Does Russian President Vladimir Putin own any assets — companies, property, or investments — in the United States?
That was the big question featured in Tuesday’s Senate Banking Committee hearing, and one that could have major implications on U.S. leverage over Russia moving forward. But the witnesses in the hearing avoided answering questions about Putin’s potential American assets, time and again.
The hearing, which featured officials from the Treasury, State, and Homeland Security Departments, was nominally dedicated to discussing U.S. sanctions policy against Russia. Few details, however, were shared in the hearing, to the obvious frustration to the senators presiding.
Instead, the most notable takeaway was something unexpected: whether or not Putin personally owned assets in the U.S. — and if so, why those assets had not yet been targeted by American officials as part of the sanctions regime against Moscow.
Getting a clear picture of Putin’s wealth has long frustrated both officials and Kremlin-watchers alike, with estimates ranging as high as $200 billion in personal assets. A bipartisan bill proposed earlier this month would require a formal report of Putin’s wealth, but that legislation hasn’t yet been passed. The same questions go for Putin’s immediate family; his daughters reportedly manage bank accounts in Latvia, but beyond that, little is known about the assets Putin and his family maintain in the West.
But on Tuesday, senators tried to get a few more answers — with responses from the hearing’s witnesses only raising more questions moving forward.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) led the push to find out more about Putin’s personal wealth in the U.S., directing his questions at an evasive Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury Department’s acting deputy secretary:
Kennedy: Does Mr. Putin personally own assets in the United States?
Mandelker: I would defer to my colleagues in the intelligence community. I would be happy to talk to them about providing you a briefing on that subject.
Kennedy: Well, they’re not here. But you are. So let me ask you again. Does Mr. Putin personally own assets in the United States?
Mandelker: Again, senator, that’s not something that we can discuss in an open or public setting. But we’d be happy to sit down with you and provide a classified briefing with our intelligence community colleagues.
Kennedy then asked Christopher Krebs, an undersecretary with the Department of Homeland Security, and Christopher Ford, an assistant secretary with the State Department, if they had anything to add. Both declined.
Shortly thereafter, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who was clearly frustrated by Mandelker’s unwillingness to respond, picked up the thread.
Tester: Can anybody tell me why Putin’s ownership of anything in this country isn’t public information?
Mandelker: Again, senator, as I mentioned before, we would be happy to sit down and have a conversation with you about that.
Tester: Just tell me, why? What national security risk is that?
Mandelker: Again, senator, any discussion about where assets are in the United States or elsewhere are either classified or not something we would discuss in any kind of an open session.
Tester: You do know that you can go down to the courthouse to find out how much land I own? You know that. So why is Putin different?
Mandelker: Again, senator, I don’t want to talk publicly about where assets are here or anywhere in the world. There are a number of different reasons for that, but —
Tester: A yes or no doesn’t dictate section, township, and range. A yes or no just says, yeah, he owns property here.
Mandelker: Senator, I’m not aware of any title or deed that would have Mr. Putin’s name on it here in the United States.
Mandelker’s evasiveness, of course, doesn’t indicate that Putin actually owns any American assets, or even that he controls them via proxy, as he’s done with other assets controlled through a childhood friend.
But Mandelker’s continued dodge — and her apparent willingness to discuss the topic in a closed, classified setting — drew more attention to questions about whether Putin’s American assets actually exist, and whether they will be targeted by future sanctions. (The Obama administration considered sanctioning Putin personally following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, but eventually decided against doing so.)
Given the fact that anyone has the ability to set up an anonymous shell company in the U.S., it’s effectively impossible for the public to tell whether Putin himself owns assets like luxury real estate in America. If they do exist, Mandelker may well have wanted to avoid revealing publicly what the U.S. knows about Putin’s assets, and any potential pressure points moving forward.
Even without the details, though, at least one senator went on record saying he believes Putin owns assets across the U.S.
“Here’s what I think: I think Mr. Putin does own assets in the United States, and I think that Treasury knows what those assets are,” Kennedy said. “And whether we [have a discussion] in a classified or unclassified setting — that’s above my pay grade. But I would like us to have a frank and honest discussion about the ramifications of seizing those assets.”
When asked if she’d object to having a “frank and honest discussion” about seizing Putin’s theoretical American assets, Mandelker responded, “Not at all, senator.”