“I’m afraid we no longer have oligarchs. That was a concept of the ’90s,” Russia’s deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich told Bloomberg TV earlier this year. The United States government disagrees, and one of its departments released a statement today with the stark headline “Treasury Designates Russian Oligarchs, Officials, and Entities in Response to Worldwide Malign Activity.”
“Worldwide Malign Activity” might sound like a generic piece of political bombast, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was surprisingly specific in the press release announcing new economic sanctions: “The Russian government engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”
He didn’t mention election meddling—maybe he wants to keep his job—or the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom, but perhaps he didn’t need to: There’s plenty of blood on Russian hands in Syria alone, after all. As the release goes on to state, “Russia has contributed to the instability of the Government of Syria through the sales and transfer of Russian-origin military equipment in support of Assad’s regime, enabling Assad to continue carrying out attacks against Syrian citizens. These attacks have included chemical weapons attacks, which claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian citizens.”
In all, Treasury, “in consultation with the Department of State,” used a law Congress passed almost unanimously last year to sanction “seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they own or control, 17 senior Russian government officials, and a state-owned Russian weapons trading company and its subsidiary, a Russian bank.” The most notorious name on the list is probably that of Oleg Deripaska, who is an oligarch if ever there was one; he’s been called Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “favourite industrialist.” What makes his inclusion even more of a story here in Washington is that the Associated Press has explored Deripaska’s ties to Paul Manafort, the former Donald Trump campaign chairman who is one of the few people to be charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Deripaska filed a defamation and libel lawsuit against AP over the reporting, but it was dismissed, as a judge found that the Russian had not contested “any material facts” in it. And we learned just this week, reported first by CNN, that Mueller’s team has questioned and searched the electronic devices of Russian businessmen who visited the United States as part of the probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Of course, most of the people on the list are close to Putin. His aide Evgeniy Shkolov was designated. So was energy tycoon Kirill Shamalov. As Treasury notes, “Shamalov married Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova in February 2013 and his fortunes drastically improved following the marriage.” (Some reports indicate the two have divorced, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have ended Shamalov’s luck.)
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the named companies and individuals. They also make it a crime for United States citizens to transact with them and facilitate sanctions against non-U.S. citizens engaging in such transactions. One goal, clearly, is to make it a little less lucrative to be a member of the Putin crony club. But it seems to me that it’s a lot more dangerous to be a former member of the club—many of those who have had information about how the Russian oligarchy operates and shown a willingness to reveal it have come to nasty ends. Treasury’s move was a dramatic one but could prove to be more symbolic than anything else—maybe even more symbolic than the president of the United States calling the president of Russia to congratulate him on his recent reelection. Vladimir Putin was not on the list of Russian officials Treasury designated over the country’s “Worldwide Malign Activity.”