Immediately after the US published its “oligarch list” of Kremlin-connected business insiders and on January 29, the Kremlin claimed the list is an attempt by Washington to meddle in Russia’s upcoming March 18 presidential election.
“We really do believe that this is a direct and obvious attempt to coincide with the election in order to exert influence on the results,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Targeting Russian oligarchs rather than big businesses may prove efficient because it would stir discontent and rancour towards Putin among Russian elites.
The entries included on the new list will not face immediate face financial or travel restrictions after US President Donald Trump surprised most by opting to table the issue of a new round on sanctions late Monday night.
Experts believe the move was a clear signal to those listed as to what may come in the event the US government opts to move forward with an expanded round of sanctions targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s allies.
Targeting the oligarchs, rather than big businesses or a larger number of the members of the security services, may prove more efficient as it could stir discontent and rancour towards Putin among Russia’s monied class.
Some pundits believe the psychological effect on those listed and those who do business with them the named individuals could cause a serious blowback against Putin and Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, for overplaying their hand in the US election.
The new list includes 114 senior Russian political and intelligence figures and 96 “oligarchs”, who US authorities say have gained wealth or power through their close association with Putin.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, is included on the list, as well as 31 cabinet ministers, as well as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The CEOs of major state-owned companies, including energy giant Rosneft’s chief, Igor Sechin, and the head of state-controlled Sberbank, German Gref, are also on the list, along with some of Russia’s most famous and wealthy citizens, including Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, NBA basketball team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, and Kaspersky Lab founder Yevgeny Kaspersky.
With the Kremlin controlling the levers of political power nationwide after years of steps to suppress dissent and marginalise political opponents, the March election is virtually certain to hand Putin a new six-year term.
Putin, 65, is eager for a high turnout to strengthen his mandate in what could be his last stint in the Kremlin, as he would be constitutionally barred from seeking a third straight term in 2024.
US Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller and three congressional panels are separately investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election and any potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump denies any collusion, and Putin has also denied that Moscow interfered in the election process, despite what US officials say is overwhelmingly substantial evidence.
Washington remains worried that Russia may target US mid-term elections in the autumn, as part of the Kremlin’s active campaign to influence domestic politics across the West.
In an interview with the BBC aired on Tuesday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Russia had a long history of information campaigns dating back to the Cold War and the threat “would not go away”.
Asked if Russia would try to influence the mid-term elections, he said: ”Of course. I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that.”
Choosing 18 March for the Russian presidential election was a conscious decision by the Kremlin to commemorate a 2014 internationally unrecognised referendum in Crimea that brought the Black Sea peninsula into the Russian Federation.
The vote was held after Moscow sent a large invasion force into the region in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych during the country’s EuroMaidan Revolution.