‘Loans for shares' meant stakes in government assets, lsuch as the Norilsk nickel mine, were handed over for loans to keep the country running.
Potanin paid US$170 million for 38% of what is now Nornickel.
Potanin said the public perception of the scheme he designed was wrong in an interview with the Financial Times this week.
"Everybody knows I won control of 38% of Norilsk in loans for shares, cheap," Potanin said (the last word sarcastic).
"There is a certain unfairness in treating those deals as evil. It was more complicated than that.
"OK certainly, it was my mistake, my PR disaster. I did not manage to explain all those things back then."
He said it was a choice between letting the Soviet management stay on and "forget efficiency forever" or let entrepreneurs like him step in.
Potanin was not among the Kremlin-linked individuals sanctioned by the US Treasury this month, although his former rival for control of Nornickel, Oleg Deripaska, was the most high profile on the list.
His companies the EN+ Group and Rusal have been smashed on global sharemarkets and majors like Glencore and Rio Tinto have had to quickly cut ties.
Potanin has maintained control of Nornickel since the 1990s but only in recent years started a massive rehabilitation campaign in the heavily-polluted eponymous city housing the original, gulag-built mine.
Rusal also announced on Friday the ‘shootout' clause in the Deripaska-Potanin peace agreement over Nornickel would not go ahead because of the sanctions.
The two billionaires are waiting on a ruling from a London court over whether the third Kremlin-linked oligarch in the deal, Roman Abramovich, can sell his stake to Potanin.
The shootout would mean an auction between Deripaska (27.8% of Nornickel) and Potanin (30%) for each other's stakes.