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Tightening the Screws

eye on the news

Tightening the Screws

Tough sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s cronies indicate that President Trump is not going soft on Russia. April 8, 2018
Politics and law

Guess who’s not coming to the White House for dinner? Or getting an official U.S. invitation to anything, anytime soon? Or even withdrawing money from Citibank?

Kirill Shamalov, Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law, was among the Russian oligarchs and friends of Putin, along with 12 entities that they control, whom President Donald Trump’s administration sanctioned Friday, bringing the total of Russian individuals and entities punished for their ties to assorted Russian-sponsored misdeeds to 189—the most sweeping financial sanctions taken against Putin’s Russia by this administration, or its predecessor, for that matter. “Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The latest sanctionees join some 17 previously sanctioned Russian government employees or officials working for state-owned companies. They include Andrei Kostin, director of the government-owned bank VTB, which Russia watchers say Putin has used as his personal piggy bank, and Alexei Miller, chairman of Gazprom, the state-owned gas and oil company, Russia’s main source of income. The list also includes, notably, Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire and senior Russian official whom special counsel Robert Mueller has linked to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, whom he has also charged with felonies. Several of those sanctioned, including Deripaska, are believed to have assets in the United States. For instance, one of Deripaska’s companies, Basic Element, is made up of over 100 firms that do business in energy, metals, mining, machinery, and other sectors.

Vocal critics of Putin’s aggression at home and abroad welcomed the news. Daniel M. Gerstein, a senior official in the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security now at Rand, and Doug Schoen, a pollster and former political adviser to Bill Clinton and a Putin critic, praised the administration’s action as an important “first step.” But both men said that Trump needed to do more to punish and deter Russia. Schoen, author of Top of Form

Putin on the March: The Russian President’s Unchecked Global Advance, said that Trump still needs to develop a “comprehensive strategy to counter Russia’s systematic aggression.”

A senior administration official said on Friday that the latest additions to the list were not sparked by Russia’s alleged use of nerve gas against a former Russian spy in Salisbury, Britain, or by any “specific event or action.” Rather, the official said, the administration was responding to “the totality of the Russian government’s ongoing and increasingly brazen pattern of malign activity across the world.” That includes “the occupation of Crimea, instigation of violence in Eastern Ukraine, support for the Assad regime in Syria by supplying material and weaponry, and ongoing malicious cyber activity.” Most important, the official said, the expanded sanctions list was a response to “Russia’s continued attacks to subvert Western democracies,” a reference to charges that Russia tried meddling in America’s 2016 president election.

Such tough talk and economic punishment targeting Putin and his inner circle is at odds with Trump’s consistent reluctance to criticize the Russian leader, whom he recently hinted he may invite to visit the White House. Such mixed signals have confounded analysts and infuriated critics, who favor a tougher response to Russia’s misdeeds.

One official noted, however, that Trump often praises the leaders of countries that his administration financially punishes. He noted, for example, that despite Trump’s declarations of admiration for Chinese president Xi Jinping, his administration has slapped stiff tariffs on China and threatened a trade war with a key economic partner to stop what it alleges are Beijing’s unfair trading practices and theft of intellectual property.

The new sanctions are tough and likely to impose significant financial penalties on Putin allies. When individuals or the entities they control are added to a sanctions list, all their U.S. assets—real estate, boats, planes, bank accounts, and properties—are frozen. Notices are sent to banks and global institutions asking them to check their accounts for assets owned or controlled by those on the list—and urging that they not do business with them.

The designation of Putin’s son-in-law is likely to get special attention in the Kremlin and from the media. Within 18 months of his marriage, a senior official told reporters Friday, Shamalov acquired a large stake in a Russia-based energy company. A year later, he was able to borrow more than $1 billion from Gazprombank, a state-owned entity also subject to sanctions. 

 “This action is far more than symbolic,” one official stressed.

“Watch what we do, not just what the commander-in-chief says,” another said.

Photo by Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images

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