Russia holds $132 billion of U.S. Treasury securities. That's a big number, and it could be sold in the event of financial warfare. That won't kill the United States. But it will undoubtedly cause interest rates to rise.
Would Putin spend it all? Who knows? His central bank just spent $50 billion to defend a sinking ruble, which is off about 10 percent year to date. But that still leaves about $400 billion in foreign-exchange reserves that could be called upon to defend the Russian homeland in an emergency.
But as I noted, the initial rounds of sanctions seem to be working.
Just this week, after he was put on the U.S. sanction list, Putin pal Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire Russian oil tycoon, cut and ran by selling his 43 percent share in the oil-trading Gunvor Group. Putin is accused of being an investor in that group and of having access to its funds. Other Putin billionaire cronies hit by the Obama sanctions include Vladimir Yakunin, the chairman of state-owned Russian Railways, and Yuri Kovalchuk, allegedly Putin's personal banker.
And the favorite bank of these folks, Bank Rossiya, has been sanctioned, too. Foreigners probably won't do business with them. Visa and MasterCard are pulling out of Rossiya. And reports are that Rosneft, the big state-owned oil company, has been delisted on the London stock exchange. If true, that would be a significant development.
Undoubtedly, future Obama sanctions will go after all the big oligarchs. For example, oligarchs who own U.S. basketball teams, Pennsylvania coal mines and steel mills, the Lukoil chain of U.S. gas stations and various high-priced condominiums in New York. Russian oligarch property in Europe is even greater, including football clubs, large industrial complexes and airlines. And bank accounts. (Hat tip to Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal.)
Will Britain come on board in a big way? In recent years, Russia has raised $400 billion in stocks and bonds on the London stock exchange. Roughly 70 Russian companies are traded as depository receipts, and numerous IPO's have been sold there. So if Britain closed its financial markets and its banks to Russia, the blow would be huge. Huge. The question is, will Prime Minister Cameron do it?