Mark Galeotti

The EU’s sorry excuse for sanctions won’t change Putin’s ways

The EU's sorry excuse for sanctions won't change Putin's ways
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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been poisoned and then sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But never mind, the European Union is on the case and has decided to impose sanctions. Just not that many.

There are apparently just four officials on the list: Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, which tackles major crimes; Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Prison Service; prosecutor-general Igor Krasnov; and Viktor Zolotov, the much-feared commander of the National Guard.

There is, to be sure, some rationale. Bastrykin, under British sanctions since July, was a key figure in pushing trumped-up charges against Navalny. Kalashnikov was responsible for Navalny being jailed for ‘breaching parole’ while in Germany, where he was recovering from being poisoned. Thuggish Zolotov, who once challenged Navalny to a duel and threatened to turn him into ‘mincemeat,’ heads the force that spearheaded the suppression of protesters this past month.

Yet Krasnov, who admittedly would have OKed the prosecution, not just of Navalny but of many of his supporters, has a pretty good reputation amongst Russian law enforcers. He was once described to me as ‘doing what he can to enforce the law in a lawless state.’

That’s not to say he is blameless – no one forced him to become Putin’s prosecutor-general – but will imposing sanctions on him have much of an impact?

And why just them? What about Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, accused by Navalny of being personally involved in trying to cover up his poisoning and preventing him from being evacuated to Germany? He was on the list of 35 names Navalny asked the West to consider, from the judge who presided over the kangaroo court which saw him imprisoned on returning to Russia, to the sons of prominent officials already under sanction, deemed to be acting as their dads’ ‘wallets.’

As it is, the four officials are hardly going to feel the pinch. If anything, it becomes a perverse badge of honour, a mark of loyalty and importance.

A handful of personal sanctions are not going to change the trajectory of Putin’s state. Even the suggestion that going after ‘Putin’s billions’ would somehow scare him into line is wishful thinking.

The man has all of Russia as his personal ATM. Besides, he knows he cannot retire to some Caribbean island or Swiss chalet without being buried in Interpol Red Notices and invitations to war crimes tribunals.

Furthermore, he seems genuinely to believe Russia is in an existential political struggle with the West. If some officials have to holiday in Crimea rather than Corfu, and some oligarchs who have already stolen billions from the Motherland have to sacrifice a few hundred million, so be it.

Does this mean the sanctions are pointless? Not at all. They are important symbols of moral outrage and political will. Given that Navalny appealed for them, to do nothing would in effect tell Putin he can poison whomever else he wants and we wouldn’t care. They also say something fundamental: you may behave as you choose in your country, but if you break our rules of civilised behaviour, you are not welcome here (and nor is your dirty money).

But there is strength in numbers. The Federal Security Service was behind Navalny’s poisoning, the National Guard provides the stormtroopers on the streets. Rather than daintily pick one person here, one there, why not decide that these are agencies of repression and, say, every member of major’s rank or above is not welcome? And what about the propagandists and parliamentarians who justify or deny human rights abuses? If all these agents of Putinism are ever to turn, they need to feel some jeopardy.

There are other instruments available than personal sanctions, and honestly the West ought to be more imaginative. Over the past seven years, the Kremlin has become used to them.

But if they are to be used, they need to be meaningful. Otherwise, they are a sad and sorry excuse for action, enough to irritate the Kremlin, not enough to influence it.

In this, the EU once again fell short of the mark. Hopefully London and Washington, still mulling their responses, will aim higher.