The BBC is reporting that the United States has long considered Russian President Vladimir Putin to be secretly wealthy, corrupt, and focused on enriching his friends and allies.
Adam Szubin, the U.S. Treasury’s acting secretary for terrorism and financial crimes, said in an interview with BBC Panorama that the Russian president had been amassing wealth outside the public view.
"We've seen him enriching his friends, his close allies and marginalizing those who he doesn't view as friends using state assets. Whether that's Russia's energy wealth, whether it's other state contracts, he directs those to whom he believes will serve him and excludes those who don't. To me, that is a picture of corruption," Szubin told the British broadcaster.
Szubin declined to comment on a 2007 Central Intelligence Agency report that estimated Putin's wealth at $40 billion, but he said the Russian leader regularly understated his wealth, and the United States had known this for "many, many years."
"He supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year," Szubin told the BBC. "That is not an accurate statement of the man's wealth, and he has longtime training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth."
The Kremlin has denied such allegations. Putin has repeatedly said that he views news reports of his immense wealth as nonsense.
Putin's public financial disclosures depict a man of modest means. In April, Putin declared 2014 income of 7.65 million rubles ($119,000). He listed the ownership of two modest apartments and a share in a parking garage.
But what appears to be the first on-the-record comment from a U.S. official contending that Putin is wealthy set off speculation that the United States may be considering targeting the Russian president in any new round of economic sanctions punishing Russia for its aggressions in Ukraine.
"It shows I think that Washington is focusing on Putin himself. That they actually may be prepared to put economic sanctions on Putin," said Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University, in an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
"The fact that now they said that he's corrupt. It's not necessarily an official U.S. government statement but it's a statement of the U.S. government official on the record. Now that they acknowledged this, the next logical step is to do something about it," he said.
"I think Putin should have been put on the sanctions list. I think more people around him should have been put on the list," said David Kramer, a former U.S. State Department official. "This statement is strengthening the argument for those of us who'd been arguing that Putin himself should be included."
The U.S. Treasury has implicated Putin before in imposing sanctions over Ukraine. In March 2014, it tied Putin to profits made by a longtime acquaintance targeted with sanctions -- Gennady Timchenko, who was then co-owner of Gunvor, a Geneva-based investment firm that trades nearly 3 percent of the world's oil.
"Timchenko's activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin. Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds," the department said in announcing the sanctions on Timchenko.
Gunvor, which was not targeted by the sanctions, denied the Treasury’s allegations. "President Putin does not and never has had any ownership, beneficial or otherwise, in Gunvor," company spokesman Seth Thomas Pietras told Reuters.
The BBC in seeking to establish Putin’s wealth also interviewed Dimitry Skarga, who used to run Russian state shipping company Sovcomflot.
Skarga claimed that he managed the transfer of a $35 million yacht to Putin from Roman Abramovich, owner of London's Chelsea soccer club. Abramovich's lawyers dismissed those claims as speculation.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, BBC, Reuters, and AFP