptocracy in Russia with Putin at its head, said the new list of 210 Russian businessmen and government officials would make life difficult for those in it even if they were not yet covered by specific sanctions.
“Every compliance officer at a bank or financial institution will have to make a decision about having these oligarchs as their clients,” he said. Some would be judged too hot to handle by some institutions and Browder said he “would expect a lot of people to lose their accounts.”
Big names – literally a “rich list”
Among the best known of those named on the list or those with the best-known investments are Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club and Alisher Usmanov, the second largest shareholder in rival London club Arsenal. Yuri Milner, a noted Silicon Valley investor in technology companies including Facebook and Twitter is also on the list.
Software magnate Eugene Kaspersky is also on the list. U.S authorities have already warned against using his company’s widely sold anti-virus software. President Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska are on the list. Aras Agalarov, a property developer who once wanted to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and who hosted Donald Trump at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, is also there.
The list does not immediately put any of the 210 people — of whom 96 are listed as “oligarchs” — on formal sanctions lists. However, its release — around midnight on the 29th of January — was mandated under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that Congress passed in August 2017. That legislation was in response to efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
After speculation spread on social media regarding the fact that the list of oligarchs consisted of the same 96 businessmen whose assets were valued at over $1 billion by Forbes magazine, BuzzFeed News quoted an unnamed Treasury official as acknowledging that the list was based in part on the Forbes rich list.
An employee of an executive on the list is quoted anonymously by Reuters, calling the list a “telephone directory,” and criticizing the amount of effort that went into compiling what is, in effect, a “list of the political leadership, plus the Forbes list.”
President Donald J. Trump criticized the bill when signing it into law in August 2017.
Browder, who spearheaded a campaign for the Magnitsky Act which itself imposed heavy sanctions and restrictions on doing business with many in Putin’s circle, said the list represented a step closer to targeting more allies of Putin, making an “aggressive” response by him more likely.
“Then when he does respond Congress will react in turn by placing sanctions on people on this list,” Browder said.
Browder says that his campaign against Putin has made him the Russian president’s biggest enemy, and previously told WikiTribune that he sees the Russian government as a “criminal regime.” He has repeatedly been charged in absentia by Russian courts on counts including corruption, most recently in December.
Attempt to influence elections
Ahead of the list’s publication, a Russian government spokesperson said it was a “direct and obvious attempt to influence” Russia’s upcoming presidential election, which will be held on March 18.
Putin is expected to easily retain the presidency. His most high-profile opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, is barred from standing in the election. Navalny tweeted his support for the publication of the list, writing that he was glad corruption was being acknowledged internationally.
Eliot Engel, the leading Democrat on the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that the U.S. government had “let Russia off the hook yet again” by failing to impose sanctions on any of the listed Russians when publishing the list.
CAATSA requires that a report also be written regarding the individuals and state-linked companies, with an assessment of any suspected corruption and the effect of imposing sanctions upon them. That part of the report has not been published and may be classified (FT.com, may be behind a paywall).