There are several important reasons why the Kremlin’s creation of a blacklist could backfire and further strain diplomatic relations between Russia and the EU.

European Council President Donald Tusk listens to questions during a media conference at an EU summit in Brusselst. Photo: AP

 For a different take read: "The saga over the Kremlin blacklist is far from over"

Moscow’s decision to put 89 European leaders on a blacklist reflects a certain understandable logic: If the Americans can blacklist Russian officials to protest the Magnitsky case, then why shouldn’t Russia be able to do the same? But at the same time, this action is almost certain to be counterproductive, not only because it is directed against Europe rather than the U.S., but also because it represents a blunt instrument rather than a surgical one and thus may generate more opposition to Moscow in Europe than would otherwise be the case.

The list, which has been leaked, published in Finland but not yet been officially released, shows that the Kremlin has put political figures from 17 of the 28 EU member countries on the blacklist, with the largest number of figures coming from the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, Poland and Romania, and none at all from the 11 others  Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, Luxemburg and Ireland.

That would appear to reflect the Kremlin’s desire to split Europe between the Euro-Atlanticist and frontline countries, on the one hand, and the southern and central continental ones on the other. But Moscow has watered down that effect to a certain extent by including people from across the political spectrum and thus sending a message that it is prepared to raise the stakes in its current standoff with the West over Ukraine.

Given the increasing integration of the European Union, targeting people in this way is almost certain to have exactly the opposite result on the continent to the one Moscow intends. To a large extent, this problem from Moscow’s point of view reflects three more general problems with such blacklists.

First, they are inevitably selective in ways that undercut their effectiveness given that few countries will blacklist the incumbent leaders of even their opponents lest that make negotiations difficult or impossible. Thus, it is not surprising that the Russian blacklist includes mostly former officials rather than current ones.

Second, as the current situation shows, ever more countries are likely to announce blacklists if any one country does it, not only to suggest an equality of status but also to create new opportunities for negotiations about how to get some people off the lists. While provoking talks of any kind may be useful diplomatically, forcing negotiations on such issues inevitably distracts attention from more serious issues.

And third, precisely because these lists are seldom announced and proclaimed, they have a penumbra that is far larger than one might expect. When the U.S. imposed Magnitsky list sanctions on Russian officials, few people knew exactly who was involved and thus often were inclined to view this as a kind of sanction against Russia as such. Now, having countered with sanctions of its own while refusing to publish the list, Moscow has created a similar and, if possible, more serious problem for itself.

Issuing such blacklists is always tempting, but as the current case shows, it is a weapon that can end by coming back to harm those who use it even more than those it is nominally directed against. All the more so if officials who are being blacklisted have no intention of travelling to the country that has put them on its watch list.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.