Column: Aim to hit Putin where it hurts
WASHINGTON — Two weeks after Vladimir Putin seized Crimea, President Obama finally announced his response. He would hit the Russian president in the cronies.
A quartet of Obama administration officials, in a Monday morning conference call, announced the crony-busting potential of new U.S. sanctions:
“It creates the ability to target ... what are commonly known as Russian government cronies.”
“Our current focus is to identify these cronies of the Russian government and target their personal assets and wealth.”
“We, of course, also have the so-called crony capacity under the second EO [executive order] as well.”
“The ability to sanction the cronies who provide support to the Russian government really gets at individuals who have dedicated significant resources in supporting President Putin.”
There were no fewer than seven mentions of cronies on the call. “WH Word of Day: ‘Cronies’ used so much in this sanctions conference call, it feels like they poll-tested reaction to it,” NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell tweeted during the call.
Poll-tested, perhaps. But did they reality test it? Crony talk may sound strong to an American audience, but there’s little in the sanctions that would actually impair Putin’s cronies or punish Russia for its actions.
Russians seemed to be immune to Cronies Disease on Monday. In Moscow, stocks climbed nearly 4 percent, apparently on the belief that the U.S. sanctions, and similar ones announced by the European Union, weren’t as bad as feared. The ruble gained against the dollar and the euro.
The sanctions targeted the assets and activities of only seven Russian and four Ukrainian officials — and the list didn’t include Putin or the oligarchs who dominate Russia, such as Igor Sechin of the oil company Rosneft and Alexey Miller of Gazprom.
From Russia and Ukraine came reports that the targeted 11 don’t have substantial holdings in the United States and are unlikely to be affected greatly. Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin taunted Obama on Twitter: “Comrade @BarackObama, what should do those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or U didn’t think about it?” Another Rogozin tweet said, “I think some prankster prepared the draft of this Act of the US President.”
It wasn’t a prank, but neither was it much of a punishment. Clearly, the administration wanted to see whether a symbolic first gesture would be sufficient to give Putin pause.
Obama outlined his plan in all of four minutes in the White House briefing room. He ignored questions as he departed, saying of press secretary Jay Carney, “Jay, I think, will be available.”
The administration officials who explained the moves in the conference call used some tough language: “in violation of Ukraine’s constitution ... environment of coercion ... violated international law ... illegal referendum.” But their language was undermined by their decision to hide behind anonymity. The White House required that the officials not be quoted by name.
ABC’s Jon Karl asked about the omission of Putin from the sanctions list. An official explained that it would be “a highly unusual and rather extraordinary case for the United States to sanction a head of state of another country.” Also on the call, the officials pointed out that “the United States is prepared to take additional proportional and responsive steps to impose further political and economic costs.”
This logic, however, seemed to assume that there was nothing “extraordinary” in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — and that imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on seven Russians is a “proportional” response to the invasion.
The select few cronies who were targeted were targeted only gently. On the call, an official said they were going after the assets and wealth of “the individuals known as the cronies” and not the businesses they run.
The Obama administration “will not rule out taking additional steps in the future,” this unnamable official said. That’s a relief. Putin isn’t the type who will back down unless his cronies are really hurting.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.