As Eastern Ukraine moves ever further towards ungovernability, the US has announced a list of seven individuals and 17 companies that will be the targets of a new round of sanctions. The clear message to Moscow is ‘we know you’re behind what’s happening in Ukraine, and that you have the ability to stop it, and it is going to cost you’.
All good in theory, but is it going to make a difference? And even if Vladimir Putin becomes convinced that Ukraine is not worth the damage being done to the Russian economy, is he still in full control of the forces he has unleashed?
First the sanctions, aimed at companies and individuals close to Putin, but stopping short of targeting his personal wealth. The highest ranking is Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak and the chairman of the international affairs committee of the Duma, Aleksei Pushkov. Long-term Putin cronies and close advisers Sergei Chemezov and Vyacheslav Volodin will also suffer having their assets frozen, and visas for the US denied. The head of the giant Kremlin owned oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin, also makes the list. Not exactly household names in the West, but big players.
The list of companies to be hit with asset freezes is not as severe as many had expected, largely avoiding the valuable oil and gas sectors. That accounts for the fact the Russian rouble actually rose after President Obama’s announcement was made.
The EU is expected to announce its own list of 15 individuals later, though getting agreement among all 28 has been a tricky process. It all ratchets up the pressure, while leaving the ‘nuclear option’ of full economic sanctions - the sort applied to Iran - in reserve as a deterrent to Putin actually ordering his tanks across Ukraine’s borders.
The Russian economy has suffered already, and will suffer more, but there is still no sign of Putin changing course. The fact that seven OSCE monitors - sent to Ukraine with Russian authorisation - are starting their fourth day as captives in a basement in the separatist held city of Slovyansk, testifies to the fact that Moscow is making no effort at all to rein in the chaos that it has unleashed.
Every day brings new incidents: just today the mayor of the city of Karkhiv was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt, another town - Kostantinivka fell to hooded separatist gunmen, and a third tortured body has been found in Slovyansk. This evening pro-Ukrainians will rally in Donetsk, with all the potential that carries for some angry confrontations.
Could Moscow bring all this back under control, even if it wanted to? Possibly, but by no means certainly. Forces are being unleashed in Eastern Ukraine that may be very hard to contain once a cycle of revenge and reprisal takes hold. We are still a long way from Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, but some of the similarities are uncomfortable.
Clearly President Putin wants - at the very least - to keep his western neighbour in such turmoil that a Presidential election next month would be rendered next to meaningless. Keeping Kiev weak and out of the arms of the EU may well be worth paying the price of limited sanctions from Washington and Brussels. The real danger may be that in doing so he awakens a monster that turns out to have a mind of its own.