Tuesday

3rd May 2016

EU diplomats start putting names on Russia blacklist

  • Putin (c): Kremlin decisions are not made by the official hierarchy (Photo: premier.gov.ru)

EU countries have started talks on who to blacklist for Russia’s invasion of Crimea, but few think it will make Russian leader Vladimir Putin retreat.

The EU on Wednesday (12 March) agreed to impose visa bans and asset freezes on “persons responsible for actions which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine … and entities associated with them.”

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Talks on who to name have so far taken place outside EU structures.

The British foreign office, for one, has been speaking with officials from the American, Canadian, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Swiss, and Turkish embassies in London on who to designate.

But on Thursday, EU countries’ diplomats began to collate each other’s ideas in an all-day meeting in Brussels.

The draft lists of names are confidential.

But diplomats say the EU will not name the one man who took the Crimea decision - Putin - or his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, for now.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s sanctions text indicates they will first target Putin’s executive branch.

Russia watchers say officials associated with the Crimea operation are: Alexander Bortnikov (Putin’s intelligence chief); Sergey Glazyev (a senior aide); Sergei Ivanov (Putin’s chief of staff); Nikolay Patrushev (the head of Putin’s security council); Sergei Shoygu (defence minister); Vladislav Surkov (another aide); and Alexander Vikto (the commander of Russia’s Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet).

If the EU decides to make the sanctions more political, it could target MPs.

Valentina Matvienko (the speaker of the Russian senate) shepherded a resolution to authorise Russian troops to invade Ukraine. Alexey Pushkov (the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house) and Dmitry Rogozin (deputy PM) also championed the idea. Vladimir Zhirinovsky (an MP) visited Crimea and called for it to join Russia.

EU states could target Putin’s business allies.

Alexey Miller (chairman of Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom) has waged economic warfare against Ukraine. Igor Sechin (one of Putin’s oldest friends) now runs state oil firm Rosneft. Vladimir Yakunin (Russia’s multi-millionaire railway chief) is a Putin confidante in a Kremlin culture in which decisions are not made by the official hierarchy.

EU countries also have more colourful options.

These include Ramzan Kadyrov (the leader of Russia’s semi-autonomous Chechen Republic), said to have sent paramilitaries to Crimea.

They also include Alexander Zaldostanov (a Putin friend who leads the Night Wolves, a biker gang which went to Crimea to drum up support for secession) and Dmitry Kiselyov (a propagandist who heads the Russia Today news agency).

The likely sequence of events is as follows.

Crimea votes to join Russia in a referendum - deemed illegal by the EU and US - on Sunday; Putin endorses the result; EU foreign ministers trigger the blacklist in Brussels on Monday; EU leaders discuss further sanctions at a summit on Thursday.

Looking stupid?

For his part, Andrew Wood, the British ambassador to Russia between 1995 and 2000, believes the EU has no better option than to impose the blacklist. He told EUobserver on Wednesday: “We’re in a situation where some bold gesture is needed and has become inevitable. If we don’t do it, we’ll look a bit stupid.”

He does not believe Putin will back down.

“We know in advance that he’s not going to listen," Wood said, noting it would be “political suicide” for the Russian leader to cede Crimea due to Western pressure.

But he believes Putin will try to limit the international fallout.

He said Russia is unlikely to annex Crimea at this stage. He also said Moscow might offer to join a "Contact Group" on Crimea conflict resolution, even though a Contact Group risks “serving Russian purposes” by institutionalising the partition of Ukraine.

The former UK ambassador added that international opprobrium will undermine Putin in the long term.

“It [the Crimea invasion] is a huge mistake,” he noted.

“Russians will rally round him in the initial aftermath, but in the end he will face a blowback from his own people … What he has shown is that he can do whatever he wants. This will discourage international investors and hurt Russia’s economy and future development. It will harm him morally as Russian people realise they are living in an ever-less liberal regime.”

Unlike Russia's oligarchs, the Kremlin officials are not believed to hold significant assets in Europe.

But the US also thinks that stigmatising Putin’s top cadre will harm his authority.

“Putin depicts himself as someone who is capable of protecting his loyalists, down from the janitor in the building to the top chain of command, but the sanctions will show that he cannot guarantee their impunity,” a US contact involved in drawing up America's Russia blacklist said.

The US source added that EU naming and shaming of notoriously corrupt oligarchs like Sechin or Yakunin would stimulate the Russian opposition.

Realpolitik

The inclusion of Turkey and Switzerland in the UK deliberations indicates that London is willing to go quite far to discourage Moscow from escalation.

Swiss banks and low-tax cantons are considered a safe haven by Russia’s economic elite. Turkey is a popular holiday destination for its middle class.

But there are cracks in the European facade.

The Swiss foreign ministry told EUobserver its main interest in the London meeting was asset freezes on the former Ukrainian regime, not Russia.

A Turkish diplomatic source indicated that Ankara is wary of Moscow: “Turkey gets 60 percent of its gas from Russia. A Russian company is building Turkey's first nuclear power plant. Turkish contractors have won contracts worth billions. In that sense, our position is no different from that of Germany: Realpolitik.”

The Russian opposition also has a long way to go to challenge Putin.

Vladimir Ashurkov, a spokesman for the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Moscow-based NGO linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, told this website on Wednesday: “It is of course inspiring for me to see that people [in Ukraine] can overthrow a corrupt and authoritarian government … and we believe this can be an inspiration for Russian society.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch-turned-reformer, in Kiev this week told crowds: “This [the Ukrainian revolution] makes the Russian government nervous.”

Very few Russians have so far come out on the streets to protest Putin’s actions in Crimea, however.

For one, the Kremlin has cracked down on NGO financing and frightened people by throwing critics in prison.

Navalny himself is under house arrest and cannot meet, phone, email, or tweet his contacts. He is only allowed visits by close relatives and lawyers. “The situation for civil society in Russia is quite different to Ukraine,” Ashurkov said.

But for some Ukrainians, the lack of solidarity is also linked to nationalist sentiment in the Russian opposition.

Roman Sohn, a Ukrainian civil society activist, noted that Khodorkovsky in his Kiev speech quibbled if Russia was right or wrong to give Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

“I don't expect anything from Khodorkovsky,” he said.

“Russian democracy stops at the matter of Ukraine … The miniscule number of people in Moscow protesting against the war speaks loudly to the rest of the world that even the Russian opposition has the same imperialistic mentality as Putin,” he added.

The original text said Dmitry Kiselyov is head of RT. He is head of Russia Today, a separate news agency, but with links to RT

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