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The Sanctions Illusion

Obama has chosen to go after Putin’s cronies. But do sanctions ever really work?

Author: Fred Kaplan
April 28, 2014


On Monday, the Obama White House dropped another round of sanctions on some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's cronies, but it's not clear if this will affect Putin's policies toward Ukraine.

Sanctions are a time-honored technique for punishing a leader who's misbehaved, or deterring him from misbehaving further. The problem is, they're usually not very successful.

Obama's sanctions against Putin are smarter than most. Rather than punishing a country's entire population, like the Bush-Clinton sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Obama—assisted by David Cohen, the longtime treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence—is aiming at the Russian officials who help make Ukraine policy, and at the Russian institutions that profit from it. (They're not aimed at Putin's own fortunes, by the way, as it's long been considered a bad idea to go after the holdings of a foreign leader, if just because the blowback could be fierce.)

Let's stipulate that Putin's cronies are hurting, even yelping. Certainly the financial world in which they operate is feeling the blow. According to White House officials, capital is flowing out of Russia (already $60 billion more this year than all of last year); the ruble is tanking (it's the emerging market's worst-performing currency); and the latest bonds, issued to cover Russia's debt, had to be canceled for lack of buyers. So things are bad for Putin's rich friends. But are they bad for Putin? Maybe, but probably not bad enough for him to give up his hopes and dreams about Ukraine.

Here's the thing about cronies: Their power depends on which way the money flows. During the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, U.S. and British intelligence agencies messed with the financial holdings of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's cronies, and the tactic worked—Milosevic suddenly found himself isolated—because the cronies had put him in power. But Putin's cronies were enriched and empowered by Putin. Maybe at some point they'd turn against him if things got really bad. But for the short-to-medium term he holds the cards.

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