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Henry M. Robert

A pre-emptive strike

Expert: “The publication of the ‘Kremlin Report’ clearly demonstrates that there is still a consensus in the US that Russia should be punished, not forgiven”
1 February, 2018 - 10:00
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

The American whip which menaces Russia has been raised even higher. No new economic sanctions have been imposed so far, but the so-called “Kremlin Report” of the US Department of the Treasury will have serious consequences anyway, according to experts. The Treasury has published a list naming 210 people close to President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. The list includes 96 Russian oligarchs, whose fortunes are estimated at more than one billion dollars each. In addition, 114 high-ranking officials and heads of state-owned companies are on it, bloomberg.com reports.

The listed Russian oligarchs include Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich, Vladimir Potanin, the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, Alisher Usmanov, Igor Sechin, Alexei Miller, Oleg Tinkov, and Suleiman Kerimov. Speaking of officials, the individuals named include Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Anton Vaino, Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, speakers of the State Duma and the Federation Council Vyacheslav Volodin and Valentina Matviyenko, and FSB Chairman Alexander Bortnikov.

Let us recall that last summer, both chambers of the US Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. As the reason for such a move, they cited the Kremlin’s intervention in American elections, its aggression against Ukraine, and human rights violations. The published list is effectively an annex to the previously enacted bill.

HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE SANCTIONS?

First of all, it should be emphasized that getting included in the list does not mean that those listed will automatically face any punitive measures, such as blocking their assets in the US and visa ban, but their inclusion could force banks and other institutions in the US and Europe to refuse to deal with them.

“As imperfect as it is, the list released today is significant in that it is sending a signal to the Kremlin that no matter Trump’s aspiration to be a friend of Putin (perhaps in order to thank him for helping him ‘win the election’), the US establishment continues to consider Russia as a belligerent state with hostile intentions,” Peter ZALMAYEV, an American political analyst, director of the international non-profit organization Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI), commented for The Day. “The security establishment considers facts of Russian meddling in the US election a grave security risk, and so the list can and should be viewed as a preventative function. On the other hand, it is too soon to speak of its potential effect, and whether it may not, in fact, achieve the opposite goal: that of uniting the Putin elite in a tighter circle around the paramount leader.”

“I do not think that one should expect some magical effect from the published ‘Kremlin list,’” director of the New Europe Center Aliona HETMANCHUK commented for The Day. “More so given that it does not foresee automatic sanctions against the listed individuals. In addition, its most important part that involves the most sensitive information is classified. This list is only one – albeit potentially important – lever of influence on the Russian leadership.”

“Regarding the influence which the ‘Kremlin list’ might have on Vladimir Putin’s behavior and policy, it should be borne in mind that the Kremlin has been preparing for the publication of the list for a long time and, most likely, has been pondering various response scenarios,” Russian political writer Lilia SHEVTSOVA told The Day. “Most likely, when analyzing leaks from Washington sources, the Kremlin hoped that the list would include mostly oligarchs and heads of large corporations such as Gazprom and Rosneft. Inclusion on the ‘rogue list’ of effectively the entire cabinet and the top echelon of all branches of government (with the exception of the judiciary) should become an unpleasant surprise for the Russian ruling team, since it means that not only the American intelligence community, but also its partners in other Western countries will now monitor how the listed individuals and their family members, even former ones (!), pursue their life interests in the West. This is more than a headache! This undermines what has been such a successful strategy of the Russian elite’s survival at the expense of the West.”

THE INTERNAL AMERICAN CONTEXT

Let us recall that the bill is a brainchild of the US Congress. Moreover, American lawmakers have even included a special provision in the law that does not allow the US president to weaken or lift the sanctions without the consent of the Congress. The law was not an initiative of President Donald Trump’s administration, which subsequently even dragged feet on executing it to some extent. And the current decision to publish the list, and not to impose sanctions, confirms this. This is his answer of sorts to the American legislature.

Even before the publication of the list, the spokesperson for the United States Department of State Heather Nauert made a statement that the US administration would not immediately impose additional sanctions against Russia under the new law. “Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales. Since the enactment of the legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions,” she was quoted as saying by ca.reuters.com.

“A charitable way to interpret Trump’s reluctance is to say that he’s a maverick and a contrarian and doesn’t like things imposed on him,” Zalmayev said. “A less charitable way to interpret it is to say that his reluctance keeps adding oil to the fire of suspicion of some sort of ‘quid pro quo’ between the American president and Russia. It’s certainly in the area of ‘conspirology’ and I try to stay away from conspiracy theories, but it’s clear that they will only grow. So what should happen for Trump be tough to Putin? I would say it’s a ‘million-dollar question’ to which no one has an answer, including me... So far Trump has refused to say even one bad word about Putin at the cost to his credibility and political capital. Possibly if Mueller finds something and recommends impeachment, the situation will change.”

Despite a certain internal confrontation, a consensus is still present, Hetmanchuk believes. “Publication of this list is important because it demonstrates in practice the consistency of actions of both the US Congress and US administration (despite the fact that the president’s personal position may differ from such a policy). The publication of the list also clearly demonstrates that there is still a consensus in the US that Russia should be punished, not forgiven.”

HOW HAS RUSSIA RESPONDED?

Russian President Putin said at a meeting with his campaign representatives, which was broadcast on Russian TV channels, that the so-called “Kremlin list” complicated Russian-American relations. “As a matter of fact, all of us, all 146 million, have been put on some kind of list. I don’t understand the point of this, but it is undoubtedly an unfriendly act. It complicates already complicated Russian-American relations and is detrimental to international relations in general,” said the Russian president. According to Putin, Russia had been expecting this list and was ready to take serious countermeasures, but so far “will refrain from this decision.”

“On the one hand, Putin must offer a tough response to the US. He cannot afford to show weakness on the eve of the election,” Shevtsova said. “On the other hand, he understands that a confrontation with America would be fatal to Russia, and he really does not want to engage in a genuine confrontation as opposed to a rhetorical one. Most likely, Putin understands that the consolidation of the Russian elite against him is unlikely in the near future. It is still unlikely so far. But one thing is clear: anti-Americanism will become the key slogan of Russian propaganda and consolidation of the masses around the regime. Well, it is not the first time it happens. But the Kremlin will have to look for a measured approach in its propaganda of hatred for the Americans, because it will still need to maintain contacts with America and look for a detente. Without a dialog with America, it is impossible to break through the sanctions regime, which badly hurts the economy.”

WILL THIS AFFECT THE SITUATION IN THE DONBAS?

“I doubt very much that this list will substantially change Russia’s behavior regarding the settlement of the Donbas crisis,” Hetmanchuk believes. “In my opinion, the Kremlin will sooner agree to a frozen conflict than to a disadvantageous settlement imposed on it under the threat of new sanctions. Such reports are unlikely to force Putin to make amends for past mistakes, but may minimize the risk of new mistakes being made. In addition, I do not rule out the likelihood that the Kremlin really believes that this US policy is aimed at overthrowing the Russian regime, rather than forcing it to rethink its policy of interfering in US electoral affairs and invading Ukraine.”

AND WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE?

The West, in particular the US, despite the clear presence of a geopolitical confrontation with Russia, would have more reasons and show more firmness in its efforts to deter the Kremlin were Ukraine itself to demonstrate progress in reforms and pursue a more coherent and consistent policy regarding the aggressor. A lot has been written about President Petro Poroshenko’s business holdings in Russia, and besides, have the current Ukrainian authorities done everything in their power, and most importantly, in a timely and professional manner, to impose our own sanctions on Russia? And to confront the Kremlin in general?

Let us look into an example. “On the US Treasury’s list of oligarchs who have acquired their wealth due to closeness to Putin’s regime, we see Mikhail Fridman, who is the founder of the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv,” chief editor of Lb.ua Oleh BAZAR posted on Facebook. “When the war was already going on, President Poroshenko’s family, Yurii Lutsenko, Vitali Klitschko, Andrii Sadovyi, and other representatives of our so-called ‘elite’ had a good time at Fridman’s festival. Fridman is also said to be one of the sponsors and patrons of Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, the new hope of the creative class.”

We can add that the Supervisory Board of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which is projected to cost nearly 100 million dollars, is planned to be built in Kyiv by 2021, and has prompted a lively debate (see our article The Babi Yar Memorial: a Semi-Closed Format, published in Den’s No. 133 on August 2, 2017), includes the Klitschko brothers, Viktor Pinchuk, Alfa Group’s shareholders Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine Yaakov Dov Bleich, ex-president of Poland Alexander Kwasniewski, ex-vice chancellor of Germany Joschka Fischer, and the singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk.

As you can see, the two groups overlap a bit. We wonder: were the Americans to suddenly start to compile the list of Ukrainian oligarchs in certain circumstances, who would get there? Of course, the Ukrainians are grateful to the West for its contribution to the fight against the occupiers, but first and foremost, the extent of this support depends on us.

“ADMINISTRATION APPEARS TO HAVE PULLED ITS PUNCH, USING THIS EXERCISE AS A WARNING AND NOTHING MORE”

John HERBST, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council; former US Ambassador to Ukraine; Washington, D.C.:

“The list is something of an omnibus, mentioning the major figures around Putin, in the government and in business. No distinctions are made among those listed as regards the likelihood of sanctions. The list does not seem to include family members. Their inclusion would make possible sanctions much tougher. Finally, of course, there is no indication that anyone on the list will, in fact, be sanctioned. In short, the Administration appears to have pulled its punch, using this exercise as a warning and nothing more. Many people in Russia are breathing more easily today. But this issue will not go away and it is not the end of the story. The possibility of future sanctions is good for Ukraine. I would expect, for example, that a clear escalation of Kremlin aggression in Ukraine would lead the Administration to apply sanctions against some people on the list. Even a continuation of Moscow’s war at the same level over time would lead to increased pressure on the Administration to apply these sanctions.”

By Ivan KAPSAMUN, The Day, Mykola SIRUK
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