WASHINGTON.- The White House and US officials have threatened Russia with financial sanctions that would carry “serious consequences” if it invades Ukraine, but so far Western retaliation has fallen on many people.
Experts say it is unlikely that the United States and its allies would agree to something as sweeping as a complete ban on trade with Russia or an embargo. Instead, individual industries and individuals are likely to bear the brunt of the sanctions as the crisis deepens.
The Kremlin has played down sanctions against Russian officials and business leaders imposed by the United States and its allies. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week that lawmakers seemed unaware that Russian law prohibits members of the government from holding assets abroad.
The United States insists that the targeted individuals lose considerable income and asset value due to financial sanctions, which would, for example, limit their purchases and investments.
Geopolitics, Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and the sheer size of Russia are some of the reasons that prevent the United States from subjecting Moscow to a broader embargo like those on Cuba, North Korea and Iran.
Here’s a look at how and why the West might choose to sanction specific individuals or industries in Russia, rather than more general measures.
Why go after people and not organizations?
Sometimes, this tighter measure is intended to prevent unintentional harm to ordinary people or provoke actions that in turn harm Western interests.
A recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicated that the United States and the European Union aspire to impose sanctions “in a way that can cause Russia to change its behavior while minimizing collateral damage to the people. Russian and the economic interests of the countries that impose sanctions”.
German authorities have promised that the future of the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline will be “on the table” if Russia acts against Ukraine. The pipeline was built to bring Russian natural gas directly to Ukraine, bypassing Ukraine. Blocking it would affect Russian gas exports in a crucial market.
Who are the people to punish?
According to the CRS, several politically connected Russian billionaires and their companies are potential sanctions targets.
The branch of the Treasury Department that oversees foreign assets has identified at least 445 companies and individuals as “specially designated nationals and blocked persons.”
They are largely people linked to the destabilization of Ukraine, the misappropriation of assets and operations in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine.
Among the targets are members of the government and heads of state-owned companies, such as the Russian interior minister, the heads of foreign intelligence agencies and the federal prison service, and the presidents of the two houses of parliament.
The CEOs of state oil and gas firms Rosneft and Gazprom, defense firm Rostec and several banks could also expect sanctions.
What kinds of sanctions has the US imposed on Russians in the past?
When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the West imposed sanctions such as limits on trade, blocking assets under US jurisdiction and limiting their access to the US financial system, which are still in place on at least 735 people, entities and vessels, according to the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
In the past year, the United States has added other sanctions.
The US Treasury this month sanctioned four people, including two Ukrainian parliamentarians, accused of engaging in activities to destabilize Ukraine at the behest of the Russian government.
Last April, 16 individuals and entities were sanctioned in what Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen described as “the start of a new US campaign against Russian malign behavior.”
White House Secretary Jen Psaki recently warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin and top officials in his government could be sanctioned “more than was done in 2014” over Crimea.
How effective are sanctions on individuals?
Personal sanctions are not as effective as those that affect industries, something that the government is also evaluating. But they can deal a psychological blow and turn those sanctioned into international pariahs.
For example, some Republicans in Congress want the United States to consider sanctioning Alina Kabaeva, an Olympic gold medalist in rhythmic gymnastics who is reported by the media to be Putin’s girlfriend.
It is difficult to get to the assets of Putin himself.
“His fortune is hidden all over the world and keeping track of those things is not easy. But it will make your life difficult,” said Scheherazade Rehman, a professor of international business and international affairs at George Washington University.
Asked this week about Biden leaving the door open for personal sanctions against Putin if Russia invades Georgia, Peskov warned that such a move would be “politically destructive” to US-Russia ties.
US sanctions on Russia can have wide-ranging economic effects if they are applied to particularly financially important targets, and some programs do so by targeting both individuals and companies and banning some classes of transactions.
What other kinds of measures are in the US arsenal?
Federal agencies may play a role in enforcing sanctions or limiting business activity.
The Department of State can restrict visas and foreign aid, and the Department of Commerce can restrict licenses for commercial exports.
The Department of Defense can restrict gun sales and the Department of Justice can prosecute those who break export laws. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI can review visas to travel to the United States.