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This Week in Info War

Moscow sends mixed messages over "Kremlin list"

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Russian officials, policy analysts, and media were divided in their responses to the “Kremlin List,” released on 29 January as part of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The law, passed by Congress last August as punishment for Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, required the Treasury Department to produce a list of “senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation” considered to be close to President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. The final report included a total of 210 individuals: 96 oligarchs and 144 senior political leaders, including most of the Putin administration, the cabinet, and top law enforcement officials. Most of Putin’s longstanding political and business cronies are named, including spy chiefs Alexander Bortnikov of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Sergei Naryshkin of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), as well as key individuals who control Russia’s energy resources along with top bankers. Under CAATSA, the U.S. government could have expanded the sanctions list and taken other steps, such as cutting oligarchs’ access to foreign credit and limiting their travel, but the Trump administration announced that for now it would not impose additional public penalties, since CAASTA and other existing measures already serve as a deterrent to Russian misbehavior.

On one hand, Moscow mocked the list, pointing out that it includes some oligarchs who do not have close ties to Putin’s government. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev joked that for the cabinet, “not making it onto the list is reason enough to step down.” The day after its release, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the Treasury for taking five months to compile it, saying “they could have done it much, much faster.” Media reports claiming that the final oligarch list may have been derived not from the U.S. government’s interagency process, but from Forbes magazine’s 2017 ranking of Russia’s 200 richest businessmen, was another cause of derision. Federation Council Foreign Affairs Chairman Konsantin Kosachev wrote on Facebook that the U.S. government had “simply copied the Kremlin phone book.”

On the other hand, just the week before, Lavrov had attacked the report approaching release as one of many “efforts to punish Russia by any means possible.” He warned that the West’s “Russiaphobia” is “unprecedented” and even more severe than during the Cold War. In a classic example of the Kremlin’s use of the “wolf cries wolf” technique, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow believes the report is an attempt to interfere in Russia’s 18 March presidential election.

Putin, meanwhile, said he felt “slighted” that his name wasn’t on the list. But for now, he preferred bluster rather than an immediate reaction. He claimed the Kremlin was “waiting for this list to come out, and I’m not going to hide it: we were going to take steps in response, and, mind you, serious steps, that could push our relations to the nadir. But we’re going to refrain from taking these steps for now.” He also portrayed the report as an attack on Russian citizens at large. He repeated the frequent Kremlin narrative that differences exist between Trump and his own advisers over how to deal with Russia, accusing “those who are doing this” are attempting to damage Trump by “mainly doing domestic politics. They are attacking the elected president.”

But some Russian commentators viewed Washington’s decision not to expand sanctions as a possible signal that the Trump administration might be in the mood to improve relations. This view was strengthened by the visit of key Russian intelligence officials—two of whom have been sanctioned—to Washington at the end of January. “Only the White House could have made the decision on allowing the two sanctioned intelligence chiefs to enter the U.S.,” wrote one prominent observer. “The trip could not have happened unless the Trump White House had decided to act in a restrained manner concerning new sanctions, which the [U.S.] administration does not see as in the U.S. interest.” The fact that the trip took place at all is a big success for Moscow. At this time, contacts among the siloviky are an optimal format for a gradual re-establishment of relations, especially if themes like anti-terrorism matters are the focus and progress isn’t torpedoed by political intrigues. The same observer also speculated in a separate commentary that presidential “candidate” Ksenia Sobchak’s visit to the United States the week of 5 February could be the first step to a slight thaw.

On 29 January, despite the decision not to formally impose new sanctions, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert suggested that the publication of the list itself would have a chilling effect on Russian business activity. Foreign governments already have “abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions,” she said. So far, her prediction has been correct.  Russian businessmen have faced additional checks on some U.S. financial transactions, and more obstacles to completing deals, even though some oligarchs, expecting the worst, had earlier reduced risk by moving their assets. On 7 February, a Russian TV host said: “You may remember, we’ve been saying everything seems to be going well. Trump is ours and Mnuchin is ours…There are no sanctions, but pressure is being applied.”