New US sanctions go after Russian officials—will a crony crack-down be far behind?

March 17, 2014
March 17, 2014

The White House has frozen the US assets of seven Russian government officials and will be forbid them from doing business with American firms and persons.

But targeting “the key ideologists and implementers” of Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine, and its efforts to recognize a Crimean separatist movement there, may not have the desired effect—to pressure President Vladimir Putin’s government to deescalate the situation. For one thing, it’s not clear whether these seven officials even have assets or business relationships in the US.

That may be why markets in Russia, Europe and the US have risen this morning, while the ruble strengthened against the dollar. Perhaps investors see the announcement as a sign that full-scale economic warfare isn’t in the offing, although experts say such warfare wouldn’t be very effective on its own.

Indeed, while the seven named Russian officials include key figures—Putin aides Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Glazyev, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and lawmakers Leonid Slutsky, Andrei Klishas, Valentina Matviyenko, and Yelena Mizulina—the US did not target the politically-influential heads of Russia’s state-owned oil companies Rosneft and Gazprom, or Putin himself.

Later today, the European Union will release a list of 21 people to be sanctioned, which US officials on a conference call—who insisted on anonymity as part of an elaborate charade designed to imbue already-public information with great import—said will overlap with the US list.

US officials hinted that their work has only begun, noting that the framework of the sanctions announced today will allow the US government a chance to target Russian arms businesses and the personal assets of “Russian government cronies.” Many critics have said targeting these cronies is the first step toward putting the squeeze on Russia, but also warned that for all their personal wealth, Russia’s billionaires may not have much influence over Putin.

If all else fails, the US could always use its strategic oil reserves to chip away at Russia’s economy.

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