Obama slaps new sanctions on Russia. Tough enough?

The new sanctions target wealthy individuals close to Vladimir Putin, freezing personal assets and barring business with US firms. But they also warn of what's to come if Russia moves into more territory.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama makes a statement on Ukraine, Thursday, March 20, 2014, on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. Obama said the US is levying a new round of economic sanctions on individuals in Russia, both inside and outside the government, in retaliation for the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine.

President Obama expanded US sanctions against Russia on Thursday, targeting wealthy individuals close to President Vladimir Putin plus a Kremlin-linked bank in an attempt to dissuade Moscow from causing further trouble in Ukraine or beyond.

Administration officials said Mr. Obama also signed an executive order that would authorize retaliation against broad sectors of the Russian economy if the tense situation in and around Crimea deteriorates.

“If they escalate the situation, they will be met with severe consequences,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, in a conference call with reporters.

European Union leaders said they would lengthen their sanctions list, as well. They also announced plans to cancel an EU-Russia summit scheduled for June in light of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula, which has created the worst geopolitical crisis in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

“We need to prepare to take further steps, and we need to do it together,” said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. “A strong Europe is the last thing that Putin wants. He wants to split us up.”

The US action added the name of Mr. Putin’s chief of staff to the sanctions list, as well as 19 others. Any US assets of these individuals will be frozen, and they will be banned from doing business with US firms.

Also penalized was Bank Rossiya, a private bank owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, considered Putin’s  banker.

A previous sanctions list, announced by Obama on Monday, had been met with derision in Russia. The 11 people on that list were generally seen as less important players without foreign financial assets vulnerable to seizure.

Thursday’s list, however, contains the names of some powerful Kremlin players and oligarchs who may well be stung by being cut off from the international economy.

Among the rich business leaders, known as “oligarchs,” on the list is Gennady Timchenko, who controls one of the largest crude-oil trading firms in the world and is said to have a net worth of more than $15 billion. It includes the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who are occasional judo partners of Putin's and owners of businesses thought to have earned billions from construction related to the Sochi Olympics.

The chief of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, is now on the sanctions list, as is Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff.

“The US has hit Putin where it hurts,” judges Miriam Elder of BuzzFeed.

That said, US critics complain that the administration’s approach to sanctioning Russia has been one of slow escalation to past events. That leaves America and allies one step behind the fast-moving Putin, in this view.

Why do two sanctions lists over the course of a week and then threaten more? Why not just hit Russia with the whole sanctions rule book at once in an effort to make annexation of Crimea too economically painful for the Kremlin to endure?

Here are three reasons:

Crimea is gone. One reason for the deliberate US pace is the recognition that Putin’s military move into Ukrainian territory won’t be undone anytime soon. His troops are in full control of the Crimean peninsula, and Ukraine is in the process of evacuating its own military to avoid conflict. Economic sanctions are not a speedy way to undo such force majeure, and administration officials on Thursday took pains to emphasize that a military conflict in Ukraine is not in US interests.

Sanctions can boomerang. The US and European economies are far from robust at the moment. Europe in particular is vulnerable to Russian manipulation of natural gas supplies.

In economic terms, Russia needs the world more than the world needs Russia, US officials say, given the weakness of its resource-based economic structure. That said, nobody wants to rush toward another recession.

The United States will “pursue sanctions with care given that they could also impact the global economy,” a senior US official said. 

Ukraine proper is the real worry. With Crimea in hand, will Putin look to further incursions in regions of southern and eastern Ukraine or even other countries, such as Moldova, where there are large numbers of Russian residents? That’s the real geopolitical question of the moment. The US sanctions are thus intended to be in part anticipatory – warning Putin of what’s to come if he flouts international norms and moves into more territory.

After all, if the Kremlin starts a revanchist trend, where might it lead?

“For if Russia can get away with chopping up Ukraine, in the heart of what was once hoped to be a united Europe, then other leaders who crave neighbors’ land might be emboldened to act on their dreams, too,” writes Fred Kaplan, Slate’s veteran military and foreign affairs reporter.

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