US and allies slap more sanctions on Russia. Will they work?

The move came one day after Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. The sanctions list approved by President Obama includes Russian government officials deemed crucial to Crimea policy.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks about Ukraine, Monday, March 17, 2014, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington. The president imposed sanctions against Russian officials, including advisers to President Vladimir Putin, for their support of Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine.

The US and its European allies on Monday slapped a new round of economic sanctions on Russia in an attempt to persuade President Vladimir Putin to loosen his grip on Crimea and reduce tensions in a crisis reminiscent of the bad old days of the cold war.

The new penalties are personal as much as nation-based. They target seven Russian and four rogue Ukrainian officials whom the US charges with aiding and abetting Moscow’s move into the strategic Black Sea peninsula.

“We are imposing sanctions on specific individuals responsible for undermining the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and government of Ukraine,” President Obama said. “We’re making it clear that there are consequences for their actions.”

The widely expected move came one day after Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. US officials rejected this result, saying the referendum was encouraged and sponsored by Moscow and its passage ensured by the Russian troops now patrolling Crimean territory.

Ballots were delivered premarked in some cities and the reported vote in Sevastopol was equal to 123 percent of the port city’s population, senior administration officials said in a conference call with reporters.

“There are massive anomalies in the vote even as it was recorded,” an administration official said.

The sanctions list approved by Mr. Obama via executive order on Monday included Russian government officials deemed crucial to Crimea policy; arms trade figures; and an amorphous category called “government cronies” by an administration official.

Any assets owned by these people within reach of US financial institutions will be frozen, per US order. They’re not eligible to do business with any US firms.

Kremlin officials named include Sergei Glazyev, a conservative politician who has been advising Mr. Putin on Ukrainian matters; and Vladislav Surkov, a longtime Putin aide and all-around fixer.

The Ukrainians targeted include Sergey Aksyonov, newly declared prime minister of a putative Crimean state; and Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Crimean parliament. Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president overthrown by anti-Russian protesters in February, made the list. Putin himself did not.

Will these sanctions actually sting? US officials say that they will and that they represent a major reaction to events in Ukraine, particularly when combined with previous moves to restrict the international travel of top Russian government officials.

“These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russia since the end of the cold war – far and away so,” said a senior administration official briefing reporters.

The people on the list are indeed powerful actors in the current Crimea drama, according to some experts outside government.

“These people may not be household names in the United States or Western Europe, but they hold real power in Russia, which may not be apparent from the one-line descriptions given by the White House,” Adam Taylor writes on The Washington Post’s WorldViews foreign policy blog.

But who is not on the list may be as indicative as who is on it. The head of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom is not on it, for instance. Other billionaire oligarchs escaped sanctions.

Nor is it clear that any of those hit with US retaliation actually have anything to retaliate against.

“None of the officials on the sanctions list are believed to have significant assets or interests in the US,” writes BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon and Rosie Gray.

Economic sanctions alone are unlikely to persuade Putin to give up Crimea, wrote Daniel Drezner, Tufts University professor of international politics, in an overview of the subject in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month.

After all, it’s pretty hard to squeeze a nation so hard that it actually vacates territory it already occupies. That happened in the 1956 Suez Crisis, when US economic pressure got Britain, France, and Israel to pull back after seizing the Suez Canal. But at the time, the US was an economic and military colossus, relatively speaking. It was capable of setting off a run on the pound sterling that threatened grave damage to the British economy.

Seizing the US bank accounts of rich Russians is not in the same league, sanctions-wise. Plus, what does Putin care if his friends become poorer? He’s shown over years in power that he’s a tough guy who does what he wants.

But it’s still worth imposing those sanctions, according to Professor Drezner. That’s because this problem may appear again in other restive regions near to Russia. Putin should have to calculate the cost of further world sanctions against him as a price for any next invasions.

Plus, in the long run Russia needs Western markets for its natural resources. A sanctions regime is one lever the US and its allies can use to get Moscow’s attention.

“Any political settlement over the future of Ukraine will require compromise by the new Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. Imposing sanctions now creates a bargaining chip that can be conceded in the future,” writes Drezner.

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