For months, Russian higher-ups had been shaken by the prospect of being named by the U.S. as a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As stipulated by the unwieldy 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the Trump administration had some 180 days to detail those voices who held sway with the Kremlin – and who would suddenly face the prospect of individual sanctions. And all of them, according to the Moscow Times, were “doing everything possible to keep their names off the list.”
The deadline for the White House’s findings came yesterday – as did, late at night, the administration’s final list of politicians, oligarchs, and industrialists deemed of importance.
But instead of any concern rippling through Moscow, there now seems, at first blush, a sense of relief. Because while there are some 114 officials and 96 business figures named, it appears that the administration put little research into their list, and effectively outsourced their work to both Forbes and the Kremlin website.
According to the released list – a separate, related memo remains classified – U.S. officials determined who would be on the list “based on objective criteria related to individuals’ official position in the case of senior political figures, or a net worth of $1 billion or more for oligarchs.” But as a Treasury Department official told BuzzFeed, the unclassified list stemmed directly from Forbes’ ranking of the richest businessmen in Russia. And per the Washington Post, the list of officials “appears copy-pasted from … the Kremlin directory of officials available on its English-language website.”
However, according to the Atlantic Council’s Anders Åslund, the final list was actually a last-minute replacement – one that took the place of another list, compiled by experts, that actually aimed at detailing those close to the Kremlin.
At the last minute, however, 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. In doing so, this senior official ridiculed the government experts who had prepared another report, rendering CAATSA ineffective and mocking US sanctions on Russia overall. By signing this list, the secretary of the treasury took responsibility for it.
Now, where fear once rankled the upper crust of Moscow, the list – with both its slip-shod research and blanket inclusion of over 200 figures – appears to have been welcomed with open arms. And the reactions from Russians named in the memo ranged from condescension to giddiness to anger that the list was even considered in the first place.
Meduza compiled a run-down of reactions from figures named, showing the breadth of reaction. For Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, the list “looks like a book of ‘who’s who in Russian politics.’” For Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, “The West has always disliked Russia, but even in the very worst times throughout history nobody ever dreamt up a list like this.” And for Anna Kuznetsova, commissioner on children’s rights, her inclusion “demonstrates that we’re on the right path to our main goal: maintaining the happiness and well-being of Russia’s children.”
Given that the list coincided with the Trump administration’s announcement that it would hold off on more Russian sanctions – to say nothing of the administration’s previous slow-walking of other sanctions – the move highlights the growing disparity between executive and legislative approaches to Russia and Russian interference. Putin may have termed the list a “hostile act,” but it’s growing increasingly clear that the White House is acting hardly as tough on Moscow as it could – or should.
This article has been updated to include analysis from Anders Åslund.