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What Do the 'Panama Papers' Mean for Vladimir Putin?

The massive anonymous leak of financial documents on Sunday has left political experts contemplating what it could mean for Russia ahead of elections.
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The massive anonymous leak of financial documents on Sunday has left political experts contemplating what it could mean for Russia ahead of elections this year.

A team of journalists from around the world published what they called the "Panama papers" on Sunday —more than 11.5 million encrypted internal documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is not named in the documents, but there are allegations of a billion-dollar money-laundering ring controlled by a Russian bank that has links to associates of the Russian leader. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), one of the teams that has been analyzing the data, told CNBC the papers show Putin's close aides were involved in a $2 billion money trail with offshore firms and banks.

'Friends earned millions'

"We've found a network of people around Vladimir Putin," ICIJ's Jake Bernstein told CNBC Monday.

"It's extraordinary, they are moving hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, they are taking money from a subsidiary, a Russian state bank, they are grabbing interests in major Russian companies and although we never see Vladimir Putin's name in the documents themselves, these are people who are very close to him," he added.

The U.K.'s Guardian newspaper — one of the publications that simultaneously published their findings on Sunday — added that Putin's "friends have earned millions from deals that seemingly could not have been secured without his patronage."

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Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not immediately respond to CNBC when asked via email for a response. However, a response published in Russia's TASS new agency showed that he was disappointed by the lack of professionalism in the investigation.

"Informational exercises against the president continue. We expected it, we announced it. These attacks continued. I admit that we expected more professional results of the work of this journalistic community," Peskov said, according to the TASS website.

The Kremlin has also spoken of a smear campaign in recent months against Putin ahead of legislative elections in September and presidential elections in 2018, according to reports.

Embarrassing, not damaging?

Timothy Ash, the head of emerging markets at Standard Bank, told CNBC by email that we wasn't sure the leak told us "anything we did not know already." Zach Witlin, an analyst at Eurasia Group, also doubted that it would lead to much pressure on the Russian leader as "part of Putin's power in Russia rests on his ability to always remain above the follies of any other official or associate."

Chris Weafer, senior partner at Macro-Advisory, told CNBC via email that it was embarrassing for Putin rather than damaging.

"The story comes at a time when the government is tackling the worst recession in the country since Putin became president in early 2000 and he has been waging a campaign against waste and excessive spending by state officials while promoting the message that 'we are all in this together,'" Weafer said.

"The government has also been trying to tackle money-laundering with the so-called de-offshorization legislation which has had very little success so far."

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Meanwhile, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer warned that the revelations could threaten the stability of some regimes like Russia.

"Vladimir Putin is directly caught up in this," he told CNBC Monday, claiming that the $2 billion could be "a tiny fraction of how much the Kremlin has actually been laundering."

Russia, in particular, could respond aggressively, Bremmer added. Given that the ICIJ was partially funded by billionaire George Soros' Open Society Foundation, the Kremlin may wish to respond, he noted.

"I feel fairly confident that the Kremlin will be going after the U.S., Soros, the CIA and this is going to make Russian policy towards the U.S. actually much more sharp and antagonistic," he said.

"That's the kind of thing authoritarian governments need to do to take forced transparency that makes them look bad at home, they have to gin up trouble with enemies abroad."

'Perfectly coincidental'

Putin still remains a hugely popular figure at home despite criticism from some of the Western powers. He has recently been buoyed from a brief intervention in Syria with Russian airstrikes taking place on terrorist positions. A poll on Russia's VCIOM website shows that 68 percent of respondents would vote for Putin if presidential election were held next Sunday.

Read More from CNBC: Trove of Data on Offshore Accounts Prompts Probe, Questions

ICIJ's Bernstein said the timing of the "Panama papers'" release and the Russian elections was "perfectly coincidental." He told CNBC that he did not even know there were elections in Russia this year and highlighted that other global leaders had been implicated.

It is important to note that owning an offshore company is not illegal in itself, and CNBC has not been able to independently verify the allegations.

Mossack Fonseca told the BBC, which also released the leaked information Sunday, that it had always complied with international protocols to ensure the companies it incorporates are not used for tax evasion, money-laundering, terrorist financing "or other illicit purposes."

—CNBC's Nyshka Chandran contributed to this report.