New Russia Sanctions Are 'What Obama Should Have Done in 2014'

(The Weekly Standard) -- The Trump administration's decision to go after Russian leader Vladimir Putin's inner circle with sanctions is being praised as a long-awaited, highly significant response to the Kremlin's destabilizing activities.

Friday's sanctions targeted seven oligarchs (including Putin's son-in-law) and their companies, 17 senior Kremlin officials, and a state-owned weapons trading company, mostly pursuant to wide-ranging sanctions legislation passed last summer known as the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The move is likely to rile the Kremlin—potentially as much as the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which blacklisted Russian human rights violators.

That law was the result of lobbying efforts by Bill Browder, a financier and investor for whom Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky worked. Magnitsky died in a Moscow jail after exposing a $230 million tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. Browder described Friday's sanctions as a "monumental development in the fight against Putin's impunity."

"This is what Obama should have done in 2014 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine," he told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "This goes right to the core of Putin and his closest cronies."

He added: "Putin is a very rich man. He keeps all of his money through 'oligarch trustees.' He cares more about his money than human life—and the U.S. government is now effectively going after his money."

The Obama administration sanctioned several oligarchs and political officials in 2014, including then-Putin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, billionaire Gennady Timchenko, financier Yuri Kovalchuk, who has been described as Putin's personal banker, and later president of Rosneft Igor Sechin. But it did not add Gazprom chief Alexei Miller, whom the administration named Friday.

"This is the first time that Gazprom has been identified so directly with any sanctions," said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury sanctions official now at the Center for a New American Security. "It won't have a tremendous material effect for people dealing with Gazprom, but it's really a shot across the bow that the United States is ramping up its Russia sanctions in a meaningful way."

Treasury also hit Putin's son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov, as well as aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, who the administration said "claims to have represented the Russian government in other countries" and who has drawn controversy over his ties to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The well-known oligarch has been investigated for money laundering, and accused of "threatening the lives of business rivals" as well as "illegally wiretapping a government official," the administration said.

In a statement accompanying the sanctions announcement, Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin cited "a range of malign activity" by Russia, including: the 2014 occupation of Crimea, its continued support of separatists in eastern Ukraine as well as of the Assad regime, "attempting to subvert Western democracies," and its cyber activities.

"The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites," said Mnuchin. "Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government's destabilizing activities."

Brian O'Toole, a former official at the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets control, said the measures would carry even more weight if Trump—who has not consistently taken a firm stance on condemning Russian election interference—made a verbal statement about them. But even without that, he said, the penalties will likely erase whatever hope Putin may have had that Trump will go easy on him.

"Any ideas that the Kremlin and Putin have that Trump is going to wipe all this stuff away and give them what they want—this really drives a final nail into that coffin," said O'Toole, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "This is a broad-based pushback on, basically, Putin's expansionist agenda."

Those targeted will have any U.S. assets blocked, which O'Toole said could have wider-reaching consequences than expected. He referred back to Timchenko, who in 2014 laughed off the penalties against him but ended up not being able to fly his private plane because it had a U.S. navigation system. "It's U.S. services, too, that get wrapped into this," he said.

Megan Reiss, a national security fellow with the R Street Institute, said that the goal of the sanctions seems to be to pressure Putin himself, first and foremost, and the full spectrum of his inner circle's activities—from supporting the Assad regime to organized crime.

"This is exactly the sort of action that Congress intended when it passed CAATSA: to apply pressure on bad actors propping up the Putin regime," she said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have for months been urging the administration to fully implement CAATSA, which was overwhelmingly passed last summer and reluctantly signed by the president in August.

The Treasury Department said Friday's sanctions represent a follow-up to CAATSA-mandated lists rolled out by the department in January, one public and one private, which were intended to call out the oligarchs close to Putin.

Treasury acknowledged, under fire, that it derived its public list from sources like the Forbes' 2017 richest Russians list—which experts said diminished much of its intended 'name and shame' effect. Facing criticism over that cribbed list, Mnuchin said that the classified version provided to Congress is "hundreds of pages" and the result of "an extraordinary amount of work." He promised that there would be future sanctions linked to the report.

The Center for a New American Security's Rosenberg said that Friday's sanctions would likely have a powerful signaling effect rather than an immediate material effect, since those who were named likely took steps to mitigate risk ahead of time.

"All of these oligarchs had some sense that they could be named because they are known to people in this field, and/or were named on that oligarch list that was published as a requirement under the CAATSA legislation," she said. "That clearly gave all of them ample time to adjust their legal holdings, or shrink their exposure to U.S. jurisdiction in order to limit some of the more material effects."

She described sanctions as a punishment that leaves a deeper mark than than measures like the expulsion of diplomats, which the administration did last week in response to the alleged Russian poisoning of a former double agent on British soil.

"One thing about withdrawing diplomats is that you may return them eventually," she said. "But when it comes to sanctions, it's very hard to remove them. … This is an escalation of tensions in the relationship, and there's no easy climb-down from this."

Browder said that there is even more that can be done. "They've only touched a portion of Putin's wealth by going after these guys," he said. "There's many more oligarchs to be sanctioned if Putin misbehaves."

But Friday's actions, he predicted, will have an affect on Putin's calculus.

"When you're dealing with a dictator, you have to him them hard, and this is hitting Putin hard," he said. "No matter how angry he gets and how shrill his reaction, he probably will think twice about messing with America again."

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