The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. sanctions ensnare Russians with ties to Trump world

The U.S. on Friday slapped sanctions on Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin in the most aggressive move yet to punish Moscow for alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Trump administration imposed new economic sanctions on Russian politicians, tycoons and businesses Friday in its most aggressive response to recurring ­cyber offensives and Moscow’s attempts to undermine Western democracies.

The measures take aim not only at Russians directly connected to the Kremlin but also several with links to President Trump’s campaign or his associates who have been scrutinized in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.

The sanctions continue the Trump administration’s trend of taking increasingly bold moves against Russia under pressure from Congress even as Trump holds out the possibility of warmer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”

U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said evidence of Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential campaign is 'incontrovertible' on Feb. 17. (Video: Reuters)

Russia’s Foreign Ministry vowed a “harsh response” and said the measures would be as ineffective as previous rounds of sanctions.

The list includes 17 Russian government officials, a state-owned weapons trading company and seven oligarchs. Several of the individuals have close ties to Putin, including the son of a childhood friend of the Russian president, and an energy executive who vacationed in a dacha near the Putin family and married his daughter.

Some of the oligarchs, such as natural resources magnates Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg, made their fortunes in the 1990s and have looser connections to Putin. Others got rich running some of Russia’s biggest state-controlled energy and financial firms, including the energy giant Gazprom and the state-controlled bank VTB.

Amid heightened tensions over the Russian ex-spy poisoning case, President Trump said April 3 that strong relations with Russia would be a “good thing.” (Video: The Washington Post)

But what sets Deripaska and Vekselberg apart from the many other Russian tycoons who did not make the list is their connections to the Trump world.

Deripaska, for example, was once a business partner of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is facing money-laundering charges. A top executive at a U.S. company affiliated with Vekselberg donated to the Trump inauguration fund, and Vekselberg attended the inauguration.

Other people whose names have surfaced in connection with the Russia investigation also ended up on the Treasury’s list. Konstantin Kosachev, a Russian lawmaker who led soft-power initiatives for the government and surfaced in a now-famous dossier alleging the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin during the 2016 election, was sanctioned Friday. So was Alexander Torshin, a little-known deputy central bank governor who rose to public interest in the United States only after his efforts to promote gun rights in the United States landed him at a table with Donald Trump Jr. during a 2016 National Rifle Association conference.

How Trump got to ‘yes’ on the biggest purge of Russian spies in U.S. history

The list of targets also includes Igor Rotenberg, the son of a Russian tycoon who grew up taking martial arts classes with Putin, and Kirill Shamalov, who also grew up in a family close to the Putins and who the Treasury said married Putin’s daughter in 2013.

The action also sanctioned top national security officials, including Nikolai Patrushev, a former KGB officer and longtime secretary of the Security Council of Russia, and Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Russia’s interior minister.

The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals or entities named hold in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from conducting business with them — even if they work for international companies outside the United States. The Treasury Department said it would issue guidance to Americans on how to unwind from any business interests they have with them in a way to avoid being punished for violating sanctions.

The real power of sanctions is they discourage international financial institutions, which typically conduct business at least partially in U.S. dollars, from doing business with them. The administration explicitly warned that non-Americans may face sanctions themselves for facilitating significant transactions with the people and companies named.

Senior administration officials on Friday stressed that the sanctions were not aimed at the Russian people. Instead, they were meant to cripple the finances of those elites who have “disproportionately benefited from the bad decisions made by the Kremlin on their behalf,” one of the officials said.

The officials declined to elaborate on why Putin was not directly targeted, but said several people in the Russian leader’s inner circle were being sanctioned.

“I think it’s important to see in today’s action a message. And that message is that actions have consequences,” said another senior administration official, who spoke to reporters only on the condition of anonymity. “Today’s announcements are the result of a decision that the Russian government has made and continues to make in choosing a path of confrontation.”

Russia accused Washington of futile scaremongering that has included denying visas and seizing property and financial shares. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the United States had forgotten that the seizure of property and foreign money amounts to “plunder.”

In recent weeks, Trump’s top advisers have pushed for tougher actions against the Kremlin after the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, interference in the 2016 U.S. election and a cyberattack against Ukraine and other countries last year that was described as the most costly in history.

The sanctions won quick support from Congress, which has pushed for tough moves against Putin’s inner circle since last year, when it passed legislation requiring the Treasury Department to publish a list of Russian oligarchs. Trump signed the legislation after it passed with a veto-proof majority, even as he called it a seriously flawed and unconstitutional bill.

“These new sanctions send a clear message to Vladimir Putin that the illegal occupation of Ukraine, support for the Assad regime’s war crimes, efforts to undermine Western democracies and malicious cyberattacks will continue to result in severe consequences for him and those who empower him,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The Kremlin has expressed increasing exasperation with policies under the Trump administration despite hopes that the president would take a softer approach toward Moscow. Last week, the United States expelled 60 Russian spies and diplomats in response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter. It was the largest expulsion of Russians in U.S. history. Russia, in turn, expelled 60 U.S. officials.

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, meanwhile, tweeted that he is “looking at the new US sanctions list of Russian officials and oligarchs and thinking back of the day when they had champagne celebrating Trump’s victory. I am laughing.”

Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow and Seung Min Kim and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.