Sanctions are a tricky business, especially when you apply them to high-ranking Kremlinites who, officially, make very little money and have no assets abroad.
And it's especially tricky when you don't target their wives and children who, mysteriously, are fabulously wealthy and have huge reserves of cash and real estate outside Russia. It's a nice message, but, in practice, it might be little more than that.
Take, for example, Vladislav Surkov, who this morning appeared on a list of White House sanctions. Surkov is an amazing character. The Western press has dubbed him the Kremlin's gray cardinal, but, man, he is so much more than that. An ad man who used to work for Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the go-go '90s, Surkov is the chief architect of Putinism. He reduced the elimination of democracy, civil society, and a free press to a handful of cynically named "technologies." (Given Russia's historical and cultural uniqueness, he wrote, it needs something called "sovereign democracy.") He invented the various ways to control, manipulate, marginalize, and co-opt Putin's political opponents, always with the deft touch of a chess master.
When it came to controlling the media, for example, he would simply convene the heads of the various channels every Friday to discuss themes for news coverage. The rest was done by the channels and editors and reporters themselves, who took the Soviet art of self-censorship to a brilliant new level. The opposition media he didn't touch; they were simply pushed to the margins. It created a veil of plausible deniability: See, we have a free media! Just look at all the nasty things the newspapers and blogs write about us. (How many people read them, on the other hand...)
The problem with Russia today, the reason it has been so much more aggressive both in its domestic and foreign policy, is that Surkov himself has been largely marginalized. The people calling the shots today don't have his exquisitely cynical elegance. They are the cudgels and maces to Surkov's delicate, evil scalpel.
Surkov also toyed with liberalism himself, allowing us to glimpse his carefully curated bohemian side: He used to write lyrics for the punk band Agatha Christie. He pseudonymously wrote an edgy, violent, sexual play about the '90s, then had it staged at the prestigious Moscow theater founded by Stanislavsky and Chekhov. He attended poetry readings. He famously had photos of Che Guevara and Tupac Shakur in his office. He was the ultimate jailor for the urban burgeois cultural class because he was just like them, but he chose to be on the side of those with the money and the power. And the Moscow chattering classes were obsessed with him, like any good inmate would. It was Stockholm Syndrome par excellence.
Just look at how Surkov responded to the news that he was being sanctioned by the U.S.
"I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It's a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."