Reacting to West’s sanctions, Russia upsets US

Announcing sanctions against Russian companies and individuals this week, the US president used the phrase in urging the Kremlin leader to do more than just ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

In a move that seemed designed to mock Obama’s choice of words, state television lingered on Putin striding with knowing confidence across a vast hall to deliver his verdict on the sanctions to reporters during a visit to neighbouring Belarus. Completely unruffled, Putin denied US charges that Russian troops are in Ukraine, blamed the crisis on the West and ratcheted up the war of words by warning that Moscow could bar some Western companies from involvement in Russia’s economy.

‘It was handing out those pies on the Maidan that paved the way to the crisis,’ he said, referring to a visit in which US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland offered food to anti-government protesters on Kiev’s main square in December. There is no overt sign that the asset freezes and travel bans imposed by the United States and European Union, reinforced by moves by Japan and Canada, are having any effect on Putin.

And Western Kremlin watchers remain deeply uneasy about forecasting just what the president might do next in Ukraine. He may think he has little reason to be the one to ‘blink’ first; although the annexation of the Crimea peninsula and the massing of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine have left East-West relations more tense than at any time since the Cold War, Putin’s popularity has soared in Russia.

A poll on Wednesday showed 82 percent of Russians support the former KGB spy’s actions, his highest rating since 2010. The sanctions were considered so mild in Russia that share prices rose in Moscow when they were announced. Moscow also regards the European Union and the United States as divided over how to handle the crisis, largely because the EU is heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas and has more trade with Moscow.


Some Russians say Putin’s position may even be hardening. ‘The sanctions have an impact on Putin but not necessarily the impact intended. The West wants to deter him, make him back down, split him from his entourage, set the ‘oligarchs’ against him, make the Russian people mistrust and topple him,’ said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center think-tank.

‘In my view it will not work. Sanctions could contribute to Russia being more of an adversary to the US - poorer, less connected to the world and less predictable.’ The West’s immediate aim is to ensure Russia does not invade eastern Ukraine to annex mainly Russian-speaking parts of the country where pro-Moscow separatists have seized control of administrative buildings.

Putin denies he has any intention of sending in troops, but the West says Russian forces are already operating in eastern Ukraine incognito and he has reserved the right to invade if Russian speakers or compatriots are under threat.
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