“They just copied the Kremlin phone book.”
With an impending congressional deadline for fresh sanctions on Russia, the Donald Trump administration engaged in a series of confused moves Monday that ended with no new penalties and a list of oligarchs cribbed from Forbes magazine.
Last summer, Congress passed bipartisan legislation — the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — that called for new sanctions against entities conducting “significant” business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors.
The legislation also called on the Trump administration to compile what had come to be referred to as the “Kremlin report” or “oligarch list” — a list of names of people well-connected to the Kremlin and within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The individuals wouldn’t face immediate penalties, but the list would essentially serve as a warning shot for Russian elites who could face penalties later.
Both the sanctions and the list of oligarchs were expected by Monday. Instead, the State Department informed Congress that it would not be adding sanctions, and the U.S. Treasury published a list not of Putin’s inner circle, but of people whose names appear on the Kremlin website and in Forbes’s 2017 list of the wealthiest Russians.
The confusing, and seemingly contradictory, moves highlight apparent chaos in U.S. sanctions policy when it comes to Russia, and they sparked criticism in both Moscow and Washington.
“Not only did they just cut and paste without any nuance, but they also didn’t appear to double-check the list, which is disturbing,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department official.
Congress was given a classified briefing Monday afternoon, yet the hours ticked away, and no oligarch list had been made public.
Then, with minutes to the midnight deadline, the Treasury Department published the unclassified version of its list, which featured Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, prime minister and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu — and everyone else on the Kremlin website’s English-language list of major staff in the order they appear on the website.
Konstantin Kosachev, a Russian senator and the head of the foreign relations committee in the Federation Council, noted on Facebook that he was under the impression that the administration “just copied the Kremlin phone book.”
Similarly, the list of 96 oligarchs, which included Chelsea football team owner Roman Abramovich and Breakthrough Starshot investor Yuri Milner, was taken from the Forbes 2017 list of richest Russians. (The Treasury Department confirmedits list was taken from Forbes.)
Even as the Trump administration ramps up its use of sanctions, agencies are struggling with a “brain drain” of sanctions expertise. Last year, the State Department also shuttered its office that oversees sanctions coordination and policy.
But the State Department insists that the lack of new sanctions is a sign its diplomacy is working.
“Foreign governments and private sector entities have been put on notice, both publicly and privately, including by the highest-level State Department and other USG officials where appropriate, that significant transactions with listed Russian entities will result in sanctions,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to Foreign Policy on Monday.
Yet former officials involved in sanctions and other outside experts questioned the seemingly haphazard approach on display Monday.
“There’s nothing new in this list,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury Department official now at the Center for a New American Security. “I think it diminishes the credibility that some in Congress might have afforded to the administration about Russia policy by failing to add additional criteria.”
Ambassador Daniel Fried, who implemented State Department sanctions in the Obama administration, said he was under the impression that professional staff had been working on a more thoughtful list, but that didn’t happen. “I don’t know why they went another route and seemed to slap something together,” he said, on a call with reporters organized by the Atlantic Council.
Other experts expressed concerns over the Treasury Department’s apparent penchant for copy and paste.
“What Treasury did here meets the kind of legal requirements of the report,” said Peter Harrell, a former senior State Department official who worked on sanctions. “But it clearly didn’t meet what Congress wanted out of this report — a sense of [which] Russian officials are really helping Putin’s regime.”
Harrell, now a senior fellow also with the Center for a New American Security, said the list was supposed to be a “naming and shaming exercise.” The administration “went with an approach that does the naming, but very clearly tries to avoid the shaming part of that by naming everyone,” he said.
Essentially copying and pasting phone books and billionaire lists “undermined” and “ridiculed” the sanctions legislation, Anders Aslund of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council wrote to FP in an email from Kiev. “This is what I feared.”
The Kremlin, for its part, seemed unworried by the latest developments in Washington.
“As for my name, well, everybody’s name is there,” Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said.
FP’s Robbie Gramer contributed to this piece.
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington.