It was hard to imagine a more anticlimactic outcome. Or a more confusing and counterproductive one.
“At the last minute,” Aslund seethed in a piece for the Atlantic Council’s website, “somebody high up—no one knows who at this point—threw out the experts’ work and instead wrote down the names of the top officials in the Russian presidential administration and government plus the 96 Russian billionaires on the Forbes list. In doing so, this senior official ridiculed the government experts who had prepared another report, rendering [the Russian sanctions law] ineffective and mocking US sanctions on Russia overall.”
The Russians seemed to agree. The head of the committee for foreign affairs in the upper house of parliament was puzzled at the fact that the set of government names “simply copied the Kremlin’s phonebook.” Putin’s friend and former finance minister, the liberal Alexey Kudrin, pointed out that “both the law and the list and any potential new sanctions are illogical.” Arkady Dvorkovich, a deputy prime minister, said, “It’s just a list of people who are clearly leaders in Russian politics ... and ... leaders in Russian business. So far, there are no grounds for any actions here. The list looks like a book of ‘who’s who in Russian politics.’” Mikhail Fedotov, the generally well-regarded human rights ombudsman, also wasn’t sure what it meant. “As I understand it, the only thing that might happen now is that American diplomats might not say hello or shake hands, when meeting me at diplomatic receptions,” he said. “But these are polite people and I don’t expect they’ll do that.” One of the billionaires told The Bell, an independent Russian news site, “This list means nothing, whether it exists or not.” (Fried, for his part, was indignant. “The list is a virtual xerox of Forbes Russia Rich Guy List,” he told me. “It misses the vectors of closeness to Putin and corruption, which was the point.” There is a more-targeted, classified version, he said, and it “may be serious. But the published list is not.”)
Others in Russia were far less charitable. Some called it an attempt to interfere in Russia’s upcoming presidential election; others suggested drawing up a similar list of Americans. Putin weighed in to say that the list was “an unfriendly act that complicates relations between Russia and the U.S. and damages international relations in general.” Businessmen speaking anonymously to The Bell said that they expected not a splintering effect inside the Russian elite—which would have been the point of new sanctions—but a rallying around Putin.
In general, though, the indignation was tempered. “People in government are all expressing relief,” says the source close to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “There’s a real appreciation that Trump took a stance against the Washington establishment. … They see it as constructive for the relationship.” A Moscow investment banker pointed out that the ruble rallied on Tuesday. “People are relieved,” he said. “I think the Kremlin understands that it could’ve been worse and that there’s no need to panic,” says Andrei Kortunov, who runs a foreign policy think tank in Moscow.