Russian President Vladimir Putin is suspected of having a secret personal fortune of $40 billion, The New York Times reported.
Obama administration sanctions announced thus far — and new ones to be unveiled in the coming week — are intended to signal to Putin that Washington is going after the wealth of those assumed to be serving as conduits for Putin's own clandestine fortune.
The U.S. has no solid proof of Putin's riches. Kremlin officials list Putin's salary at $102,000 per year. By targeting Putin's inner circle the Obama White House hopes Putin gets the message that his moves in Crimea and Ukraine have a personal political cost, according to the Times.
One target is Swiss-based Gunvor Group controlled by Gennady Timchenko. The U.S. government has long been interested in tracing Putin's suspected wealth stemming from energy companies Surgutneftegaz, Gunvor, and Gazprom and in verifying rumors of cash payments paid to him.
A former mentor turned opponent, Boris Berezovsky, said that Putin declined an outright bribe when he was a St. Petersburg official.
The Economist magazine pulled back from assertions that Gunvor was tied to Putin when Timchenko filed a lawsuit.
If Putin does control $40 billion in assets he would be the world richest leader. Prior to 2003, Putin aides were suspected of having benefited from weakening sanctions on oil sales to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In 2007, a still-secret CIA report guesstimated Putin's wealth at $40 billion, the Times reported.
Miami University professor and Russia expert Karen Dawisha believes Putin has built "a kleptocratic" regime, according to the Times. Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky and Russian chess master turned Putin opponent Garry Kasparov both said any illicit money would be hard to directly pin on Putin.
Rumors that Putin has palaces, helicopters, yachts and aircraft have been officially dismissed in Moscow as "absurd," the Times reported. In 2008, Putin derided reports that he is rich as "not worth discussing" and "rubbish."
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert formerly at the National Intelligence Council, thinks Putin's inner circle is itself behind the rumors of his wealth.
"Russians have to have the biggest and the best. It's part of the mystique, part of the image," she said, the Times reported.
The Treasury Department has targeted Timchenko and Bank Rossiya which it described as "the personal bank for senior officials" close to Putin. "We remain confident that the information on the relationship between Putin and Gunvor is accurate," a Treasury official told the Times.
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