Obama and Bush officials praise new Trump sanctions on Russia

The sanctions target President Vladimir Putin's inner circle

A combination of file photos show prominent Russian businessmen and officials on a U.S. sanctions list released by the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. April 6, 2018.  (Top, L-R) Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Bogdanov, Suleiman Kerimov, Kirill Shamalov, Viktor Vekselberg, (middle L-R) Mikhail Fradkov, Sergei Fursenko, Alexei Dyumin, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Konstantin Kosachev, (bottom, L-R) Andrei Kostin, Alexei Miller, Nikolai Patrushev, Vladimir Ustinov, Viktor Zolotov.  REUTERS/Files
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Former US officials praised the latest set of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Friday, which target the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The new sanctions punish 17 senior Russian government officials, a number of oligarchs, financial and oil tycoons as well as a Russian weapons entity Rosoboroneksport accused of arming Bashar Al Assad.

State-owned Russian weapons trading company Rosoboroneksport was named on the sanctions list for having “longstanding and ongoing ties to the Government of Syria, with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons sales over more than a decade."

Among the individuals listed are Mr Putin’s son-in-law and energy executive Kirill Shamalov and Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who is tied to the former chairman of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort. Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Mr Manafort last February and is, according to CNN, questioning Russian oligarchs in the investigation into Moscow’s role in the 2016 election.


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Other names include businessmen Suleiman Kerimov (allegedly involved in money laundering) and Igor Rotenberg (owner of Gazprom).

Daniel Fried, the former coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department during the Obama administration, described the new sanctions as “solid and strong”.

Mr Fried, who oversaw US sanctions on Russia during the Obama years, wrote at The Atlantic Council on Friday that the new set “hits oligarchs tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin and their associated companies, two ‘golden children’ (corrupt and privileged children of the Putin elite), Rosoboroneksport, and selected officials.”

He praised the announcement because it leaves “plenty of room for escalation” while also avoiding “dumb moves, like trying to sanction Russian gas exports”, something the Europeans have warned against.

“Russian aggression will carry costs for them,” Mr Fried said.

Marc Johnson, a security consultant and former CIA operations officer told The National, that the sanctions, unlike previous ones which were centred around a specific Russian government action, "appear to be calibrated to send a message to Mr Putin directly".

Mr Johnson noted that, in addition to the obvious oligarchs, “there are several people known to be close to Mr Putin".

“It remains hard to assess the impact but if we can judge by the histrionic performance of Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, yesterday over the Skripal sanctions, recent administration actions may be starting to bite,” Mr Johnson argued.

Former Acting CIA Director in the George W Bush administration, John McLaughlin also welcomed the move. He told NBC earlier this week that sanctions that target Mr Putin's inner circle as well as oligarchs who invest money and real estate in the West are more effective than the expulsion of diplomats carried out by the Trump administration last month.

Yet the delay in rolling out the sanctions could constrain their effect. A US official briefing reporters on Friday morning said the sanctions were no surprise.  "They [the Russian government] had to know these were coming," he said.

This could give those targeted time to move their assets to avoid enforcement.

Still, the overarching reach of the sanctions and not isolating them to one action of the Russian government speak to a growing wedge between Moscow and Washington.

A US official said these actions are "in response to the totality of the Russian government's ongoing and increasingly brazen pattern of malign activity around the world.

"The sanctions target Russia’s behaviour in Syria, Crimea, Ukraine, Europe, meddling in US elections, cyber-attacks, and North Korea,” the official added.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilising activities.”