WASHINGTON -- Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian TV celebrity, socialite, and daughter of President Vladimir Putin's political mentor, brought her long-shot campaign for the presidency to Washington, saying that her political ambitions were genuine and long-term.
Sobchak’s visit to the United States, coming just six weeks before the Russian election, has raised eyebrows among liberals, opposition activists, and political observers, and fueled questions about whether the Kremlin was using her candidacy to boost turnout and help Putin's bid for another six-year term.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on February 6, Sobchak indicated that, among other things, she planned to meet with administration officials about U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Russia in recent years.
“We see that our relations are now at the lowest point,” she said. “My goal is also to speak to people here…to be open, to say that Russia is not Putin.”
"Russia is a huge country with big economy, which you know has nuclear weapons and it’s not a good way of communication, like we do it now," she said speaking in English. "I want to be a first bridge between our countries and to show that even during my presidential campaign this issue is very important to me, and to find some solutions, some links with each other, to which we can little by little become, create a better situation for both of our countries."
Washington first hit Moscow with asset freezes and travel bans in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the outbreak of fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Later measures were in response to U.S. intelligence findings that Russia engaged in hacking-and-propaganda campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Those sanctions have continued into Donald Trump’s presidency, despite his calls for better relations with Moscow.
A law passed by Congress last summer called for new punitive measures against Russia, but last week, the State and Treasury Departments declined to impose new sanctions.
Putin is widely expected to win a new six-year term in the March 18 vote. Sobchak, who is one of the other candidates who will appear on the ballot, is best known for her celebrity persona and TV appearances. Her father was Anatoly Sobchak, the late mayor of St. Petersburg who brought Putin, then an unknown KGB officer, to work in the city government.
'Genuine Political Ambitions'
Sobchak repeated her criticism of the political environment in Russia, saying the current system was authoritarian, and said she had no illusions about challenging Putin. She also insisted her candidacy was not a passing fad, but that she had genuine political ambitions, to run for parliament, and create a new political party.
"Like in a casino, the casino always wins. In Russia, Putin always wins," she said.
Putin's most potent challenger is the charismatic anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, who has built a national following by railing against endemic corruption.
He was barred from running in the election due to a financial-crimes conviction in a case that he and his supporters say was political retribution for his anticorruption work.
Since then, Navalny has called for a boycott of the vote, in an effort to reduce voter turnout and deprive Putin of broad legitimacy.
Sobchak repeated that she did not support a boycott.