US sanctions target what White House sees as sources of Putin's wealth

By bne IntelliNews April 29, 2014

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The US Office of Foreign Assets Control released a new list of sanctions against Russian officials and companies on April 28. The list targets individuals very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as some of the more notoriously corrupt Russian state-owned companies.

Canada also announced it has sanctioned two Russian banks and nine individuals, while the EU is also gearing up to release a list of 15 more names on April 29.

Top of the US list is Rosneft CEO and Putin's close personal friend from his St Petersburg days, Igor Sechin. Sechin was Putin's deputy chief of staff a decade ago in the Boris Yeltsin administration. He then ran the Federal Security Services after Putin was elected president and is seen as the leader of the so-called Siloviki fraction in the Kremlin, or hardline security professionals. He is more widely known amongst businessmen and diplomats as the "scariest figure in the Kremlin."

While no overt corruption charges have ever been leveled at Sechin, he raised eyebrows only last month when he raised his personal stake in the state-controlled oil company Rosneft to 0.1273% from 0.0849% by buying 4.5m shares for around RUB1bn ($28m). Given Sechin has only ever worked for state structures where even the best paid officials make at most $100,000 a year, one can legitimately question where Sechin came up with such a sum. The company released a statement tersely explaining Sechin used money from his "bonus" to buy the shares.

Other high-profile names on the list include the Ukrainian-born Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, one of Putin's right-hand men. Kozak is a core insider in the Kremlin, but is a slightly strange choice to appear on the US list because he is also not widely known to be corrupt and indeed spearheaded Putin's first round of long overdue judicial reforms during the president's second term in office. He has also been amongst the more frank bureaucrats when it comes to identifying the problems that Russia faces: following the second Chechen war, Kozak caused a scandal after a report he wrote was leaked to the Russian press claiming that every penny of the $1bn of economic aid sent to the region was stolen by the local elites.

Inner hits

Sechin's name was on the list simply to hit at Putin's inner circle. The US Department of the Treasury’s statement said explicitly:  “Sechin has shown utter loyalty to Vladimir Putin — a key component to his current standing,” in justifying its inclusion in the list.

By the same logic, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Vyacheslav Volodin and the head of state technology corporation Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, both close Putin allies, were also included on the list.

At this point it is not clear if Sechin's inclusion will affect Rosneft's joint venture with US oil major Exxon Mobil to develop the Arctic shelf, or if Chemezov's appearance will affect Rostec's subsidiary VSMPO-Avisma, which is the main supplier of titanium for US aircraft maker Boeing.

However, the list is also notable for some absences of a few obvious names. If Sechin is included, it is notable that the names of Alexei Miller, CEO of Gazprom, and Andrei Kostin, CEO of VTB Bank, are missing. Both are on a par with Sechin in terms of the power and importance their state-owned companies wield.

At the same time, if Kozak's name is included, then First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov's would be a natural partner. Unlike Kozak, Shuvalov has actually been linked with several corruption scandals and his wife is a major landowner around Skolkovo, the high-tech hub that is Russia's answer to Silicon Valley.

US President Barack Obama said that the list was not targeting Putin personally, but rather he was hoping to “change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he is engaging in could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.” However, US reports say the White House believes these individuals are the source of Putin's secret fortune.

Columnist Liam Halligan has argued the US argument is perfidious, as by imposing sanctions, travel bans and confiscation of property on people who have not been proven or convicted of any crime – irrespective of the high likelihood they are guilty as accused of corruption and using their insider positions for personal gain – undermines both the West's principles of private ownership and "innocent until proven guilty." But whatever the ethics of the list, the new sanctions are likely to only enrage the Kremlin further and represent another step away from the de-escalation of the crisis in Ukraine. The dispute is becoming a raw punch-up between the powers that's becoming increasingly personal and acrimonious.

Judo club

In addition to Putin's friends, several companies were listed. None of them are big names, but several on the list are owned by businessmen the Rotenberg brothers and Gennady Timchenko – all three of whom were already sanctioned in the previous list released in March.

Arkady and Boris Rotenberg trained in martial arts with Putin in the 1960s, and Arkady later ran a St Petersburg sports club whose honorary head was Putin. The brothers now own SMP Bank, Investcapitalbank and Stroygazmontazh, one of the largest suppliers of pipes to Gazprom, which are on the new sanctions list.

Several Stroytransgaz subsidiaries also appear on the list along with the Volga Group, which belongs to Timchenko and controls soft drink producer Aquanika Holding Limited, business aviation companies Avia Group and Avia Group Nord, transportation company Sakhatrans LLC and oil and gas rail freight operator Transoil – all of which are also sanctioned.

Three organizations owned or controlled by Bank Rossiya – group of leasing companies Zest, Investment Company LLC Abros and bank Sobinbank – were also hit by the new round of sanctions.

Clearly the White House is intent on hurting the businessmen it believes are closest to Putin and that it assumes are feeding him money. The US government has intimated that Putin is worth north of $40bn – enough to make him one of the ten richest people in the world – in comments reported by the New York Times, without specifying where this number came from. However, the latest sanctions list suggest strongly the White House believes these businessmen are the source of Putin's wealth.

Stroytransgaz has been controversial for more than a decade. Exiled fund manager Bill Browder famously accused Stroytransgaz of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from shareholders in the 1990s (of which Browder was one). In a famous attack on Gazprom in the early naughties, Browder accused the company of spending three-times more per kilometre to build pipelines through the ideally flat terrain in southern Russia than its Turkish partners did to build the Blue Stream pipeline through the Turkish mountains.

Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted with predictable vitriol. "We are disgusted with the statement issued by the White House press secretary," said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. "Every word used by the White House press secretary in the statement confirms that the US has completely lost touch with reality and is leading things toward an escalation of the crisis."

Given the sanctions remain symbolic as far as Russia's economy is concerned that is probably the most likely outcome.

Radio Liberty has a useful "who's who" guide to the sanctioned politicians here.

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