Saturday, 22 March 2014

War of the Ban

No, no - the bespectacled UN General Secretary has not suddenly gone all belligerent on us...

Instead, we are witnessing a flurry of activity from Russia and the USA, as they raise the stakes over the recent violent conquest of Crimea by Russia. In a stream of announcements, the USA first banned several members of the Russian elite from entering the USA and from accessing any funds they may have in American banks. Shortly afterwards. a fuming Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs added sanctions on American in return, promising that Russia "will respond adequately to every hostile thrust." (

This can all seem a little bit hyped. Following the high drama surrounding Crimea in recent days, banning a score of Russians from entering the USA is unlikely to make Russian troops flee in fright from Sevastopol, just as John McCain probably long ago understood that Moscow is not yet ready for another wily foreigner to drop by the Patriarch's Ponds...

Nevertheless, we can learn a few things from this War of the Ban - about Russian (and American) politics, and about the workings of international diplomacy now and possibly in the future.

Bring Out the Banned!

So who have actually been placed on the lists of the banned? Russia has banned a predictable list of people: Three members of the White House administration (Caroline Atkinson, Daniel Pfeiffer and Benjamin Rhodes), as well as six vocal members of the US legislature (Harry Reed, John Boehner, Robert Menendez, Mary Landrieu, Daniel Coats, and John McCain [whether McCain's cat has been banned as well is currently unclear]). (

Considering that few if any of the above will have stocks in Gazprom or money saved in Sberbank, it seems safe to say that Russia here simply felt a symbolic need to retaliate in kind against usual suspects in the USA (a theme we shall return to below). Those Russians banned by the USA, however, are a slightly more interesting mix, even if their importance is not always obvious in media debate. Let us begin with the seven Russians banned on March 17th:

The US White House did not provide detailed reasons for why these seven had been singled out for sanctions. Instead sanctions were justified with the official positions held by the individuals; Yelena Mizulina, for instance, "is being sanctioned for her status as a State Duma Deputy." ( By that logic, the USA could sanction all members of the Duma - a course scornfully suggested by the Duma. (

At the same time, as people with long-standing connections to Putin and the regime, if not necessarily people placed at the very top of Russia's leadership, these seven also provided the USA with targets that would be noticed by the Kremlin without panicking the circles directly surrounding Putin. It is also telling that several people on the list have a history of prominent opposition to the West. Dmitry Rogozin, for instance, was renowned for his belligerent views while Russian ambassador to NATO between 2008 and 2011 (see also the launch of his book: The Hawks of Peace, at Vladislav Surkov has been the bogeyman for domestic political opposition in Russia over the last decade. ( And the above-mentioned Mizulina was the author of anti-gay laws, which provided the background for the previous Russo-Western crisis. (

Finally, it is worth noting that the first seven to be hit by US sanctions came from what is ostensibly a range of political backgrounds. Before becoming presidential adviser, Sergey Glazyev and Dmitry Rogozin were among the co-founders of the party Motherland, centred on nationalism and left-wing economic policies. ( Yelena Mizulina used to be a prominent member of the Communist Party and is now a member of the party A Just Russia, known (just as Motherland) for its focus on left-wing economic policies. ( Leonid Slutsky, for his part, is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, known for being neither liberal nor democratic but with a very - erm - noticeable leader in Vladimir Zhirinovsky (; also The main point is, though, that the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party constitute the entire opposition in the Duma (lower house) of the state parliament. So - either Putin's policy towards Ukraine really has support throughout Russian society - or we have yet another example of how political opposition no longer exists in Russia...

Now, let us have a look at the additional Russians sanctioned by the USA on March 20:
This is the list that is really getting interesting Apart from a new host of politicians from the two chambers of the Russian parliament - their inclusion looks mostly like a continuation of the previous round of sanctions - the USA also targets high-profile friends and close allies of Putin. More tellingly, the White House states this outright. (

Much, for instance, have been made of the fact that Gennady Timchenko, co-owner of the oil trading company Gunvor until two days ago (, is named as a close associate of Putin, whose personal financial interest in Gunvor has for the first time been publicly alleged by the USA. (

Andrey Fursenko, Yuriy Kovalchuk and Vladimir Yakunin, are long-time friends of Putin - dating back, in fact, to the so-called Ochero Dacha Cooperative that they co-founded in the early 1990s and whose members have seen their fortunes rise together with those of Putin. (,0,1236120.story). The Rotenberg brothers go even further back with Putin - as judo sparring partners for the President back in the Soviet Union. (

And then there are of course the siloviki - the people from the security services. Sergey Ivanov, now leading the Presidential Executive Office, was very close to becoming Russian president in 2008 following Putin's first terms - and he has remained a possible successor to Putin ( Viktor Ivanov, director of the Federal Drug Control Service, has cooperated with the USA on curbing Afghan drug trade to the West ( Igor Sergun, a secretive figure, leads the military intelligence service ( These three are, arguably, the most influential siloviki bar none in Russia.

So what does this mean?

First and foremost, it means that US sanctions just got serious. Apart from Putin himself, and one or two other persons, the sanctions could not have targeted more senior figures in the Russian regime. The economic element of the sanctions is not the most important aspect. While a number of the above-mentioned people could well have funds now frozen in the West they hardly face penury - just as the one bank targeted, Bank Rossiya, is being assisted by the Russian Central Bank to weather the storm. Putin has, anyway, long publicly told his elites to bring their funds back to Russia - something they will now be very inclined to remember.

What does matter, though, is the fact that the USA has gone personal against the Russian President and his regime. By targeting people around Putin (although, not yet, Putin himself) the guilt for the illegal annexation of Crimea has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Russian regime and not Russia as such. The USA has accused the Russian administration of being run by business associates / friends / cronies with regard for themselves and not for Russia. And, despite previous hints at this from the USA, that development is new.

Unless Putin and his allies continue to overplay their hand and actually invade the rest of Ukraine (or the Baltics) it is almost impossible to imagine use of military means by the West. Clearly, the Russian elites can ride out the immediate consequences of this storm, just as the sanctions may still be slackened after a while. Yet what will remain is that the Russian administration - just as it broke the fundamental norm of international society by annexing the territory of another sovereign state - has now de facto been placed outside the company of "civilised" administrations by the USA, which has attacked the Russian leadership as persons, not as representatives of their country. Under Putin's leadership, Russia could, just possibly, become a "quasi-state" recognised as a menace and not as a member.

This is not the fault of ordinary Russians (however much they may or may not welcome the "return" of Crimea to Russia), but of a regime that has long since been used to acting without much thought for the consequences for their people. It would be very helpful, therefore, if the next Western step following these sanctions would be to ease the access of ordinary Russians into the EU and the USA, while making sure that top levels of the regime were kept out. Such a step would not make Putin cry in his sleep, just as Russia will continue to attract plenty of money to keep his rich friends happy (well, at least for a time...). But it would send a clear signal from the West that everyday Russians are welcome friends and members of international society - and that the Putinistas are not.

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