20 years under Putin: a timeline

Last week, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions against a number of Russia’s high-profile officials, prohibiting their entrance into the respective countries and freezing their assets. But as writer Alexander Podrabinek argues, such sanctions are laughable and can have little real effect on the Kremlin’s aggressive policies.



Even the Kremlin was impressed by Barack Obama’s early March statement about the unbearably high price Russia would have to pay for its aggression against Ukraine. Federal Assembly deputies reacted nervously to the threats made by the American president and even demanded that the Russian ambassador be withdrawn from the United States. Chances are, however, that it was not the possibility of sanctions that scared the Kremlin minions but the fact that someone dared threaten them, untouchable as they are. Obama’s threat, furthermore, was heard by the whole world.

What happened is exactly what the United States and the European Union were afraid of. First, Russia instigated a civil conflict in Crimea; then, it sent Russian special forces operatives, who wore no distinguishing badges; and then it established a puppet government, which asked Russia to annex Crimea. After the farce of a referendum that produced predictable “Soviet” results, the penultimate step was to formally establish Crimea and Sevastopol as two new Russian regions, a task in which Moscow is engaged at the moment. The final step will consist of incorporating Crimea into the jurisdiction of the Russian authorities, establishing control over the new Russian borders, and somehow neutralizing the Ukrainian army in Crimea.

U.S. sanctions came as Russia was preparing to take another step. On March 17, the American president signed a decree imposing sanctions on Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev, assistant to the president Vladislav Surkov, State Duma deputies Yelena Mizulina and Leonid Slutsky, and Federation Council member Andrei Klishas. These Russian officials will be denied entry to the United States, and their assets and property will be frozen. On March 20, President Obama added 20 more officials from Putin’s closest circle to this list, and the sanctions were expanded to include Rossiya Bank, which has been excluded from international payment systems. Washington signaled it may go further by introducing more sanctions if the situation in Ukraine is not settled.

Sanctions suggested by Obama are not even ridiculous—they are pathetic. In response to the annexation of Crimea, the world’s greatest power has slightly complicated the lives of top Russian officials. Is this all the United States is capable of? Is this the “high price” the U.S. president was talking about? It is the same as banning a serial killer from spending his annual vacation abroad. This would certainly terrify any serial killer.

It seems that President Obama has put not only himself but his whole country in a ridiculous position. Translated from the language of diplomacy into normal human terms, such “sanctions” mean that Putin is being asked to keep up the good work. He is also being given the guarantees that further Russian expansion will not give rise to serious concerns, and that the indignation of the U.S. administration will be limited to rhetorical whistle blowing and perhaps to causing further discomfort to a number of Russian officials—who, by the way, have most likely moved all their millions to safe offshore zones and will do nicely without traveling to the United States.

Putin and his close circle are completely indifferent to both Russia’s economic situation and its future. Their interest in the economy is limited to the possibility of reaping enormous criminal profits, and they will only feel concern when economic devastation threatens the regime’s stability.

I have no doubt that Barack Obama realizes the absurdity of the U.S. sanctions. These sanctions are not a mistake—they are a strategy. Political analysts in the United States could hardly have missed Vladimir Putin’s 2013 call for Russian officials to move their assets from foreign countries back to Russia. The Kremlin was obviously getting ready for personal sanctions. Last year, the State Duma adopted a law requiring public and municipal officials to close their foreign bank accounts and dispose of their foreign assets. The law entered into effect on May 19, and members of Parliament were given three months to get rid of their foreign accounts. It was clear even then that this law was a preventive measure aimed at protecting officials against foreign sanctions. The Russian authorities have been expecting sanctions and have been preparing for them. And now no one in the Kremlin is afraid of them anymore.

Russia’s expulsion from the G8 will produce the same minimal effect. Putin probably foresaw such a development before putting his Crimean scheme into motion. The political isolation of Russia does not intimidate him in any way. Moreover, it even serves his interests. The logic that underpins the formation of an authoritarian regime demands the country’s isolation from the rest of the world. If the other countries of the G8 did not cut themselves off from Russia now, the Kremlin would have to do it tomorrow. Moscow’s future policy will be characterized by attempts to isolate the country from Western democratic institutions. The Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights will very likely become the first victims of this policy. An aggressive foreign policy will inevitably go hand in hand with a toughening of the repressive regime. Under these circumstances, the European Court in Strasbourg will appear to Russia as a weird anachronism of the Yeltsin era of democratic hopes. Putin will have to either discard this anachronism or test its limits by increasingly disregarding the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.

The current Russian regime has demonstrated the connection between an aggressive foreign policy and a repressive domestic one by blocking citizens’ access to independent Internet sources such as ej.ru, grani.ru, and kasparov.ru at the same time that it was conducting its intervention in Crimea. Foreign and domestic policies are similar to a two-horse harness, in which the horses cannot move at different speeds or in different directions.

Economic sanctions, if the West ever dares to impose them, are also unlikely to help change Russia’s course. First, such sanctions can only be effective if they are imposed simultaneously by all of the world’s largest economies. The United States’ failed economic sanctions against Communist Cuba at the same time that Europe has condoned Castro’s regime proves this point. But even if such sanctions are imposed unanimously, they will not affect Putin for a totally different reason. Putin and his close circle are completely indifferent to both Russia’s economic situation and its future. Their interest in the economy is limited to the possibility of reaping enormous criminal profits, and they will only feel concern when economic devastation threatens the regime’s stability. However, one should not indulge in vain hopes. Even if the economy is completely ineffective, these individuals will still find a way to benefit from it. As for possible public discontent, it will be nipped in the bud through the complete annihilation of all democratic freedoms and the launch of massive repressions.

The Western world should realize that it has no instruments of control over the Kremlin except for one—interference, the one that the Kremlin has used in Crimea to annex the Ukrainian territory.