Investors Take U.S. List Of Russian ‘Oligarchs’ In Stride — For Now

Portion of U.S. Treasury Department Building Facade, North Side, with Sculpture of Alexander Hamilton

(Article ©2018 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Carl Schreck – January 30, 2018 – also appeared at rferl.org/a/russia-investors-brush-off-us-treasury-oligarchs-list/29007996.html)

For months Russia’s business and political elite were fretting about the planned release of a U.S. list of potential Russian targets for fresh sanctions — including government officials and “oligarchs” purportedly close to the Kremlin.

After that unclassified list was published by the U.S. Treasury Department just before a congressionally mandated deadline on January 29, it emerged that the “oligarchs” list precisely matched the top 96 people in the Forbes list of richest Russians. The same day it was revealed that Washington would not impose secondary sanctions targeting financial transactions with Russian state-owned companies.

Investors took the news in stride — for the moment, at least.

Russian markets on January 30 brushed off the release of the so-called Kremlin Report that lists the 96 “oligarchs” and 114 senior Russian political figures that Washington says have gained wealth or power thanks to their association with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“For now it all looks pretty mild,” Oleg Kuzmin, an economist with the investment bank Renaissance Capital, told Reuters.

The document was widely derided by political analysts, Russia watchers, and those featured in it as a crude copy-and-paste job from the most recent Forbes list of Russian billionaires and from an official directory of officials posted on the Kremlin’s website.

Those included in the list were never expected to face immediate sanctions, and the Treasury Department said that inclusion does not mean the individuals meet “the criteria for designation under any sanctions program.”

“The lack of market impact stems from the fact of low risk of new sanctions after the release of the reports and rather mechanical and formal approach in constructing the Kremlin list,” Dmitry Polevoy, chief economist at ING in Russia, told RFE/RL.

Polevoy wrote in a note to investors — headlined Russia Sanctions: Take It Easy — later on January 30 that the inclusion of a “wide range of top political persons and all major oligarchs/businessmen makes it hard to believe that all or the majority of them will face sanctions.”

Unwanted (Unearned?) Scrutiny

But risk analysts said the so-called Kremlin Report could nonetheless prompt Western investors to take a second look at doing business with anyone included on the list, which features several powerful Putin associates already under U.S. and EU sanctions over Russian interference in Ukraine.

“I think it will lead to enhanced due diligence by some Western businesses and financial institutions in their dealings with the identified parties,” Erich Ferrari, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S. Treasury sanctions, told RFE/RL. “That would have the potential to delay business ventures that those parties are involved.”

The report, which was mandated by a U.S. law reluctantly signed by President Donald Trump in August, required the administration to compile a list of wealthy Russians according to “their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.”

Many wealthy Russians included in the final unclassified document are not seen as having close ties to the Kremlin, and some have clashed with Russian authorities or left the country altogether.

The Oligarchs List

Maximilian Hess, senior political risk analyst at AKE Group, said that while the wide net cast by the Treasury report could mitigate the concerns of those named, they were “still being effectively designated as politically exposed persons by the U.S. government.”

“This will invite additional compliance scrutiny for their dealings in the West,” Hess told RFE/RL.

Enough For Now?

One section of the law — known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — focuses on Russian sovereign debt, which Moscow has used to shore up strategically important companies since Washington and Brussels imposed sanctions on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Analysts from Societe Generale said in a January 30 note to investors that the “current U.S. approach significantly diminishes the risk of harsh measures against Russian sovereign debt over the short term,” Bloomberg reported.

Raiffeisen analysts said in an e-mailed note that the “breadth and lack of specific details” in the Treasury document “suggests the U.S. isn’t ready for another round of toughening sanctions,” Bloomberg reported.

Polevoy, ING’s chief economist for Russia, said in his investor note that the “pending status” of potential new U.S. sanctions against Russia might be “intended” and “a sufficient tool for the U.S. administration.”

As was expected, Russian officials on January 30 reacted angrily to the release of the list, with Putin calling it an “unfriendly act” and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, describing it as “aggressive” and “quite unprecedented.”

Polevoy said that “markets should mostly look through the (sometimes hawkish) responses from the Russian political side to the release of the report.”

Putin said on January 30 that Moscow would refrain from countermeasures “for now.”