The U.S. Levies Sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian Officials

5 MINS READMar 17, 2014 | 20:57 GMT
(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Crimea on March 17 in Washington.

The day after the Ukrainian autonomous region of Crimea voted to separate from Ukraine and join Russia, the U.S. government announced expanded sanctions against 11 Ukrainian, Crimean and Russian officials. The United States is targeting a precise list of Russian officials who are important tacticians within the Kremlin — a move that will likely elicit a response from the Russian government. The European Union has also drawn up its own list of sanction targets, though they seem to be less influential figures, perhaps due to the bloc's struggles to remain united against Russia over the issue of Ukraine.

The order signed by President Barack Obama authorizes the U.S. Treasury to impose sanctions on the officials, freezing their assets and blocking their entry into the United States. Obama specifically said these are all individuals responsible for compromising the sovereignty of Ukraine. The list of Ukrainians and Crimeans includes the expected names of Crimea-based separatist leaders Sergey Aksyonov and Vladimir Konstantinov, former Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Viktor Medvedchuk and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

The list of Russian officials the U.S. government is targeting is more important. The majority of the Russians targeted are members of the Russian parliament, such as Federation Council chief Valentina Matviyenko, Duma Commonwealth of Independent States Committee chief Leonid Slutsky, Legal Affairs Committee chief Andrei Klishas and controversial Duma member Yelena Mizulina, who has been one of the forces behind the anti-gay and adoption laws in Russia. In essence, these officials are the Russian politicians relevant to the crisis in Ukraine. These members have led the legislative moves to authorize policies concerning Ukraine, such as passing Russia's ability to militarily intervene in Ukraine and the proposed law for Moscow's support of Russian citizens abroad, including those in Crimea.

More important, the list includes three top Kremlin officials that are key tacticians. The first sanctioned Kremlin official, Sergey Glazyev, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's aide and holds the portfolio on Ukraine. An expected inclusion on the sanctions list, Glazyev has been particularly aggressive on the issue of Ukraine, issuing public threats about Russia tanking the energy and financial markets should trade sanctions be imposed on it.

A more surprising name on the list is Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, who has long been one of the Kremlin's main anti-American figures. Rogozin holds the portfolio for Russia's defense industry and has been one of the top officials over the years lobbying against NATO and EU expansion to Ukraine and Georgia. Rogozin is most likely on the list because of his diplomatic efforts in blocking Ukraine's westward ties.

The highest-ranking Russian to be sanctioned is Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin's top aides. Surkov is the orchestrator of large social movements, such as the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement, and reportedly has spurred other pro-Russian and anti-government movements in other countries, from Latvia to Hungary. According to anonymous leaks to Kommersant, Surkov has been one of the top Kremlin officials in Putin's private meetings on Ukraine.

It is unclear why the White House put Surkov on the list officially, since publicly he has not been part of any moves on Ukraine. However, it is likely the United States is targeting him for his unofficial role as orchestrator of social movements in Russia's borderlands, which could aggravate tensions in the region.

A Careful Sanctions List

The inclusion of the Kremlin officials is ambitious; the list targets three of the key strategists the government uses to orchestrate efforts on the ground in the borderlands as well as diplomatic efforts. With the exception of Surkov, who has fallen in and out of Putin's good graces, the sanctions list did not rise to the level of officials within Putin's personal politburo — the officials who make the final decisions on issues such as Ukraine. Nor did the list sanction the senior officials who are leading the diplomatic negotiations with the European Union or United States. If the West were to aggressively go after the Russians who are truly making the decisions on Ukraine, then the list would include Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Prime Minister and security adviser Sergei Ivanov.

The European Union has drawn up its own sanctions list of 21 officials, consisting of 13 Russians and eight Crimeans. Of the Russians, 10 are Duma members (most likely those on the U.S. list) and three are Russian military officials, including the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Crimea. The Europeans' list does not include any top- or second-tier Kremlin elites, unlike the U.S. sanctions list.

The differences between the EU and U.S. targets for sanctions show that the two are not on the same page concerning countermoves against Russia. The Europeans have much more to lose in antagonizing Russia. Moreover, all 28 EU member states must agree on any action. Several EU members — Finland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain — have already cautioned against moving too forcefully against Russia for fear of economic repercussions, though they have thus far agreed to these initial weak sanctions. But any further sanctions, such as trade sanctions, would have difficulty passing among the Europeans.

Russia's Reaction to Sanctions

For now, the U.S. and EU sanctions lists are fairly symbolic; they are restricted to targeting specific officials and their assets. Rogozin has already publicly denounced the sanctions, mocking them by saying he does not have any assets in the United States to sanction. In 2013, the Kremlin barred Russian officials from owning assets — especially bank accounts — abroad. Naturally, Russian officials still do have assets abroad, but they are less public than they were in the past. The symbolic sanctions are only a gesture by the West because any real trade sanctions would either be ineffective or would seriously harm other players, such as European countries.

Though relatively ineffective, Russia could respond with its own bans on Western officials — especially in the United States, since the U.S. sanctions list is more aggressive against the Kremlin elite. In previous cases of visa and asset sanctions, such as the United States' Magnitsky bans, Russia responded with its own bans that were not directly related. Instead, Moscow banned adoptions to the United States under the Dima Yakovlev Act. So Russia may respond this time not directly against Westerners dealing with Ukraine but in other areas.

Russia will also react more aggressively if the European Union or United States expand the sanctions beyond these symbolic gestures. This could affect many spheres, including Russian energy, business and investments in Europe; Russia's support for Iran and Venezuela; and much more — something that the West is cautiously weighing as it increases the pressure on Moscow.

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