Amid the backdrop of intense anti-Russia sentiment that has become par for the course in mainstream political discourse, the Treasury Department published a list of “Russian oligarchs” late Monday night that had been mandated by previous legislation. The oligarchs list is intended for use in levying future sanctions against those with ties to the Russian government as punishment for Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election as well as disputes pertaining to its role in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
The list includes 114 Russian politicians, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and 96 oligarchs with an estimated net worth of $1 billion or more. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the list as an “unfriendly act.”
The oligarch list has also drawn sharp criticism from U.S. lawmakers, charging that the list shows the Trump administration’s unwillingness to take a strong stance against Russia. However, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin emphatically asserted that, although no new sanctions had yet to be announced, new punitive actions based on the list would be forthcoming, possibly within the month.
However, a more reasonable criticism of the list could involve pointing out its contradictions. For instance, the list reportedly includes several “oligarchs” whose business ties are largely outside Russia, but are merely Russian-born citizens, as well as several others that have seen significant portions of their wealth adversely affected by the Putin-led government. Furthermore, much of the list on oligarchs seems to have been lifted from a Forbes list on the wealthiest Russians.
The list is also significant for the Russian political and oligarchical figures it chose to omit, namely those that have championed U.S. political and economic interests in the past. Most notable among these was Anatoly Chubais, current CEO of the government-owned Rusnano and an advisor to JPMorgan Chase. Chubais is most well-known for serving as deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin, who had the U.S. government to thank for his 1996 election win. As deputy PM, Chubais oversaw the corruption that defined Russia’s privatization effort. He enriched himself in the process as well as a handful of other oligarchs while many Russian citizens lost their entire life savings in a matter of weeks.
Other notable omissions include Alexei Kudrin, a neo-liberal Russian economist and former Finance minister who has criticized Putin as of late, as well as the governor of Russia’s central bank, Elvira Nabiullina who is a former colleague of Kudrin as was recently named Europe’s central banker of the year.
These incongruities are hardly surprising given the past and connections of the “Kremlin experts” who helped the U.S. Treasury put the list together. One of these “experts” is Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin who resigned and became fiercely critical of the Russian government in 2005. He allegedly resigned after a report issued by the U.S.-government sponsored Freedom House and now serves as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, formerly known as the Charles Koch Foundation. While working within the Russia government, Illarionov had compared the Kyoto protocol to a “global Auschwitz” and had praised Chile’s Pinochet, calling the dictator’s Milton Friedman-inspired economic policy his “ideal.”
Another “expert” consulted by the Treasury was Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and a senior fellow at the hawkish neo-conservative think thank, the Atlantic Council. Aslund has been known to profit off of his connections to powerful Russians and is a known associate of Anatoly Chubais.
Ultimately, the “Russian oligarch” list is largely inconsistent. While some U.S. lawmakers have stated their view that the poorly constructed list is a sign of Trump’s alleged sympathy for Russia, it may be born out of a hesitation to clamp down on oligarchs – Russian or otherwise. After all, academics have defined the U.S. system of governance itself as an oligarchy and any attempt — whether misguided or righteous — to criticize the influence of oligarchs’ influence in another country raises uncomfortable truths about the U.S. itself. Perhaps this is why Google dictionary recently attempted to write off oligarchy as a purely Russian phenomenon.