By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and JOSH LEDERMAN
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin described a list of his country’s officials and tycoons put together to comply with a U.S. sanctions law as a hostile and “stupid” move spearheaded by President Donald Trump’s political foes, but said Tuesday that the Kremlin would refrain from retaliating for now.
A continent away, Democrats in Washington lodged the opposite complaint, charging that Trump had let Putin off the hook. They chastised the president for declining to punish anyone under a part of the sanctions law that was intended to isolate Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors for Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
Putin’s reluctance to criticize Trump suggested the Russian leader still harbors hopes for normalizing ties with the United States. At the same time, the blanket list of 210 names — a who’s who of Russian officialdom and business elite — could help him win re-election in March by fueling anti-Western sentiment.
Mixing sarcasm and scorn, Putin immediately struck that chord Tuesday, saying that the people the U.S. named control companies employing millions of Russians. The list has spooked rich Russians, who fear it could get them informally blacklisted in the global financial system. But Putin cast the action in Washington as a blow to ordinary people.
“All of us, all 146 million, have been put on some kind of list,” he said at a meeting with activists for his election campaign. “Certainly, this is an unfriendly move, which further exacerbates the already strained Russia-U.S. relations and hurts international relations as a whole.”
Yet in the U.S. capital, the so-called “Putin list” was greeted with a collective shrug — mocked by some after it was revealed that the Treasury Department had prepared it by simply copying and pasting Forbes’ list of Russians worth $1 billion or more.
Instead, Russia hawks and Trump’s opponents were focused on why his administration opted not to punish anybody — at least for now — using new sanctions authority that took effect Monday.
“The president of the United States is not taking action to defend this nation,” charged Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Alluding to potential future election-meddling, Cardin said that if Putin “sees softness in the U.S. resolve, he will do more.”
Both requirements — that the U.S. issue a list of powerful Russians and start using sanctions to punish those doing “significant” business with Russian defense and intelligence companies — were included in a law Congress passed last year in response to alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential campaign. Trump’s administration had until Monday to take both steps.
On the sanctions, though, the administration decided it didn’t need to penalize anyone — including several U.S. allies that have had multibillion-dollar arms deals with Russia in the works — because the threat of sanctions had been enough of a deterrent. The State Department said that through demarches to foreign countries and other diplomatic conversations, the U.S. had scuttled potential deals worth billions of dollars to the Russians.
Senior State Department officials declined repeatedly to provide examples or public evidence of any planned sales that will no longer go through. But some of those examples were conveyed to Congress in a classified memo and classified briefings, two individuals familiar with the situation said.
One said that the administration had given Congress a list of 10 deals the U.S. believes will not go forward because the sanctions threat had been effective. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the details and demanded anonymity.
“He’s ignoring them and he’s not implementing them, even though they were mandatory,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said of Trump and the sanctions.
Yet State Department officials emphasized that Monday’s deadline was merely the first date the administration could legally use the new sanctions, suggesting more action could come later. Under fire from Senate Democrats on the same issue, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that “there will be sanctions that come out of this report.”
The sanctions targeting foreigners buying defense products from Moscow are separate from the list of Russian politicians and wealthy businesspeople, who do not face any U.S. sanctions merely for being on that list. Yet some observers said the list could help Putin consolidate his support base by burnishing his image of a strong leader who stands up to a hostile U.S.,
“This is a gift to Putin in the context of the presidential campaign,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Putin, whose approval ratings top 80 percent, is set to easily win another six-year term in the March 18 election that would put him on track to become Russia’s longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin. But the Kremlin has been worried about voter apathy that could make his showing less impressive.
Notably, Putin pointedly steered clear of criticizing Trump, describing the list as part of U.S. political infighting.
“Those who are doing it are focusing mostly on internal politics. They are assailing the U.S. president,” Putin said. He said the Kremlin had pondered possible retaliation while waiting for the list to be announced, but decided to refrain from action.
The idea of the seven-page unclassified document, as envisioned by Congress, was to name and shame those believed to be benefiting from Putin’s tenure, as the U.S. works to isolate his government diplomatically and economically. Russia hawks in Congress had pushed the administration to include certain names, while Russian businessmen hired lobbyists to keep them off.
The list comprises 114 Russian officials — the whole of Putin’s administration, as listed by the Kremlin on its website, plus the Russian Cabinet, top law enforcement officials and senior executives at state-owned companies. A companion list of 96 “oligarchs” is a carbon copy of Forbes magazine’s Russian billionaires’ rankings, only arranged alphabetically. It makes no distinction between those who owe their fortunes to close ties with the Kremlin and those who don’t. Some of the people on the list have long fallen out of favor with the Kremlin.
Officials said more names, including those of less-senior politicians and businesspeople worth less than $1 billion, are on a classified version of the list being provided to Congress. Drawing on U.S. intelligence, the Treasury Department also finalized a list of at least partially state-owned companies in Russia, but that list, too, was classified and sent only to Congress.