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 Treasury Department announcement were a dozen words that President Obama and his team knew would not escape the attention of Russia’s president,Vladimir V. Putin. “Putin,” the statement said, “has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”
For years, the suspicion that Mr. 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 Mr. 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 has adamantly denied any financial ties to Mr. Putin and repeated that denial on Friday.
But Mr. Obama’s response to the Ukraine crisis, while derided by critics as slow and weak, has reinvigorated a 15-year global hunt for Mr. 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 Mr. 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 American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. 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 Mr. Putin’s attention by targeting figures close to him like Mr. Timchenko, and other business magnates like Yuri V. Kovalchuk, Vladimir I. Yakunin and Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.
Among those likely to be on Monday’s list, officials said, are Igor Sechin, president of the Rosneft state oil company, and Aleksei Miller, head of the Gazprom state energy giant.
“It’s like standing in a circle and all of a sudden everyone in the circle is getting a bomb thrown on them, and you get the message that it’s getting close,” said Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, describing at a recent hearing the way the sanctions are getting closer to Mr. Putin.
Mr. 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. “I have seen some papers about this,” he said at a news conference in 2008. “Just gossip that’s not worth discussing. It’s simply rubbish. They picked everything out of someone’s nose and smeared it on their little papers.”
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