Moscow, Russia | AFP | President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday laughed off a US list of Russians tapped for possible sanctions, joking that he was offended his name was not on it, but nevertheless branded it an “unfriendly act”.
The 65-year-old Russian leader — who spoke before the US Treasury said it would act on its list “in the near future — said the US move would further worsen ties.
At the same time, Putin sought to make light of the US report — which many commentators say looks like an attempt to simply copy a Forbes Russia “rich list” — adding Moscow would not reciprocate for now.
“I am offended, you know,” Putin told his supporters with a smile, citing a famous line from a popular Soviet-era movie.
The president — who is running for re-election — said he had not seen the list so far and quoted the old Oriental proverb “the dogs bark but the caravan goes on” to play down the significance of Washington’s report.
The US Treasury released the long-awaited list of Russian officials — led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — and business people singled out for sanctions under a law designed to punish Moscow for its alleged meddling in the election that brought Donald Trump to power.
The report, which features 114 politicians and 96 people considered “oligarchs” close to Putin and worth at least $1 billion (805 million euros) each, does not trigger sanctions right away but may cut businesses off from world finance.
– ‘Zero’ significance –
Putin said the Kremlin list was a blow to not only the government and business circles, but to the entire country.
“Essentially, all of us, everyone out of the 146 million people have been put on some sort of list,” Putin said.
He said the list further complicates US-Russia ties as well as international relations.
Russia is ready to take “serious” reciprocal measures but will refrain from doing so for now, Putin added.
“We are not interested in curtailing our ties with the United States,” he said.
“We know what we want. We want to build long-term, stable ties based on international law.”
Putin is widely expected to win a fourth presidential term in March, extending his Kremlin rule until 2024 and becoming the longest-serving Russian leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.
Medvedev struck a similar note, joking that all those who did not find their names on the US list should resign.
“The significance of this list is zero,” he said at a news conference, speaking alongside Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Medvedev said the publication of the report “poisons our ties”, adding Russia would respond if the US moves to introduce sanctions against those on the list.
The seven-page unclassified report also includes the names of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and energy giant Rosneft’s chief executive Igor Sechin considered to be Russia’s second most powerful man.
A separate, classified annexe lists lower-ranking government officials or Russians worth less than a billion dollars.
– ‘Putin’s Kremlin mafia’ –
Speaking earlier Tuesday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was important not to give in to “emotions” even if targeting Russia’s highest leadership was “quite unprecedented”.
All those on the list, Peskov said, “have been de facto called enemies of the US”.
Russia’s credit rating agency ACRA said the US report had “not affected significantly the financial stability of our country.”
Putin’s bete noire, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny — who is barred from standing in the March election — said the US list exceeded his expectations, adding that it features many of those he and his team had investigated in the past.
“I’d say this is a rather precise description of Putin’s Kremlin mafia,” the opposition politician said, speaking on Echo of Moscow radio.
But he and other commentators pointed to a number of inaccuracies in the US Treasury report.
“American officials simply copied surnames of current Kremlin officials,” political observer Yulia Latynina wrote in the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Washington imposed sanctions on Moscow following Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine.
Tensions between the two countries have grown despite US President Trump’s promises to mend fences between the former Cold War-era enemies.
US intelligence agencies concluded in late 2016 that Putin had directed a broad effort to influence the presidential election that year.
Putin for his part sought to turn the tables on Washington, claiming the US wanted to see opposition leader Navalny elected president.