Why I’m Starting a Campaign to Sanction More of Russia’s Elite

Throughout its history, Russia has used threats, intimidation and conquest to force its will on countries near and far.

After a 15-year pause in this muscle-flexing in the 1990s and early 2000s to deal with the challenges posed by the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin is back to its old tricks.

I have seen Russia’s aggression firsthand in my country — Ukraine — which has stood up bravely to Russia’s seizure of part of our territory and support for rebels trying to create an independent enclave in another part. That aggression led to my father being wounded in a battle against regular Russian troops in eastern Europe — a sacrifice that I am determined will not be in vain.

Russia’s record of aggression in the past decade speaks volumes about its intention to become a world power again at the expense of others. 

It invaded Georgia in 2008 to help pro-Russian separatists carve out independent enclaves on Georgian soil. It used hybrid-war tactics to seize Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. It dispatched tons of military equipment and thousands of troops to eastern Ukraine the same year to prevent the Ukrainian military from snuffing out the pro-Russian rebellion there.  

It used cyber warfare to interfere in the Brexit election in Britain and the U.S. presidential election in 2016. And it sent a large military force to Syria in 2015 to prevent rebels from ousting President Bashar al Assad’s despotic regime.  

If the United States and Europe responded to the Kremlin’s aggression with military force, it  would risk another world war, so they have used economic sanctions to penalize Russia’s bellicose behavior.

Since the Crimea seizure and the start of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, the West has levied several rounds of sanctions on Russian companies and individuals who have supported the country’s aggression.

Russian political leaders and oligarchs have publicly shrugged off the sanctions, but every time a new round has been levied, they have screamed — an indication that the sanctions have stung.

Underscoring this, Western news organizations have run many stories about influential Russians being panic-stricken about the possibility of being sanctioned next. 

Sanctions would prevent them from doing business with Western companies, including financial institutions whose capital they need. Sanctions would also humiliate them by preventing them from traveling to the West. And sanctions would subject their assets abroad — including hefty bank accounts and lavish homes and yachts — to being seized by the countries levying the sanctions.

In January of 2018, the United States appeared to be on the verge of sanctioning dozens more influential Russians. Congress had passed, and President Donald Trump had signed, legislation in August of 2017 authorizing a new round of sanctions to punish Russia for meddling in the U.S. presidential election of 2016.

A key question was who would be sanctioned. The U.S. government drew up a list of 210 Russians who were either close to President Vladimir Putin or profited from his policies. Some had already been sanctioned, but most had not. 

The expectation was that sanctions would be imposed on scores of influential people who had yet to be sanctioned. But inexplicably, in April of 2018, the United States sanctioned only seven oligarchs and 17 officials.

The decision to sanction such a small number of those on the list stunned countries that had suffered Russian aggression firsthand, including Ukraine.

Predictably, in the year since the decision was made, the Kremlin has shown no signs of softening its belligerent stance toward neighbors and the West.

I started the 2020 Sanctions Campaign to try to persuade U.S. officials to impose sanctions on a lot more of the 210 unsanctioned Russians on the list, and on some who are not on the list. 

It was the only way that I — a private citizen with no high-level government experience — could fight Russian aggression. 

The campaign’s initial goal will be to see 10 more influential Russians sanctioned. After that, it will seek sanctions on another 10, and so on. The hope is to have dozens more sanctioned before the end of 2020.

Sanctions 2020 will be a grassroots campaign of thousands of activists around the world. 

I am in my mid-20s. I have never held an important position in government, the business world or elsewhere. But I studied Russian aggression in my university bachelors and master’s programs, have seen what it has done to my country, and am determined to do something.

I’m passionate about the 2020 Sanctions Campaign partly because Russian aggression victimized someone close to me. My father was wounded in the Battle of Ilovaisk in eastern Ukraine in August 2014. 

I blame Russia rather than the pro-Russian separatists for his wounding because the Kremlin threw 7,000 regular Russian troops into the battle to ensure a separatist victory.

Russia also resorted to a despicable tactic to chop up the Ukrainian forces it had surrounded. After agreeing to give them safe passage out of the battle zone and, it opened fire on them when they were leaving unprotected.

Hundreds of Ukrainian troops died in the massacre. I am grateful my father made it out alive. 

The Russians’ treachery at Ilovaisk makes me even more resolved to pursue the Sanctions 2020 Campaign as a way of fighting back against Russian aggression.

Please join me in this campaign. 

As sanctions hurt the livelihoods and freedom of movement of more and more influential Russians, the pressure will mount for the Kremlin to stop its aggression. 

Like grassroots movements that have sparked important changes in other countries in recent years, thousands of us working hand and hand will ensure that the Sanctions 2020 Campaign makes a difference.

Anna Talimonchuk

Founder, Sanctions2020