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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
President Obama reached into Vladimir Putin's inner circle yesterday to punish Russia for taking over Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. The president expanded the list of Russian officials subject to U.S. financial sanctions and visa bans.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now we're taking these steps as part of a response to what Russia has already done in Crimea. At the same time, the world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine.
WERTHEIMER: And that, President Obama said, could spark broader sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy.
Earlier today, the Fitch rating agency announced it has lowered its outlook for Russia's credit rating based on possible fall-out from international sanctions. Washington Post correspondent Will Englund is monitoring Russia's reaction from Moscow and he joins us now.
WILL ENGLUND: Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: Now President Obama has a list of 20 people and one bank on his latest sanctions list. What about these people? Are they in fact, close to President Putin?
ENGLUND: Some of them are quite close to President Putin. There's a handful of people who are friends of his back in his St. Petersburg days in the 1990s and have followed him to Moscow and have become extremely powerful or wealthy, or both, since he came to power in 2000.
WERTHEIMER: The bank on the list is the Bank of Russia. How would sanctions affect a bank?
ENGLUND: Well, we're already seeing the effect on this bank. It's a bank based in St. Petersburg. Visa and MasterCard are refusing to handle any transactions connected to this bank. If you have an account at that bank and you have a MasterCard, you can't use that anywhere, you know, in a store, or a hotel or to buy an airline ticket or anything like that.
WERTHEIMER: The Obama administration and the European Union have been rolling these sanctions out kind of in stages. Is there any reason to believe that Russians who thought that they might be targeted got ahead of the game and already moved their assets out of reach?
ENGLUND: Well, one of them who was on yesterday's American list claims that he had done just that. That would be Guennadi Timtchenko, who runs a very, very profitable oil trading firm. It's based in Switzerland. He's a partner with Swede and he claims that on Wednesday, he already sold out shares to his partner to get ahead of this kind of listing. Are other people doing these kinds of things? Of course, they're not talking about it yet, but I guess we'll find out.
WERTHEIMER: There are some prominent Putin associates that were not on the list, like the head of the giant gas company, Gazprom. Why wouldn't he make the Putin top 20?
ENGLUND: This is Alexey Miller you're talking about and then Igor Sechin, who runs Rosneft, the big oil company, who's also not on the list. And people have been wondering about that. One possible explanation is that the U.S. is holding them in reserve, so to speak. And if there's a need to escalate further we could look for them on the next list.
WERTHEIMER: Russia has retaliated with sanctions against nine U.S. officials, including the majority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. Do you see any signs that Moscow is preparing anything that could really bite particularly on U.S. businesses?
ENGLUND: Well, the Foreign Ministry was talking about that this morning. It is a difficulty for Russia because obviously, the West can do much more damage economically to Russia than vice versa. U.S. trade with Russia is not that large. And Russian investments in the United States are not particularly large at all, except for the real estate penthouses that various oligarchs bought in New York and in Miami. So Russia has to look for what they call an asymmetric response and we'll have to see what that might be.
WERTHEIMER: When you look at the names on Russia's little list, does that tell you anything about what they're thinking?
ENGLUND: Well, it looks like they're going after the people who have made the most noise, for the most part. I was interested that the Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is on the list because her main interest in Russia has been trying to get the ban on adoptions by American couples overturned. She's been quite strong on that. So it looks like they're just trying to strike out at anybody for almost any reason.
WERTHEIMER: Mary Landrieu is, of course, one of the most endangered Democrats in the United States Senate. I wonder, this might actually help her.
ENGLUND: Well, I don't know Louisiana politics that well, but I suppose it could.
WERTHEIMER: Washington Post correspondent Will Englund joined us from Moscow. Thank you very much.
ENGLUND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.