About those sanctions

About those sanctions

by digby

This piece by Robin Wright in the New Yorker about the latest sanctions against Russian oligarchs presents a more complex picture of what they mean than I've seen anywhere else:

On Friday, after months of internal deliberations and delays, the Trump Administration imposed tough sanctions on seven of Russia’s richest oligarchs—all of whom have ties to President Vladimir Putin—and seventeen top Kremlin officials. Many are major players in Russia’s security apparatus. Among those targeted is a young billionaire who married Putin’s daughter and an oligarch who has been linked to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager indicted by the special counsel Robert Mueller. The new sanctions do not, however, target the Russian leader.
The announcement is the latest step in the Trump Administration’s gyrating and sometimes contradictory policy on Russia: overtures to Putin or boons to Russia’s foreign-policy goals one day, followed by punitive measures, including sanctions and the expulsion of sixty Russian intelligence agents, the next. Just this week, the President once again pondered warming up to Putin. “It’s a real possibility that I could have a good relationship. And remember this: getting along with Russia is a good thing,” Trump said on Tuesday, at a joint press conference with the leaders of three Baltic nations. “So, I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin. And if I did, that would be a great thing. And there’s also a possibility that that won’t happen. Who knows?”

On Wednesday, Trump also took a step that will effectively give Russia the military and political edge in Syria when he ordered the Pentagon to wind down the American military presence. The United States and Russia have backed rival forces during the seven-year civil war. The withdrawal of two thousand U.S. troops, now expected within the next four to six months, will clear the way for Russia and Iran to consolidate their hold on the country, which is the geostrategic center of the Middle East, and borders five U.S. allies, including Israel.
One of the most intriguing targets in the new sanctions is Kirill Shamalov, who married Putin’s daughter Katerina, in 2013. After the marriage, Shamalov rapidly “joined the ranks of the billionaire elite around Putin” in business deals with Russia’s energy sector, the Treasury Department’s statement said. Yet in January, Bloomberg reported that Putin’s daughter and Shamalov had actually split—at a whopping financial cost to Shamalov after he lost his position within Russia’s First Family.
The first daughters of Russia and the US sure do get a lot of perks. (Like this 30 million dollar state sponsored splurge on an "acrobatic rock and roll" center for Katerina's personal "sport.") This looks like a favor.
The timing of the Trump Administration’s decision is interesting because it comes nine months after Congress passed legislation—the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act—to impose sweeping sanctions on Moscow. Since it was veto-proof, Trump reluctantly signed it into law, in August—but criticized it as “seriously flawed.” In January, to meet a congressional deadline in the new law, the Treasury Department released a list of about two hundred Russian political élites and oligarchs who might be liable for sanctions. As was widely noted at the time, the U.S. list of ninety-six oligarchs simply replicated a list already published by Forbes magazine. The Administration waited until this month to issue sanctions—and then on only a fraction of the names on the list.

Another target of the new sanctions is Oleg Deripaska, a Putin adviser and billionaire who had ties to Manafort, now under investigation by Mueller. Deripaska figures prominently in Mueller’s inquiry, too. “Deripaska has said that he does not separate himself from the Russian state,” a Treasury communiqué reported. “He has also acknowledged possessing a Russian diplomatic passport, and claims to have represented the Russian government in other countries.” Deripaska has been investigated for money laundering and accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering. “There are also allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group,” the Treasury Department said.

Viktor Vekselberg, a tycoon close to Putin who made a fortune in Russia’s energy sector and financial markets, is also on the list. His cousin, who runs the U.S. subsidiary of Vekselberg’s Renova Group, contributed a quarter-million dollars to Trump’s Inauguration fund, according to Mother Jones. The cousin, Andrew Intrater, also reportedly made a personal donation of thirty-five thousand dollars to a joint committee for Trump’s election and the Republican National Committee. In 2015, Vekselberg was at the Moscow dinner attended by the disgraced former national-security adviser Michael Flynn. In 2017, Vekselberg was in Washington for Trump’s Inauguration, the Washington Post reported. The details of Vekselberg’s connections to Trump, direct or indirect, were not outlined in the Treasury Department’s announcement.

The senior officials who have been sanctioned reach into the Kremlin’s inner circle. They include a prominent Putin aide; the Minister of Internal Affairs and General Police; the secretary of Russia’s Security Council; the head of the National Guards; a governor who previously headed Russia’s Special Operations Forces; and senior officials in Gazprom, Russia’s energy giant. The new sanctions also name a dozen companies owned by the oligarchs, a weapons company, and a bank.

The question is how much impact the new sanctions will have. The Treasury list was first released in January, giving the oligarchs four months of advance notice to move their billions, Russia experts told me.
That was convenient.
Putin shrugged off the list as meaningless when Treasury originally published it. “As they say, ‘a barking dog cannot hinder a caravan’s journey,’ ” he told the Tass news agency. He described it as an act generated more by domestic U.S. politics. “What’s the point of this? I don’t understand,” Putin said. “This is of course an unfriendly act. It complicates already complicated Russia-U.S. relations and harms international relations in general. Those who engage in this are basically engaged in their own domestic politics. They are trying to attack their elected President.”
It's so nice of him to defend President Trump. Why would he do that?

Well, maybe it's actually another favor:
The sanctions send a warning, but they may produce little change by either the financial or political élites anytime soon, Russia experts told me. Moscow could even benefit. Oligarchs not on the list may decide to pull their money out of the West for fear of facing sanctions down the road, and put it back in Russia. One of Putin’s greatest vulnerabilities is a weak and corrupt economy, which is about the size of Italy’s.
These sanctions are better than nothing but it appears they are less than meets the eye as far as American foreign policy is concerned.