* U.S., EU impose sanctions over Crimea annexation
* Banker is a long-time Putin ally
* Latest sanctions aimed at Putin's inner circle
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, March 23 An ally of Russian President
Vladimir Putin who heads a bank that was hit by U.S. sanctions
over the Crimea crisis suggested on Sunday the move had
backfired by helping him win new clients.
Yuri Kovalchuk, chairman of Bank Rossiya, also used a rare
television appearance to make clear that other wealthy Russians
should show their patriotism during the crisis.
Kovalchuk is one of more than 20 Russians barred from
entering the United States or holding assets there under
sanctions imposed over Russia's annexation of Crimea from
Ukraine, which Western leaders say is illegal.
Putin said on Friday he would open an account at Bank
Rossiya. Kovalchuk, who was also hit by sanctions personally,
said the bank had been "flooded with people" who had heard about
Putin's plan and wanted to do the same.
"What happens the day after a bank gets in trouble? Everyone
pulls their money out. The morning after (the sanctions were
announced), everyone was ready to see depositors take their
money out. Journalists were standing by. Nobody came," he said.
"And when in the afternoon it was announced ... that Putin
would open an account, the bank was flooded with people. All
kinds of people - famous people, ordinary people. They came to
open accounts in Bank Rossiya."
He did not produce any figures to back up his suggestion in
an interview with Dmitry Kiselyov, a Kremlin-favoured television
anchor targeted by similar moves by the European Union.
Described by the U.S. government as "the personal banker for
senior Russian officials, Kovalchuk is the largest shareholder
in Bank Rossiya, which is based in St Petersburg.
In a warning to other tycoons, he said "people intuitively
understand which side of the barricade a business is on."
"You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French)
Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one's
home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your
children go to school, where do they work?" he added.
In what could be a reference to Roman Abramovich, the
London-based owner of Chelsea soccer club, he said: "And what
sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different - one might
sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league,
another a sandlot (unorganised) team. That's not important - the
question is, where is the team - here or outside your country?"
Kovalchuk took a similar stance to others hit by sanctions
by wearing them as a badge of honour and shrugging off their
impact. Putin has mocked their potential impact but senior
officials have said Russia will respond with reciprocal moves.
The latest U.S. sanctions were targeted at Putin's inner
circle but the president himself has not been hit by sanctions.
Kovalchuk said Russia must decide how much it is willing to
sacrifice for the sake of approval and acceptance by the West,
suggesting it may not need the West.
"We need to answer for ourselves: to what degree we are
ready to integrate into another structure, and to what degree it
suits us," he said.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)