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Sanctions revive search for secret Putin fortune

WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration imposed sanctions on individual Russians last month in response to Moscow’s armed intervention in Ukraine, one of the targets was a longtime part-owner of a commodities trading company called the Gunvor Group.

His name, Gennady N. Timchenko, meant little to most Americans, but buried in the US Treasury Department announcement were a dozen words that President Obama and his team knew would not escape the attention of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

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“Putin,” the statement said, “has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”

For years, the suspicion that Putin has a secret fortune has intrigued scholars, industry analysts, opposition figures, journalists, and intelligence agencies but defied their efforts to uncover it.

Numbers are thrown around suggesting that Putin may control $40 billion or even $70 billion, in theory making him the richest head of state in world history. For all the rumors and speculation, though, there has been little if any hard evidence, and Gunvor, for its part, has adamantly denied any financial ties to Putin.

But Obama’s response to the Ukraine crisis, while derided by critics as slow and weak, has reinvigorated a 15-year global hunt for Putin’s hidden wealth.

Now, as the Obama administration prepares to announce another round of sanctions as early as Monday targeting Russians it considers part of Putin’s financial circle, it is sending a not-very-subtle message that it thinks it knows where the Russian leader has his money, and that he could ultimately be targeted directly or indirectly.

“It’s something that could be done that would send a very clear signal of taking the gloves off and not just dance around it,” said Juan C. Zarate, a White House counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush who helped pioneer the government’s modern financial campaign techniques to choke off terrorist money.

So far, the US government has not imposed sanctions on Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a “nuclear” escalation, as several put it.

But officials said they hoped to get Putin’s attention by targeting figures close to him like Timchenko, and other business magnates like Yuri V. Kovalchuk, Vladimir I. Yakunin, and Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.

Putin’s reported income for 2013 was just $102,000, according to a Kremlin statement this month. Over the years, he has crudely dismissed suggestions of personal wealth.

How much Putin cares about money has long been a subject of debate both in Russia and in the West. On government payrolls since his days in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, Putin to many seemed driven more by power and nationalism than by material gain. With access to government perks like palaces, planes, and luxury cars, he seemingly has little need for personal wealth.

“If he really does have all that money salted away somewhere, why?” asked Bruce K. Misamore, who was the chief financial officer of Yukos Oil before the Russian government imprisoned its top shareholder, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, and seized its assets. “What good does it do him? Is it just ego? Presumably, it’s not to pass it down to heirs.”

And yet, some have drawn attention to what appear to be expensive watches on his wrist and the construction of a seaside palace that the Kremlin denied was being built for Putin.

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