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A Much-Improved Slate of Russia Sanctions

Now that’s more like it. After an anemic first round of sanctions on Monday, targeting only 11 Ukrainian and Russian individuals, today President Obama announced wider-ranging sanctions in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea.

Facing asset freezes and travel bans are 20 more people including Putin pals such as Viktor Ivanon, an old KGB man who now heads the Federal Drug Control Service; Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff; Alexei Gromov, the first deputy chief of staff; Vladimir Yakunin, chairman of the state-owned Russian Railways; Vladimir Kozhin, head of administration to Putin; and Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg, two of the biggest contractors behind the Sochi Olympics. These are people who have close relationships with Putin–including close financial relationships–so sanctioning them will get Kremlin’s attention.

Possibly even more significant is the fact that a Russian bank–Bank Rossiya, which has $10 billion in assets and is known to be owned and used by members of Putin’s inner circle–is being frozen out of dollar-denominated transactions. This is a major blow to the bank and a warning of more to come if other Russian financial institutions are added to the sanctions list.

There is of course more that can be done to punish Russia for the illegal annexation of Crimea, although much of it will require cooperation from our European allies which may not be forthcoming. France should immediately cancel the production of two amphibious assault ships being built in a French shipyard for the Russian navy. Britain should freeze the assets of Putin’s cronies which are held in the city of London. Britain and France will be deeply reluctant to take such action because it will come with an obvious price to their own economies, but this is where American diplomacy must come in: Obama and Secretary of State Kerry must convince our European friends that we had better hang together in pressuring Putin lest he get the idea that he can slice off further parts of Ukraine with impunity.

There are also military steps that could be taken, such as providing equipment, training, intelligence, and advice to Ukraine to enable it to defend its borders; positioning more U.S. troops in Poland and the Baltic Republics; and rolling back planned cuts in the U.S. defense budget. Those are all hard-sells, for one reason or another: NATO is afraid that aiding Ukraine will tempt Putin into further aggression, while rolling back defense cuts will run into opposition in Congress. There is no doubt that retaliation will come in one form or another–extending beyond Putin’s farcical announcement that nine senior U.S. officials will be denied entry to Russia. (As if they were planning a vacation in Novosibirsk.)

But the imperative of standing up to Russia and making clear to the entire world–especially to states such as Iran and China–that aggression does not pay should override concerns about Russian retaliation. The issue here extends far beyond Crimea or even Russia. It is a question of what kind of world we want to live in: a world where states more or less abide by the dictates of international law or a world where the law of the jungle prevails.


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