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Why supporters of sanctions on Russia are so happy with Thursday’s list: It aims to hurt

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, reacts during a meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) during Russia Business Week in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, March 20, 2014. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

To understand why the pro-sanctions crowd in the United States is so happy with Thursday's new list, it helps to read an op-ed by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny published earlier Thursday in the New York Times.

Navalny argued that the United States should be doing more in response to Russia's aggressive stance toward Crimea and Ukraine, and that previous sanctions announced earlier this week were simply not effective:

First, although Mr. Putin’s invasion has already prompted the European Union to impose sanctions on 21 officials, and the United States on seven, most of these government figures cannot be considered influential. They do not have major assets outside Russia and are irrelevant to Mr. Putin; sanctioning them will not change Russia’s policy. After all the tough talk from Western politicians, this action is mocked in Russia and even seen as a tacit encouragement to Mr. Putin and his entourage, who seem to possess some magical immunity.

Instead, the United States needed to target the "cronies who shuttle between Russia and the West," specifically Putin's "inner circle" and the "oligarchs whose media outlets parrot the regime lines." Navalny wasn't alone in his disappointment with the previous list.

Many argued that the names simply weren't big enough, and that the individuals on the list didn't really have any reason to be hurt by U.S. sanctions. Even those targeted seemed unconcerned. "The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock," said Vladislav Surkov, perhaps the best-known name on the list, "I don't need a visa to access their work."

Bill Browder, a prominent advocate of sanctions on the Russian elite and one of the minds behind the "Magnitsky Act," was one of the many disappointed by Monday's list. "There are a lot more people needing to be sanctioned to have any psychological effect on Putin. The actual sanctions mechanism needs to go after individuals and companies who hold assets or economically benefit from those on the sanctions list," Browder wrote in an e-mail. "That would capture the Russian oligarch trustees and truly create panic among the ruling class in Russia."

Thursday's list seems to have changed Browder's mind:

In a follow up tweet, Browder writes "This is a proper sanctions list! Well done Obama!" Navalny himself has also tweeted in an approving manner, though added that he expects to face personal retribution. He has good reason to be think that way: Of the nine names he mentioned in his New York Times op-ed, four were included in Thursday's list. Even if he didn't influence it, he's certainly prescient. 

This is no small fry list. Some of Russia's richest men are included, as well as a number of senior officials. A number of Putin's inner circle from his days in St. Petersburg are included, people with deep personal connections to the Russian president (even a former Judo partner), and one Russian now living in Switzerland and working in the oil trade.

Importantly, there's one spot on the list not taken up by an individual: Bank Rossiya. The St. Petersburg-based bank will be frozen out of the dollar, and its own accounts with U.S. banks will be terminated. Here's how Browder triumphantly described it:

In response to the U.S. list Thursday, Russia has released its own list, including a number of American politicians. If anything, this list highlights how strong the U.S. list is: John McCain won't lose any sleep over not having a Russian visa, but Russian oligarchs may find it tough without the U.S. dollar.

Of course, there are some notable exemptions from the list – neither Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller or Putin ally Igor Sechin are featured, for example, nor is Putin himself (something Browder has suggested in the past). But the pro-sanctions group is saying that this is a huge step, and it could just be the beginning.