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POLITICS: PennAve

Experts say sanctions will have little influence on Vladimir Putin

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The White House on Monday trumpeted sanctions against senior Kremlin officials as the most extensive economic punishment imposed on Russia since the Cold War.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin must have missed that memo.

Just hours after the Obama administration unveiled sanctions against 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials, Putin had signed a decree recognizing Crimea as a sovereign and independent state. The next likely step is that the Russian president will endorse the annexation of Crimea, sticking his finger in the eye of Western nations who had hoped economic threats would dissuade Putin from his power play in Ukraine.

Although President Obama warned of additional sanctions against the Putin regime -- and White House officials would not rule out penalties for the Russian president himself -- experts expressed skepticism that the Eastern leader would pay them much attention.

“What they’re calculating now is you’re never going to get a united Western response,” Angela Stent, the director of the Russian studies department at Georgetown University, said of any future sanctions packages.

“They would really have to cause a downturn in the Russian economy to change his calculus,” Stent added, saying Monday’s sanctions were little more than a warning shot to the Kremlin of possible banking and financial prohibitions. “This is a world in which the U.S and European businesses and banks would be badly affected [by wide-reaching sanctions.]”

And the Russian markets largely rebounded Monday in the wake of the White House's sanctions announcement, as some had expected penalties with more teeth.

Analysts said Putin’s end game extends well beyond Crimea — which overwhelmingly voted to join the Russian Federation — as the leader sees maintaining influence in Ukraine as a symbol of prestige well worth the price of angering the Obama administration.

“In the world, as Putin sees it, there are only a handful of truly politically sovereign states. Even fewer states have a true national identity,” explained Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution. “Russia is more than just a ‘nation,’ a ‘people,’ a ‘state,’ it is also a separate ‘civilization.’ ”

“All this means that, for Putin, there is very little margin for negotiations, for domestic or foreign policy deals, or for taking an off-ramp,” she added.

GOP critics say the White House has long bungled its approach to Putin, pursuing a so-called reset that had virtually no chance of success. And now, they say, Putin has been emboldened to challenge the White House with little fear of significant reprisal.

“In the absence of a stronger U.S. and Western response to this aggression, we run the risk of signaling to Putin that he can be even more expansive in furthering his old imperial ambitions, not only in Ukraine, but also in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic countries and parts of Central Asia,” warned Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The former Republican presidential candidate called for the White House to provide small arms and military aid to the Ukrainian government or risk looking ineffectual on the global stage.

Some of those on the receiving end of sanctions Monday laughed them off.

“Comrade Obama, what should those who have neither accounts nor property abroad do? Have you not thought about it?" Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted. "I think the decree of the president of the United States was written by some joker."

White House officials are banking that Putin will ultimately view the crisis through the prism of economic self-preservation.

“Since Feb. 20 through today, the Russian stock market has declined 14.7 percent,” said a senior administration official. “The ruble has depreciated almost 3 percent against the dollar. These moves are far in excess of other indices of other economies — comparable economies.”

But it’s precisely because the economy is doing poorly, experts said, that Putin is more likely to ignore U.S. demands for as long as possible.

“His popularity is back up,” said Stent. “Part of this is about shoring up his base so that economic problems are overshadowed by the specter of being a resurgent power.”

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner