The West Revives Anger at Putin, Who’s Anything But Humbled
(Bloomberg) -- Western powers are showing growing exasperation and anger at Russia’s Vladimir Putin with a new round of U.S. sanctions and condemnations over hacking, a nerve-agent attack in England and the carnage from the regime he backs in Syria.
But none of that is likely to deter -- or humble -- Putin, who’s already under multinational sanctions for intervening in Ukraine. Europe is showing little appetite for piling on new economic penalties, and the Russian president has shown that shrugging off criticism only helps as he campaigns for re-election Sunday as the tough guy who stands up for his country.
In rapid succession, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May ordered Wednesday that 23 Russian diplomats leave after authorities concluded a nerve agent was used to poison a former spy and his daughter on British soil, and then the U.S. imposed sanctions Thursday on Russian operatives already indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“No real new sanctions were announced and the chance they will be agreed with the EU is insignificant,” said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign-policy analyst and former diplomat in Moscow. “So far, I don’t see that these statements would harm or scare Moscow.”
Russia’s actions have come so quickly, and with such aggression, that Western governments have struggled to keep up. On March 4, a former double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia were found unresponsive in the small English city of Salisbury. Officials determined that the two, who remain in critical condition, were attacked with a military-grade nerve agent, and that Russia was probably responsible.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pointed the finger directly at Putin on Friday.
“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin and with his decision -- and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision -- to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since World War II,” Johnson said in west London.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has shrugged off the British allegations as “absolutely rude, unsubstantiated and baseless” and suggested the poisonings were a set-up to discredit Moscow.
Russia doesn’t want to completely close off the possibility of dialog with the U.S., so it will “modulate” its response to the latest sanctions, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday, according to the official RIA Novosti news agency.
Putin continues to support Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose military is accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in the besieged city of Ghouta. In the U.S., the FBI warned Thursday that Russian hackers are conducting a broad assault on the electric grid, water-processing plants, air transportation facilities and other infrastructure.
Overshadowing all of that is the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, to help Donald Trump.
“Putin has thrown a gauntlet down,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “I think the response so far has been calibrated too far on the risk- aversion side. Now what’s needed is the credible deterrent message.”
Putin continues to relish opportunities for provocation, musing in an NBC interview that maybe it was “Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews” who were responsible for efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign. That’s leaving his counterparts in the West baffled about why he’s taking such a hard turn toward confrontation on so many fronts.
“We take no pleasure in having to constantly criticize Russia,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in Security Council debate over the nerve-agent attack on Wednesday. “But we need Russia to stop giving us so many reasons to do so."
The U.K., the U.S., France and Germany all have ratcheted up their rhetoric against Russia, saying in a joint statement that the attack on the Skripals “constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.”
Trump Joins In
Trump -- who’s often faulted by American lawmakers over his reluctance to criticize Putin even when other in his administration do -- joined in the condemnation Thursday.
“A very sad situation,” the president told reporters. “Certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never ever happen. And we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”
None of that may matter to Putin unless the Western allies hit Moscow where it really hurts -- by restricting the flow of Russian money into London’s frothy real estate market, for example, or imposing the sort of crippling sanctions on major Russian banks like the ones imposed on Iran over its nuclear program before the 2015 agreement with world powers.
The rising geopolitical tensions didn’t put off investors, as eurobonds being sold by Russia Friday brought bids of almost $7.2 billion.
European Union foreign ministers will discuss the attack when they meet in Brussels on Monday, and it’s also on the agenda for a summit of EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron later next week.
But added sanctions would be resisted by EU members like Italy and Hungary, which already have been pressing for easing of the existing sanctions imposed over Russia’s seizing of Crimea and its incursion into eastern Ukraine. Nor has the Trump administration imposed the full menu of sanctions authorized by Congress.
“They take a tough tone on Russia but so far it’s all words, not actions,” said Michael Carpenter, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. “What’s forthcoming from this administration? As far as sanctions, today was a nothing-burger. So far I’m not impressed.”
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