The New U.S. Sanctions Against Russia Are For Real

You may not have heard of them — but the new targets are Putin’s actual inner circle.

The head of state-run monopoly Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin addresses a Franco-Russian Economic Forum on Nov. 28, 2013. ERIC PIERMONT/AFP / Getty Images

The names on the latest list of sanctions released by the White House on Thursday read like a who’s who of Vladimir Putin’s innermost circle — ex-KGB colleagues, top advisers, and the men believed to hold the Russian president’s personal purse strings.

There’s Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, whom Putin brought with him from St. Petersburg and who have grown enormously wealthy since. There is Gennady Timchenko, a secretive oil trader who handles a large bulk of Russia’s lucrative oil shipments and who once sued The Economist for merely calling him Putin’s friend. The two are said to be judo buddies. There’s Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways and a top champion of the Russian Orthodox Church. The list goes on and on and includes ministers, lawmakers, businessmen all with two things in common: their wealth and their proximity to Putin.

The Kremlin must be freaking out.

The first round of sanctions announced by Obama on Monday was symbolic but ultimately toothless, targeting people with big mystiques but little power in today’s Kremlin — people like the former gray cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, and Yelena Mizulina, who authored Russia’s anti-gay law. Those on the list quickly laughed it off. Surkov said he was fine being slapped with sanctions and a visa ban: “In the U.S. I care about Tupac Shakur, Jackson Pollock, and Allen Ginsberg. I don’t need a visa to enjoy their works,” he told a Russian newspaper. Dmitry Rogozin, a bombastic deputy prime minister, spent the day teasing Obama with cartoons on Twitter.

These sanctions are different. They hit as close to Putin without targeting the man himself. There are a couple notable absences from the list — Alexei Miller, the CEO of Gazprom, and, more importantly, Igor Sechin, the CEO of the state oil company Rosneft and one of Putin’s hardline advisors. But by reaching to his favorite oligarchs, the U.S. has hit Putin where it hurts. There’s a reason most outside Russia have never heard of these people — in Russia those with the real power stay in the shadows.

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