In a new chapter of their upcoming book on Russian interference efforts, posted on Friday, Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff and Mother Jones’ David Corn detailed the raft of measures the Obama administration considered — but opted not to implement — in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling. From publishing information on the girlfriends of Russian higher-ups to unleashing denial-of-service attacks on Russian media, the options were wide-ranging.
One suggestion, however, stood apart, and could provide potential leverage for Washington moving forward. Although it was buried halfway through the text, Isikoff and Corn reported that Celeste Wallander, a top analyst with the National Security Council, wanted to target Russian President Vladimir Putin directly. Wallander “proposed leaking snippets of classified intelligence to reveal the secret bank accounts in Latvia held for Putin’s daughters — a direct poke at the Russian president that would be sure to infuriate him.”
It remains unclear how many accounts Wallander, now the president of the U.S. Russia Foundation, was referencing, or who, if not Putin’s two daughters, actually “held” the accounts.
Regardless, the information appears to be the first confirmation that Putin’s daughters have their own Western bank accounts — and that these accounts, and the Putin family’s finances more directly, were considered as potential leverage in beating back an aggressive Moscow.
As it is, Putin’s wealth has been the subject of speculation for years. One former government adviser pegged Putin’s holdings at $70 billion, while financier Bill Browder, who has helped spearhead targeted sanctions against Moscow, has estimated that the Russian president is worth upwards of $200 billion. The 2016 Panama Papers also revealed a network of shell companies pertaining to offshore Russian financing, tracing the billions associated with Putin’s inner circle — including a cellist, and close friend of Putin, whose firms controlled some $2 billion.
The release of the new information — especially as it pertains to Putin’s daughters, who have both long been shrouded in mystery — comes at an inauspicious time for Russian oligarchs who had been looking to Latvia to move and clean their dirty, kleptocratic monies into the West.
Latvia had long served as the gateway for post-Soviet dictatorships to funnel their funds into the West, with the country offering accounts to non-residents that would allow them to shuffle their wealth into real estate markets across Europe and North America.
But it wasn’t only Russian oligarchs, Kazakh bankers, and Kyrgyz autocrats who took advantage of the system: As Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky pointed out, one Latvian bank was even connected to a series of companies involved in the “business dealings” of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chair. Small wonder that the Department of Justice recently singled out Latvia — alongside Russia — for helping move “billions of dollars globally” into U.S.-based shell companies.
That, however, might finally be starting to change. Over the past month, the U.S. Department of Treasury has focused on dirty banking in Latvia, recently accusing one of the largest Latvian banks of “institutionalized money laundering” — and of even helping North Korea fund its domestic missile program. The crackdown coincided with the arrest of the country’s central bank governor, caught amidst a wider anti-corruption probe.
The move against Latvia’s banking industry is, indeed, the latest evidence of the Treasury Department taking the lead when it comes to cracking down on the kind of kleptocratic tools that have taken root in any number of countries — and which Russian operatives employed to co-opt Western actors and politicians alike. While the White House continues to waffle when it comes to implementing sanctions against Moscow, the Treasury Department, or at least the department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, has shown what’s possible when anti-kleptocratic efforts are taken seriously.
We don’t know if Treasury’s push against Latvian banking is tied at all to Putin’s daughter’s accounts. But we do know that the existence of the accounts presents another potential leverage point for Washington — at least, if the White House decides to try to actually retaliate for Russia’s meddling efforts.