The Trump administration took its sternest action to date in response to Russia’s global aggression, imposing sanctions that freeze the U.S. assets of seven Russian oligarchs and 17 Russian government officials, including a top banker and Putin ally facing FBI scrutiny for his ties to the National Rifle Association.
McClatchy reported in late January that the bureau was investigating whether Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, funneled money to the NRA so the gun rights group could beef up its hefty spending to aid Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
Also among those sanctioned are several Russian figures with ties to Trump’s inner circle or whose names have arisen in connection with Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s broad probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
One of those is a senior member of Russia’s parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, whom a former British spy identified while researching Trump’s Russian connections during the campaign. Ex-spy Christopher Steele reported in his now-famous Trump dossier that Kosachev was the Kremlin’s representative at a supposed clandestine, late-summer 2016 meeting with Trump's lawyer to discuss how to conceal Russia’s efforts to help the real estate magnate defeat frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Both Kosachev and the lawyer, Michael Cohen, have strongly denied that the meeting happened.
Kosachev called the U.S. announcement "another unjustified, unfriendly and meaningless step," state-run media RIA-Novosti reported. "This is the way to nowhere. Russia cannot be frightened by it and especially cannot be broken by it," Kosachev said.
Billionaire aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska, who is close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is also on the list. Emails revealed during parallel investigations by Mueller and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees showed that former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, who reaped millions in fees as a longtime consultant in Ukraine, offered through an intermediary to provide Deripaska briefings on the campaign’s progress; at the time, Manafort was hugely in debt to the oligarch. Deripaska has denied ever receiving any such briefings.
Deripaska gained unwanted attention recently when a widely circulated video showed him hosting Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko on his private yacht, accompanied by several call girls, in August 2016, just weeks after Manafort offered to provide campaign briefings.
The sanctions, which also targeted businesses of Deripaska and other oligarchs, were not a hastily conceived strike by the administration. Rather the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and other administration officials began working on them even before Trump took office.
A senior administration official told reporters that the sanctions were not in reaction to a single Russian act but rather several, including Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and efforts to help the Assad regime in Syria and hurt democracies around the globe.
They were "in response to the totality of the Russian government's ongoing and increasingly brazen pattern of malign activity around the world," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.
"We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord and rancor to be successful," Trump said in a statement released by the White House. Until recently, Trump persistently dismissed criticisms of Russia, and even while agreeing to the latest sanctions, he invited Putin on a March 20 phone call to meet with him at the White House.
The sanctions also target Russian energy interests, such as Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov; he suddenly became an oil and gas exploration tycoon after marrying Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. U.S. investigators have charged that Russia has worked to impede the expansion of American oil and gas development; the United States could top Russia within a year or two as the world’s leading energy producer.
“The sanctioning of oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, who is linked to Paul Manafort, Alexander Torshin, and Putin’s son-in-law will send a strong message to the Kremlin,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “By isolating Putin’s regime and financially punishing his support base among the oligarchs, we may be able to induce a change in Moscow’s behavior — if not, we will have to explore other options to pressure the Kremlin to chart a new direction.”
Experts on Russia say Putin has used his power to bestow wealth on selected Russians; in return, he calls in favors from those oligarchs ranging from holding his secret assets overseas to helping facilitate Russian intelligence operations.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who has pressed the NRA about its relationship with Russia in a recent exchange of letters, called the sanction against Torshin “hard evidence of his deep involvement in Vladimir Putin's regime.”
Wyden said the action “increases the urgency for the Treasury Department to provide the Finance Committee with relevant documents on Mr. Torshin that I requested months ago."
The NRA’s general counsel said in a March 19 letter to Wyden that none of its foreign donations have gone into a U.S. election, “either directly or through a conduit.”
The United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Russia since first taking action in 2012 on human rights grounds with the passage of what's now called the Magnitsky Act. It sought to punish Russians for the death of an accountant who allegedly uncovered corruption, and the United States began applying those sanctions globally in 2016.
After the Crimea invasion, the Obama administration began a series of progressive sanctions against Russian leaders, businessmen and companies and, shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama tossed out 35 Russian diplomats and sanctioned intelligence officials for Russian interference in the election.
The administration has now sanctioned 189 Russian-related individuals and entities under various programs, the administration official said.
One figure added to the sanctions list Friday has direct and indirect entanglements with a Trump cabinet officer: Viktor Vekselberg, a Putin friend who is the founder and chairman of the board of directors of Renova Group. This conglomerate owns assets in a range of Russian businesses, including energy companies.
What Treasury did not mention is that Vekselberg was a business partner of now-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who led a takeover in 2014 of the Bank of Cyprus, a big bank in a country through which wealthy Russians often move their money.
Through his investment group, the billionaire Ross took an 18 percent share of Bank of Cyprus and became vice chairman of its board of the directors. Vekselberg was the second largest shareholder in the newly reconstituted bank. Ross has since sold his interest in the bank, but has not revealed the buyer.
Ia statement, the Commerce Department disputed that Ross was a business partner of Vekselberg, noting Ross and his former firm “invested in public securities of a bank in which Mr. Vekselberg independently took a stake.”
Torshin is a lifetime member of the NRA and, before assuming his banking post, founded a Russian gun rights group in 2012. He also attended several annual NRA national conventions, speaking briefly to Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., at the meeting in May 2016 in Kentucky, and hosted an NRA delegation to Moscow in December 2015.
But what may have drawn U.S. investigators’ attention was a secret Spanish inquiry that accused Torshin of laundering money to Spanish banks and hotels on behalf of Russian mobsters. Torshin has denied laundering money and any connections to mobsters.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent