Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Week In Russia: Sanctions, Seagal, and Sentsov

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with American movie actor Steven Seagal, who has just been named as a "special representative" for Russian-U.S. cultural links. (file photo)

Editor's Note: To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here. The next Week in Russia will appear on September 7.

Weeks after the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. officials announced a fresh volley of sanctions against Russia and warned that more may be on the way, while Moscow appointed action-movie actor Steven Seagal as a special envoy for cultural ties. In a Russian prison, hunger-striking Crimean filmmaker Oleh Sentsov's condition was called "catastrophic."

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Under Siege

Around the time of the Soviet breakup in 1991, Steven Seagal was a U.S. cultural ambassador to Russia of sorts. His biggest movies came out in that stretch and were among the many Hollywood films that were devoured by Russians as the collapsing Soviet Union opened up and all things Western flooded in -- good, bad, and ugly, as has often been pointed out.

Nearly three decades later, Russia has tapped Seagal to go in the opposite direction, appointing him as "Special Representative for Russia-U.S. Cultural Links, Cultural and Historical Heritage."

If the appointment was serious, however, Seagal -- a friend and vocal supporter of President Vladimir Putin, who granted him Russian citizenship in 2016 -- seems to be one of the few who sees it that way.

The 66-year-old star of movies such as Above The Law (1988), Hard To Kill (1990), and Under Siege (1992) tweeted that he was "deeply humbled" and added: "I hope we can strive for peace, harmony and positive results in the world."

From others, though, the appointment elicited a mix of mirth and criticism of both sides, with some referring to sexual misconduct allegations against Seagal and others to Russia's actions abroad and treatment of government critics at home.

Many Russia-watchers suggested the Foreign Ministry's move was more trolling than foreign policy – or perhaps the best example yet of how the line between the two has become increasingly blurred as ties between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated.

Moscow-based analyst Vladimir Frolov says that, for Russia, the appointment is nothing to smile about.

Instead, it is a symptom of "the loss of strategic control over the development of Russian policy toward the United States," he wrote. "It's as if it has been outsourced to regulars on Comedy Club" -- a Russian satire show -- "and is conducted exclusively in the form of trolling."

No Joke?

It is also one of several pieces of evidence, Frolov suggested, that the July 16 Trump -Putin summit has led "not to an improvement in relations but to their collapse."

"Instead of stabilization on some level, a new round of escalation has arisen," he wrote.

On August 8, the U.S. State Department announced new sanctions aimed at punishing Moscow for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England in March with a rare nerve agent known as Novichok, citing a 1991 law that mandates punitive measures when the government determines that a country has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or made "substantial preparations" to do so.

Investigators in green bio-hazard suits examine the site where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned in Salisbury, England, earlier this year.
Investigators in green bio-hazard suits examine the site where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned in Salisbury, England, earlier this year.

The initial tranche of the Skripal-related sanctions will enter into force in late August and targets export licenses for sensitive U.S. technologies and industrial equipment. While U.S. officials said it could cut off hundreds of dollars in future exports to Russia, experts said the effects could be limited because there are exemptions and many of the items it covers have already been barred.

The second tranche could have broader and more visible effects: NBC, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said punishments could include downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending the state airline Aeroflot's ability to fly to the United States, and cutting off nearly all exports and imports.

Those measures would kick in after 90 days if Moscow declines to provide "reliable assurances" that it will no longer use chemical weapons and to allow on-site inspections by the UN or other international observer groups.

Russia, which denies involvement in the poisoning and invariably bristles at demands from the United States, seems highly unlikely to comply.

The second tranche will also be a test for Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants Washington and Moscow to get along but has also stated that his administration has been tougher on Russia than any other.

'Sanctions Bill From Hell'

Peter Harris, who was a sanctions official under President Barack Obama, told The New York Times that the first tranche was "an important but moderate set of sanctions" while the second "could be among the most severe yet, but could also be quite modest, depending on where the Trump administration wants to go."

Citing an internal government document, the Times reported on August 8 that there could be more to come.

U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham (file photo)
U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham (file photo)

On August 2, a bipartisan group of senators introduced what Republican Senator Lindsay Graham called the "sanctions bill from hell."

"Our goal is to change the status quo and impose crushing sanctions and other measures against [President Vladimir] Putin's Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the U.S. electoral process, halts cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure, removes Russia from Ukraine, and ceases efforts to create chaos in Syria," Graham said.

Fightin' Words

The bill's fate is uncertain, but more pressure was piled on Russia when, hours before the announcement of the Skripal-related sanctions, the Russian daily Kommersant published what it said was the full text of the legislation – the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DAKSAA) of 2018.

The ruble fell sharply in a drop that appeared to be linked to the publication -- and then fell further on August 9, reaching its lowest level against the U.S. dollar since November 2016.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that, if proposed curbs on the operations of some state banks and their use of the dollar are imposed, it would be a "declaration of economic war" and Russia would retaliate "economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means."

'Elites Will Wipe Their Feet On Us': Russians Protest Pension Change
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:12 0:00

The prospect of additional sanctions -- as opposed to the promise of a potential easing of sanctions, which the Kremlin may have hoped would be the eventual outcome of the summit with Trump -- comes as Putin struggles with a plan to raise the retirement age. Pension-reform legislation has prompted persistent protests and damaged his popularity at home.

Hunger Strike

Meanwhile, on the list of things making Putin unpopular among Western governments and global human rights groups, one near the top is the plight of Oleh Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and opponent of Russia's 2014 takeover of Crimea -- his homeland.

Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year prison term in Russia's Far North after being convicted of terror-conspiracy charges he says were politically motivated, has been on a hunger strike since mid-May to demand that Russia release 64 Ukrainian citizens he considers political prisoners.

A photo of Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov that was issued on social media on August 9. Sentsov, has been on hunger strike in a Russian prison for more than 80 days and his health is said to be "catastrophically bad."
A photo of Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov that was issued on social media on August 9. Sentsov, has been on hunger strike in a Russian prison for more than 80 days and his health is said to be "catastrophically bad."

Sentsov's mother has asked Putin to pardon him, and there has long been talk of a swap that would free Sentsov and return him to Ukraine. But it hasn't happened, and relatives and rights activists now say he does not have much time left.

Things are "catastrophically bad," Sentsov's cousin Natalya Kaplan wrote on Facebook on August 8, citing what she said was a letter he sent through a lawyer. "He wrote that the end is near -- and he wasn't talking about his release."

  • 16x9 Image

    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

Blog Archive

The Week In Russia

If you're interested in Russia, you'll love Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia.

The editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk dissects some of the key developments over the previous week and offers some of the takeaways going forward.

Every Friday, direct to your in-box. Here are earlier editions.

Please submit your e-mail address below. The newsletter is, and always will be, free of charge.

You can find our privacy policy and terms of use here.