* Latest US sanctions hit 20 Russians
* Those targeted say they are fully behind Putin
* Russians united in nationalist fervour over Crimea
* Economy key to long-term mood
By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW, March 21 Far from dividing Vladimir
Putin's inner circle, U.S. sanctions are drawing them ever
closer together behind the former KGB spy and his drive to
create a Great Russia.
Revelling in the triumph of Russia reclaiming lost lands,
many in the political and business elite seem willing to make
sacrifices to give full rein to an "imperialist consciousness"
and a nationalism that has long lain dormant.
But once the euphoria fades, the hardcore group may find
their business allies less willing to help win over a population
facing economic decline, and may face a stark decision - resort
to repression or embark on another campaign to rally the troops.
As Putin deadpanned at a meeting of his security council
that he would have to steer clear of those on a U.S. sanctions
blacklist, many of the targeted officials and businessmen said
they would wear their punishment as a badge of pride.
"It is clear they strike at those who have some worth," said
Russian Railways boss Vladimir Yakunin, one of 20 officials and
businessmen to be hit by visa bans and asset freezes in a second
round of sanctions imposed by Washington.
"On the one hand I am in good company. I cannot hide that I
felt flattered. All the people on the list are notable people,
people who have done a lot for Russia," he wrote in his blog,
adding he also could not understand the West's "irrationality".
His words chimed with a chorus of mockery and derision from
the dozens of Russians the United States and European Union have
penalised over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
The bravado runs deep, tapping a well of anger over years of
perceived slights and hypocrisy by Western nations happy to
invade nations to protect human rights and democracy and blind
to the strategic interests of others.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on the Russian elite, said
while the United States saw its mission as spreading goodwill,
Russia had its own mission - "for the ideology of Great Russia".
"And for that, our politicians, like yours, are ready to
sacrifice a lot, our mission means so much to us," said
Kryshtanovskaya, who mixes closely with the political elite
despite leaving Putin's ruling United Russia party in 2012.
After the chaos of the 1990s following the Soviet Union's
collapse, taking with it the country's superpower status, Putin
has tried to restore some of the country's might, benefiting
from high oil prices to give Russia economic clout.
But with slowing growth exposing an overwhelming dependency
on energy, Putin has, by design or just driven by the momentum
of events, pursued an increasingly conservative take, regularly
using a dissolute West as a comparison to a moral Russia.
Kryshtanovskaya said the nationalism had wide support.
"Now there is unity. Ordinary people who really weren't that
bothered about Crimea before are now supporting it, supporting
the feeling of strength, the feeling that Russia is driving
things, Russia is governing, that Russia is feared, that Russia
is respected, that we are changing the agenda."
Not being on board could be seen as treacherous.
One member of the elite close to the Kremlin said that if he
was subjected to a visa ban to the United States, he would
readily sacrifice seeing his son studying there.
"He can always come back," he said.
The business elite has potentially much more to lose.
Gennady Timchenko, a longtime acquaintance of the Russian
leader, sold his stake in the world's No. 4 oil trading company
Gunvor a day before his name was added to the sanctions list.
For others with companies registered abroad at arm's length
from the Kremlin, the patriotic fervour has also become
uncomfortable. Putin told company bosses on Thursday to bring
their assets home to help Russia survive any future sanctions
and the economic downturn.
HANGOVER TO COME?
Some foreign officials suggest business leaders were not
consulted over the hawkish turn of the past month; the result,
they say, of pressure on Putin from hardline conservatives not
to appear weak.
"Putin is acting together with a very small circle, all of
them former KGB agents," said a senior German security source,
suggesting they were dissatisfied with Putin's handling of the
Ukraine crisis and his gamble on President Viktor Yanukovich,
who was deposed last month.
"Within this group, Putin is under pressure - because he was
unable to prevent Ukraine drifting west and because he bet on a
weak Yanukovich, who should have crushed the Maidan protests
But no one doubts he is the ultimate arbiter, and at the
security council meeting he offered no suggestion that he was
regretting going head-to-head with the West over Ukraine.
Instead he wryly told his officials he would open a bank
account with St Petersburg's sanctions-hit Bank Rossiya, which
is chaired and partly-owned by media baron Yuri Kovalchuk, who
Putin has known since the early 1990s.
"I will transfer my wages there," he said.
It is the kind of posture that has buoyed his popularity
ratings, and cemented support among the elite. But some wonder
how long the party can last.
"Such events create 'the champagne effect' - a rapid, but
short-lived high. Depending on the dose, either the foam settles
or you get a hangover," said Alexander Rubtsov at the Institute
of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"There are two simple ways out of it: either tighten the
screws and so be ready to crush mass protests with repression or
arrange new conquests."
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Alexei Anishchuk
in Moscow and Noah Barkin in Berlin,; Editing by Timothy
Heritage and Philippa Fletcher)