The US and the Ongoing Hunt for Putin's Buried Treasure

The latest sanctions aim to deal a blow to Russian companies, where, according to America, the Russian president is said to be safeguarding an enormous personal fortune.

Is Vladimir Putin in possession of a secret fortune? With personal assets worth billions of dollars, deeply embedded in a web of secret business affairs and dealings with the most powerful Russian companies, could he be the richest head of state in history? The U.S. Department of the Treasury certainly thinks so. But after years and years of pursuit, despite supposedly having many possible clues, the U.S. administration does not know the whole story yet as far as the Kremlin leader’s legendary private capital holdings are concerned. Putin has always denied all knowledge of such assets.

The question rears its head again, however, on the eve of the latest American sanctions against Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis. This time, according to well-informed sources cited in The New York Times, the U.S. government is hoping to deal a blow to those companies and powerful individuals who remain close to Putin. One sticks out from the rest: the Gunvor Group, a powerful international player in the field of energy sector infrastructure.

Secret Boss of Russian Energy

The company’s co-owner, Gennady N. Timchenko, is little known to the general public, but he is very famous among insiders, and above all, he is very close to the Kremlin’s number-one. According to an anonymous official from the U.S. Treasury Department, he could be the key that unlocks Putin’s secret treasure chest. “Putin has investments in Gunvor,” the source stated to The New York Times, “and may have access to the Gunvor funds.”

Gunvor has always denied any relationship with the Russian president. Some of its representatives even flew to Washington to repeat this to administration officials there. It was Vladimir Putin who branded recent articles on his presumed secret fortune as total garbage during a press conference, but the Americans are convinced that it was just a smokescreen. For them, the treasure exists.

For years, the U.S. has been investigating the channels where rivers of money and oil flow. It has examined statements by Russian tycoons, Putin’s friends and enemies alike. It has gathered evidence in the form of hearsay, true accounts and unconfirmed reports and then subjected it to closer examination. Even the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been put to work to uncover where the wealth might be buried.

Yet, the fruits of all this labor have not been released to the general public. As a result, we don’t know how extensive the findings are, but American officials have made anonymous attempts to allude to them and leak them to the press, as was the case in the recent New York Times article.

But why? Well, there are two possible reasons. The first is that the evidence is not definitive enough to expose Putin as a billionaire, or perhaps — and this is the second possible reason why the findings have not been made public — the intent is to deal a blow to Russia directly. In other words, the U.S. is stoking the flames of the already heated tensions with Russia. Placing sanctions on a head of state, the Russian president, is undeniably a kind of nuclear option on Washington’s part.

Personal Assets Upward of $40 Billion?

How much money does Putin actually have? If this year’s rumors are anything to go by, the sum could amount to between $40 and $70 billion. That’s a huge pile of money, built up using the holding company Guvnor, the Russian energy giant Gazprom, and Moscow’s other energy stronghold, Surgutneftegas. It is not by chance, as reliable sources report from the American capital, that the leaders of these three companies are next to come under the fire of U.S. sanctions. They are aiming at those closest to Putin in order to get to Putin himself.

Back in 2007, Stanislav Belkovsky, an accredited political analyst at the Kremlin, said that Putin had shares in these big companies. According to Belkovsky, the Russian president was secretly controlling a majority share of Gunvor, as well as some 5 percent of Gazprom, and 37 percent of Surgutneftegas. In that same year, the CIA produced a secret report on Vladimir Putin’s personal wealth. However, the report was never published, out of political convenience, but also because according to some sources, too much of it was rooted in unverifiable statements and not enough was founded on fact.

Myth or Reality?

In 2010, businessman Sergei Kolesnikov published an open letter stating that Putin had asked him to build a billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea. The response from the Kremlin was prompt: His claim was absurd. Two years later, Boris E. Nemtsov, an opponent of Putin, said that included in the Russian leader’s wealth were 20 palaces, 15 helicopters, four yachts and 43 airplanes. Garry Kasparov, the chess champion turned Putin’s political enemy, recently said that Putin’s personal wealth is so well-hidden, so deeply buried in the underbelly of Russian finance, that America will never manage to find all of it.

But does it really exist or not? The Obama administration is certainly sure it does — just as the Bush administration was. But the Kremlin insists that this is not true. Whether it is real or not, the hunt for Putin’s treasure continues.

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