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US ready to target Russian president’s hidden $40bn stash
Published at 12:01AM, April 18 2014
The United States has been preparing to take the lead in enforcing a tougher sanctions regime on the Kremlin, and, according to officials, was ready to target the personal fortune of Vladimir Putin.
The US has made plain that it was preparing to raise substantially the costs of Russian interference in the region, and the warning that more sanctions were being prepared against the highest echelons of the Kremlin, was one of Mr Kerry’s main bargaining chips in the talks in Geneva last night.
“We are actively preparing new sanctions,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said.
European Union foreign ministers said last Monday that they, too, were preparing to expand their list of 33 high-profile Russian individuals who have been hit with asset freezes and visa bans should diplomacy fail. The EU move, however, masked disagreement about when, and with what force, a third phase of economic sanctions should be introduced.
The US, with less economic exposure to Russia, was ready to play a very personal card against President Putin if he decided to send troops into eastern Ukraine. The Russian leader is believed to have $40 billion (£24 billion) in Swiss bank accounts that could be frozen.
Intelligence services in the West suspect that Mr Putin’s private fortune, built up from substantial shareholdings in Russian utility companies, is safeguarded in accounts in Switzerland. “But with regard to any assets that Putin may have housed in foreign financial institutions, it’s safe to say they would not be held in his name,” US government sources said.
The difficulty of linking the accounts to the Russian leader is not underestimated. “We’re not going to speculate on just how difficult it would be to trace back any Putin-owned assets to him, but it certainly would not be easy,” the sources said. The US Treasury does, though, have special investigatory powers.
There has been speculation about Mr Putin’s personal wealth for some years. Stanislav Belkovsky, director of a Moscow think-tank, has claimed that the president’s fortune is based on huge share stocks in Gazprom, Surgutneftegaz, one of Russia’s biggest oil and gas producers, and other companies.
The US Treasury has so far frozen the assets of 38 individuals, including Crimean separatists, and two banks, all connected to the Ukraine crisis. Mr Putin is not among them and a move to impose sanctions against the Russian leader would be a highly provocative step.
The Treasury’s terrorism and financial intelligence section, which has carried out successful investigations tracing and freezing al-Qaeda’s foreign assets, is involved in enforcing the sanctions.
This section would be responsible for tracing Mr Putin’s assets abroad were he to be put on the list of “specially designated nationals”.
The US Treasury can only go after funds held by US banking institutions, but targeted individuals who try to move their assets to avoid sanctions would generally do so in dollars. That necessitates transfers eventually going through American banks, giving the Treasury jurisdictional rights to block the funds, even if a foreign bank refuses to co-operate.
If the bank accounts are in a different name, “that requires us to have the right information that it’s not the real person”, Treasury sources said.
The US would expect foreign banks in Geneva to play along.
“We have international co-operation, and that would be key in tracing assets. We can’t twist a bank’s arms, but if an individual has been sanctioned we would expect co-operation,” the Treasury sources said.