U.S. got nobody to sanction in Russia over Syria

U.S. got nobody to sanction in Russia over SyriaWashington in its search for ways to punish Moscow for its actions in Syria may be running out of options as the U.S. have already put sanctions on Russia’s main arms exporter, Kremlin aides and the black leather-loving head of a motorcycle gang nicknamed “The Surgeon” after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Bloomberg said on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama’s administration says new sanctions are among its alternatives as it seeks to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria, where Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad’s drive to recapture the city of Aleppo. But Secretary of State John Kerry won’t give any details, and European allies failed last week to consider tighter restrictions.

“While the president has full sanction authority, there’s nobody left to sanction in Russia besides the janitor in the Kremlin,” said Michael Kofman, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington.

“In terms of expanding any kind of commercial or financial sanctions, we’re basically maxed out,” he added.

Penalties against Russia already include hundreds of people, from senior allies of President Vladimir Putin to the Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang led by a former medical student accused of aiding Russian forces in Ukraine. The State Department had to issue an exemption from sanctions on Russia’s main weapons exporter, Rosoboronexport OJSC, because the restrictions made it impossible for Afghanistan’s security forces to get spare parts for their Russian Mi-17 helicopters.

Experts say potential next steps include expanding what’s known as the Specially Designated Nationals list to include more military officers or weapons companies that provide munitions used in Syria. Such moves would limit their access to American banks and block visits to the U.S., although critics have long scoffed that Russians on the list can find other ways to move their money and different destinations for family vacations.

Supporters of the sanctions tied to Russia’s actions in Ukraine say they have had an economic impact. The International Monetary Fund said the Russian economy contracted 3.7 percent 2015 because of falling oil process and what it called the “quasi closure of international financial markets to Russian entities.” Gross domestic product is forecast to fall an additional 1.2 percent this year.

But those sanctions haven’t forced Russia to fulfill its promises under the Minsk II agreement aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine. Russia has been able to evade the worst fallout from sanctions, and its energy exports to Europe remain uninterrupted. And they haven’t stopped Putin from aggressively supporting Assad in Syria’s civil war.

A State Department official said a range of sanctions options are being prepared for the White House, which will make the final call on whether to impose them. The official, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private, said several possible sanctions regimes could have an impact, though they “are not ideal” in Syria’s case.

The Obama administration does have more drastic options. If the U.S. wanted to truly damage Russia’s economy, it could bar American banks from buying Russian ruble bonds, or cut the country off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. The “nuclear option” would be an embargo on Russian energy exports.

The U.S. official said that option wasn’t on the table. Europe gets about one-third of its energy supplies from Russia, so any such embargo would deal a severe blow to already struggling European economies.
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