Putin: Russia list is a hostile move driven by Trump foes

Vladimir Isachenkov and Josh Lederman
The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Mixing irony with scorn, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described a new list including Russian officials and tycoons under a U.S. sanctions law as a hostile and “stupid” move spearheaded by President Donald Trump’s political foes, but he said the Kremlin will refrain from retaliation for now.

Putin’s reluctance to criticize Trump shows that he still hopes for normalizing ties with Washington. At the same time, the U.S. move could help the Russian leader in his re-election bid in March.

Some observers warn that the blanket list of 210 names, which reads like a who’s who in Russian officialdom and business elite, could further fuel anti-Western feelings in Russia and bolster support for Putin.

Putin immediately struck that chord, pointing that those blacklisted by the U.S. control companies employing millions of Russians. He cast the U.S. move 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 of his campaign. “Certainly, this is an unfriendly move, which further exacerbates the already strained Russia-US relations and hurts international relations as a whole.”

The list, ordered by Congress in response to alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, had spooked rich Russians who fear it could make them informally blacklisted in the global financial system.

But the Trump administration said it had decided not to immediately punish anybody under the new sanctions, at least for now, and some U.S. lawmakers accused Trump of giving Russia a free pass, fueling further questions about his willingness to confront Moscow.

Popular Putin: 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.

Washington’s list could help Putin consolidate his support base by burnishing his image of a strong leader who stands up to a hostile U.S., some observers say.

“This is a gift to Putin in the context of the presidential campaign,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

He added that the Kremlin would likely use the U.S. move to cast the opposition in Russia as Western stooges.

Putin noted sarcastically that his name isn’t on the list, saying of the omission: “It hurts.”

He emphasized that the new list comes even as Washington expects Moscow to cooperate on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and the Iranian nuclear issue.

“Look, isn’t it stupid: They are putting Russia in the same league with North Korea and Iran, and at the same time are asking us to take part in solving the North Korean nuclear problem and think what can be done on the Iranian track,” Putin said.

Political infighting: But 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,” he said. “By pointing at alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election, they are completely ruining Russia-U.S. relations.”

He said that Russian and U.S. special services had exchanged information about terrorist attacks, noting that such contacts benefit both sides.

“So do we need it or not?” Putin said. “Shall we work together or not? We can do without it, but I thought it’s a common interest.”

The Russian leader noted that a presidential children rights’ ombudswoman was put on the list even though the U.S. has pushed for resuming the adoption of Russian children by U.S. parents that Russia banned in 2012.

“They need to decide for themselves what they want: To engage in that or to sanction those who are dealing with it here,” Putin snapped.

Putin said the Kremlin had pondered possible retaliation while waiting for the list to be announced, but decided to refrain from action.

“We were ready to take retaliatory steps, and, mind you, serious ones, which would cut our relations to zero,” he said. “But we will refrain from taking these steps for now.”

The list: Russia hawks in Congress had pushed the administration to include certain names, while Russian businessmen hired lobbyists to keep them off.

In the end, the list of 114 Russian officials released just before a Monday evening deadline included 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.

Indeed, the U.S. Treasury Department acknowledged that the unclassified oligarchs list had been “drawn from publicly available sources.”

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.

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.