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‘The Kremlin list’: Why Russian oligarchs shrugged

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting about the coming presidential elections in Russia on Jan. 30. (Sergei Chirikov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Late Monday evening, the U.S. Treasury Department released an unclassified list of influential Russians linked to the Kremlin. However, it may not have provoked the desired response in Moscow.

Dubbed the “Kremlin list,” the document was a legal requirement of a sanctions bill passed by Congress last year. Before the list was released, some Russian executives were reported to be fearful of inclusion, even applying for foreign passports in a bid to escape sanctions.

But as the unclassified version appeared this week, senior officials in Moscow scoffed. “I believe in this case not being included on this list provides grounds for resignation,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev joked Tuesday.

It wasn't just Russian officials who were bemused — many outside observers noted that the list appeared to have been put together haphazardly, using public resources including a list of Russian billionaires published by Forbes. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian politics at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, put it in one tweet, the unclassified list could “have been put together by a couple of interns in a couple of days.”

Other Russia-watchers disagreed: It wouldn't have taken that long.

So why was this much-anticipated document been greeted with shrugs? Here's a quick guide.

What is the 'Kremlin list'?

Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, a law billed as a U.S. response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the Treasury was asked to draw up a list of “oligarchs and parastatal entities” within 180 days.

In particular, the list would identify senior political figures and business executives in Russia, “as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.” The report would then go on to assess the oligarchs' relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, indicate “any indices of corruption with respect to those individuals,” and look at their net worth and non-Russian business afflictions.

The document was not designed to be a list of sanctioned individuals and there was no mandatory legal repercussions for inclusion on it. Former officials instead likened it to public shaming, and there was the suggestion that it could lead to economic action down the line. Bloomberg reported last week that a number of well-known critics of Putin had been consulted on the list.

On Monday, however, just hours before a deadline for action hit, the Trump administration announced that no new sanctions would be implemented against the Russian government, as the threat of sanctions had already affected the Russian economy. Hours after that, about 10 minutes to midnight, the Treasury released its unclassified version of the “Kremlin list.”

Who is on the list?

There are two separate lists included in the classified document. The first, a list of “senior political figures,” features 114 individuals in the Russian government. It includes well-known names such as Medvedev, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov and Dmitry Peskov, Putin's presidential press secretary.

The second list features 96 business executives, including many of Russia's top oligarchs, with perhaps the best-known being Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. Of a total of 210 individuals on these lists, about 22 have already been hit with sanctions by the United States. Putin is not named on either list.

The broad variety on the list quickly became a joke among Russian critics — in a post on Facebook, Russian Sen. Konstantin Kosachev accused the Treasury of simply “rewriting the Kremlin phone book.” And certainly, some inclusions in the list are surprising: Anna Kuznetsova, an envoy for children's rights, is included, as is Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Kremlin human rights council.

“One does not have to be very smart to make this list,” Fedotov told the news agency Interfax.

Among the oligarchs, there are surprises, too. Wealthy Russian business executives who have faced off against the government, such as vodka billionaire Yuri Shefler or the Ananiev brothers, forced to hand over their bank to Russia's central bank last year, were included, as were some others who hold Russian citizenship but who no longer do business in Russia. At least one person on the list, Valentin Gapontsev, is reported to be a U.S. citizen.

Perhaps more egregious still were a number of exclusions. Anatoly Chubais, head of the Russian state nanotechnology company Rusnano, was not included, though he is widely considered part of Putin's circle. He soon issued a mock apology to the Kremlin for not being able to get on the list.

So how was the list made?

Soon after the “Kremlin list” was made public, observers began to note that much of it appeared to almost exactly match two publicly available resources — the Kremlin's English-language list of top officials and Forbes Magazine's 2017 list of the wealthiest Russian business executives.

In remarks later emailed to reporters, a Treasury Department spokesman confirmed that the unclassified report was derived from sources that included “, Forbes, and others.” The spokesman said that a threshold of $1 billion was chosen as a definition of an oligarch, as this “is the criteria contained in the U.S. Forbes list of Russian individuals with a net worth of at least $1 billion.”

Anders Aslund, an economist with the Atlantic Council who had previously been reported to be helping compile the list, wrote Tuesday that at the last minute, “somebody high up — no one knows who at this point — threw out the experts’ work and instead wrote down the names of the top officials in the Russian presidential administration and government plus the 96 Russian billionaires on the Forbes list.”

On Twitter, Aslund said that the broad variety of Russians included undermined the list's purpose.

What now?

It is important to note that we are only seeing the unclassified version of the list — the classified version may well be more robust. Some experts say that even the broad nature of the public list should cause Kremlin-linked oligarchs to worry. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Twitter that Russians were not the intended audience for the list, anyway.

But many others worry that by making the unclassified list so broad, the Trump administration has failed to distinguish between Putin allies and other Russian figures — and in so doing, has made it clear that it is not serious about using sanctions to punish wrongdoing.

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