Over the past week, the main topic discussed on Russian TV talk shows has been the looming US sanctions that may or may not come. Grimly cheerful talk show hosts and equally emotional guests have been insisting day after day that they really don’t care about sanctions.
When the White House finally published a list of Russians tapped for possible sanctions – dubbed the Kremlin report – the document dumbfounded everyone. This was not a list of key politicians and businessmen from Russian President Putin’s inner circle; instead, the report detailed 210 names selected, it seems, in rather random fashion.
Instead of listing only the oligarchs closest to Vladimir Putin, the report basically contains a roster of Russia’s richest people, much like the one in Forbes magazine (a Treasury Department official admitted they used Forbes to put together the report).
Along with people close to the Kremlin, the report contains businessmen like Mikhail Prokhorov (who funds independent media outlets), Arkady Volozh (founder of the Yandex search engine), Dmitry Kamenshchik (owner of Moscow Domodedovo Airport, currently under threat of confiscation by Russian authorities because of an ongoing criminal court case), Sergey Galitsky (owner of Russia’s largest retailer) and others. At the same time, people who are alleged to be keepers of “Putin’s purse”, such as Sergei Roldugin and Petr Kolbin, were not on that list.
The list of bureaucrats in the report was equally haphazard: it comprised the names of the members of the presidential administration and cabinet. There are no governors or heads of federal republics on this roster, even though undoubtedly someone like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is much more influential within the system than Minister of Development of the Far East Alexander Galushka (I admit with shame that I only learned of his existence from the “Kremlin report”).
But, more importantly, the report will not lead to any formal action against the people it names. US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said that “appropriate action” would be taken based on a more detailed classified version of the report, but he did not elaborate.
At the same time, the Treasury Department website says clearly: “[T]he inclusion of individuals or entities in this report, its appendices, or its classified annex does not, in and of itself, imply, give rise to, or create any restrictions, prohibitions, or limitations on dealings with such persons by either US or foreign persons”. So, who should we believe?
The release of the report produced equal amounts of indignation in the Kremlin and within the opposition. Funnily enough, both sides criticised the report over the same issues: lack of clarity over the criteria for inclusion and consequences for people on the list. The report itself looks as if, on the morning of January 29, Trump suddenly remembered: “Oh sh**, the deadline for the report is today. Where do we get a list of Russian billionaires from?”
A number of theories explaining the bizarreness of the report have emerged since its release. The least conspiratorial one (which is worthy of a chapter in the book “Fire and Fury”) suggests that Trump and his political circle weren’t interested in putting together the report that Congress had demanded. They did not have the expertise to delve into the intricacies of the Russian autocracy, so they handed in a report that satisfied the minimum requirements but did not provide much substance.
The second theory (put forward by some pro-Putin and some opposition conspiracy theorists) concludes that the report indicates Trump’s reluctance to damage relations with Putin. If so, the goal has been achieved: Russian state media continues to avoid criticising the US president. Since no one in Putin’s closest circle is under direct threat, the only diplomatic consequence of the report was the refusal of State Duma deputies to attend the National Prayer Breakfast organised by the White House (their demonstrative refusal didn’t really register in the US).
The third theory – and indeed the most conspiratorial one – claims that Trump and the US Congress are in fact playing “good cop, bad cop”. Trump allegedly made the unclassified part of the report relatively innocent-looking so that he could preserve relations with Putin; but, in the classified part, he fulfilled the demands of Congress. Meanwhile, the Democrats chastised him for it publicly, playing the “bad cop” role.
So now Congress will be responsible for imposing sanctions, which is good for everyone: Trump (who doesn’t have to get his hands dirty), the congressmen (who will take all the credit in front of the American public) and even Putin (who has something to show his Russian electorate as proof that he retains some influence over the US president).
In the end, it’s not that important which theory is closer to the truth because in any case, Congress will be the one making the decision. Lobbyists for the Russian oligarchs and bureaucrats knew this all along, so they’ve been going about their work for some time now.
But the “Russian file” could be a tricky one to handle – all lobbyists have to report their activities, and if they hide them, they could face the same problems that political consultant and former Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is facing. Congressmen also surely understand that any perception of cooperation with Russian lobbyists could invite investigations into collusion.
The task Congress has, to put together another set of sanctions, is not a simple one. We know very little about the true effect of sanctions on authoritarian regimes. No one knows, for example, what would happen if all 210 names mentioned in the report end up on the sanctions list and their assets are frozen. It might signal to Russian businessmen that keeping a distance from the Russian president is not enough and that they should undertake steps to change the system. Or it might push them to be even more loyal to Putin, forced to end their relations with the West.
What would happen if sanctions destroy the Russian economy: Would this trigger a revolution or the opposite – authoritarianism would grow, turning Russia into another Turkmenistan or North Korea?
How would the Russian population perceive these sanctions: would they undermine Putin’s reputation or improve it?
At this time, only one thing seems clear: Our knowledge of social dynamics is not enough to predict the reaction to changing circumstances of the complex organism that is Russian society. The only thing we can do is wait and observe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.