Looks like Putin and Valentina Matviyenko have enjoyed a chuckle before. Photographer: Anatoly Maltsev/AFP/Getty Images

Obama's Sanctions Will Make Putin Laugh

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In response to Crimea's farcical secession referendum, the European Union and the U.S. are imposing personal sanctions against Russian officials. All they will do to Russian President Vladimir Putin is tickle him pink.

The U.S. list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals subject to travel bans and asset freezes, as per President Barack Obama's executive order, is essentially open-ended. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to add new names. So far, however, only seven Russians have been included, and they are hardly members of Putin's inner circle. Yes, they are hawks who support Crimea's absorption into Russia -- most Russians do these days -- but none has made fateful decisions during the Ukraine crisis.

The most senior officials on the list are Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Russian parliament's rubber-stamp upper house, the Federation Council, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, in charge of the military-industrial complex. Rogozin, a fiery nationalist, has harshly criticized Ukraine's new government, but his domain is making weapons, not using them.

Vladislav Surkov, another official on the list, was once more powerful than those two, as Putin's deputy chief of staff for domestic politics. He was specifically in charge of preventing a revolt along the lines of Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004-2005. He then fell into disfavor with Putin and has only recently made a modest comeback as the Russian president's unofficial envoy to Ukraine and "curator" of Russia's client states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Surkov's advice could have indirectly led to Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, but his role was purely advisory, as was that of Sergei Glazyev, a Ukrainian-born economic adviser to Putin who pushed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government to drop its plans to sign a trade deal with the EU and agree to one with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus instead.

Finally, Obama's list includes parliament deputies Andrei Klishas, Leonid Slutsky and Yelena Mizulina. They introduced legislation accepting Crimea as part of Russia. In Putin's Russia, however, that is only a formality: All important legislation is suggested by the Kremlin. Penalizing the likes of Slutsky, Klishas and Mizulina is tantamount to punishing the monkey and letting the organ grinder play.

If the U.S. authorities' purpose was to punish people responsible for Putin's Ukrainian escapade, they should have started with the Russian president himself: He alone decides what Russia will or will not do. They also could have gone to the trouble of finding out who commanded the unmarked Russian troops that spread across Crimea, and who sent goons to foment unrest in southeastern Ukraine. Punishing Putin, however, must have seemed like a scary idea, and identifying those who did his dirty work turned out to be too challenging.

The EU, in fact, did a better job on that front. On Monday, it revealed its own list of 21 people targeted for sanctions, and it includes the commanders of Russia's Black Sea Fleet and southern and western military districts, as well as a longer list of pro-annexation legislators and separatist Crimean officials.

Still, neither the European nor the American list will inflict pain on Putin or even on the sanctioned individuals. None has any known U.S. or EU property to freeze. Klishas, once a top executive at MMC Norilsk Nickel OJSC, a major rare metals company, owns a house in Switzerland, but that is not even part of the EU. Viacheslav Fetisov, a former hockey legend and now a Federation Council member who supports Crimea's annexation, does own a house and some land in the U.S., where he once played, but he is not on the U.S. list.

Where are the most obvious targets: businessmen who have made billions thanks to their personal friendships with Putin? Instead, OAO Rosneft, the company headed by one of Putin's closest associates, Igor Sechin, on Monday announced that it had acquired 26.19 percent of tire maker Pirelli & C. SpA from three Italian banks. Rosneft has the confidence to continue its international expansion because the sanctions are entirely for show. If the West plans to stop at this, Putin's gamble in annexing part of a neighboring state will have paid off.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net