How U.S. sanctions hope to strike at Putin’s allies without actually targeting Putin


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony of Russia's state awards presentation to medal winners of the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, on March 17. Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/Kremlin Pool/EPA)

On Monday, President Obama released a list of individuals sanctioned for their involvement in Crimea's vote to join the Russian Federation. Of the 10 names on the list, seven are Russian.

One person, however, was notable by his absence: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Putin's name appears three times in the list, U.S. officials have explained that it would be "extraordinary" for them to target a head of state in such a case, despite calls to do so from people such as Bill Browder, one of the key supporters of the Magnitsky Act.

The list does strike at Putin, however, by targeting some of his key allies. 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.

For starters, there's Vladislav Surkov, described as a presidential aide to Putin. Surkov is notorious in Russia-watching circles as the theater director who later became a PR man for Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He eventually came to the Kremlin and used his understanding of publicity and image to help sustain and strengthen Putin's presidency, with some even suggesting that he was the real power behind the throne. He was called "Putin's Rasputin" in the London Review of Books, and the "Gray Cardinal" by many others. While he apparently fell out of favor after anti-Putin protests in 2012, he was brought back last fall to help deal with Ukraine and other situations.

Then there's Sergei Glazyev, once a fierce critic of Putin and even a rival to his presidency, who was brought into the president's fold in 2012, and is described as a "Presidential Adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin." Glazyev was tasked with developing the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, a precursor to the "Eurasian Union" that is said to be close to Putin's heart. It had been hoped that Ukraine might join the Customs Union, and Glazyev had acted as Putin's main emissary to the country over 2013. He had issued a number of warnings to Ukrainians as the Euromaidan protests progressed.

Leonid Slutsky is a State Duma deputy and chairman of the Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration  and Relations with Compatriots. Importantly, much of his work involves the treatment of Russians living abroad – the justification for Russian involvement in Crimea, remember – and he has argued that Russia has defeated a Western plot for world domination by taking a stand in Crimea.

Andrei Klishas is a member of the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation who sponsored a bill this month that would allow Russia to seize the property and assets of foreigners if the West brought sanctions against Moscow. Yelena Mizulina is a State Duma deputy and well-known for supporting a bill banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans, and she also was chief sponsor of the bill outlawing dissemination of LGBT "propaganda" to minors, a key part of the ideological fight against the West.

Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Federation Council, is seen as a key Putin ally who was formerly the governor of St. Petersburg, his home. Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation, is a powerful politician, best known as a nationalist, who last year called the West a "monkey with a hand grenade" in its handling of Middle East.

Of course, some will be upset that bigger names aren't on the list. Not only is Putin not on there, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the two politicians with the most international name recognition, are not included. Perhaps more importantly, many people who are believed to hold the real power in Russia, such as Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller and Igor Sechin, a close adviser to Putin referred to as "Darth Vader" and "the scariest man on Earth," did not make the list either.

Will the sanctions actually sting? "There are a lot more people needing to be sanctioned to have any psychological effect on Putin," Browder argued in an e-mail. "The actual sanctions mechanism needs to go after individuals and companies who hold assets or economically benefit from those on the sanctions list. That would capture the Russian oligarch trustees and truly create panic among the ruling class in Russia."

There's also a problem: The sanctions will only hurt those who actually have assets to target. Here's Rogozin's reaction:

Will Englund contributed to this report.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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