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 in the E.U. 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 were attacked with a military-grade nerve agent, and that Russia was probably responsible.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has shrugged off the British allegations as “absolutely rude, unsubstantiated and baseless” and suggested the poisonings were a setup to discredit Moscow.
Russia doesn’t want to completely close off the possibility of dialogue 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.
“We take no pleasure in having to constantly criticize Russia,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “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.”
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.
Added sanctions would be resisted by E.U. members like Italy and Hungary, which have been pressing for easing of the existing sanctions imposed over Russia’s seizing of Crimea. Nor has the Trump administration imposed all the sanctions authorized by Congress.