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Think Before Sanctioning Russia

Between the cyberattacks it allegedly directed, its continued military support for the Assad regime in Syria, its deployment of nuclear-capable missiles on NATO’s eastern border, and its obstruction in the UN Security Council, Russia has gotten a lot of people in Washington angry—and justifiably so. It is a certainty that once the new administration is settled in and the new Congress gets down to business, sanctions bills targeting Moscow’s economy will be introduced [1] and debated. They will likely pass.

An important question, however, is whether more sanctions will help or hurt a U.S.-Russia relationship that has plunged deeper and deeper into the sewer over the past two years. For Russia hawks in Washington and Western Europe, that seems to be precisely the objective: Moscow is acting badly and making peaceful relations harder to attain, so Russia’s ties with the West ought to suffer. But retribution shouldn’t be the sole objective here.

In some situations, sanctions work; in others, they fail or even backfire. Multilateral sanctions on Iran, to take one example, slashed Tehran’s oil exports so severely and limited access to its foreign-exchange reserves to such an extent that the country’s previously uncooperative and radical government decided to negotiate over its nuclear program. (Whether the deal that resulted from those talks was strong enough is a matter of dispute.) Sanctions on North Korea, by contrast, haven’t served the international community particularly well: despite the passing of one of the most comprehensive and stringent sanctions regimes in history, Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities have if anything improved.

The current U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia are somewhere in between. Moscow has found it more difficult to acquire credit, dual-use energy technology, and Western investment in its energy sector in the two years since those sanctions were enacted. Russia has been forced to dip into its foreign-exchange reserves, which dwindled to $323.6 billion [2] last month. (It had $476.2 billion on hand in November 2012.) The country is preparing for budget cuts in the next fiscal year that could include defense, which budget documents report will suffer a 27 percent decline [3] in expenditures. And Russia’s overall economy remains in recession, with the World Bank reporting [4] a 0.4 percent contraction in GDP in the third quarter.  

And yet despite this economic downturn, the sanctions have yet to force President Putin to change his outlook on Ukraine. Russian military personnel are still on Ukrainian soil, pro-Russian separatists continue to flout the de-escalation agreement, and the Russian Federation retains control of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

Before members of Congress rush to pass more economic sanctions on Russia, they should ask themselves what exactly the sanctions might accomplish and whether punishment is worth the potentially enormous cost of making every other policy area that involves the Russians more confrontational.

Russia may be challenging the liberal international order in its near-abroad, but it also happens to sit on the Security Council, and therefore it has the power to unilaterally make the disputes around the world more difficult to resolve: nuclear non-proliferation, the Syrian civil war, counterterrorism, implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name a few.

A Trump administration that aims to launch a new multilateral diplomatic initiative will inevitably need the Russians at the table. And as hard as it is to believe that the Russian Air Force could do more damage in Syria, Moscow has the capacity to accelerate its air sorties—further radicalizing whatever moderate opposition in Syria is left.

Moscow could respond to additional sanctions by undermining diplomacy in any of the areas listed above. And to put it bluntly, stronger economic sanctions are unlikely to get the Russians to cower in Ukraine—a country that is clearly considers a core national-security interest and crucial for its power-projection capabilities.

None of this is to lobby against the passing of more sanctions on Russia next year. Cyberhacking is a 21st-century form of warfare, and the U.S. intelligence community appears relatively confident that the Kremlin ordered the intrusion into the databases of America’s major political parties.

But as the last decade has illustrated time and again, the U.S. usually suffers when policies are formulated without weighing all the costs and risks that could conceivably result. Restraint in the face of pressure is just as critical to U.S. national security as military and diplomatic power.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Think Before Sanctioning Russia"

#1 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On January 4, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

“And as hard as it is to believe that the Russian Air Force could do more damage in Syria, Moscow has the capacity to accelerate its air sorties—further radicalizing whatever moderate opposition in Syria is left.”

Would that be Al Qaeda or ISIS? I get very confused between all these moderates in Syria.

#2 Comment By John Gruskos On January 5, 2017 @ 10:12 am

We should thank Russia for fighting against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, we should thank WikiLeaks and the anonymous disaffected Democrat who helped them expose the rottenness of the Clinton Democrats, and we should end all sanctions, which only hurt American exporters and American workers.

#3 Comment By Fred Bowman On January 5, 2017 @ 10:44 am

Truth be told the US would be much better off working with Russia than meddling in affairs that are truly are important to Russia. Of America’s imperialists mindset won’t allow that to happen. I would hope that a Trump administration would bring about some understanding between the US and Russia. But at the same time worry about the number of hawks that Trump is wanting to put in key positions scuttling such an understanding.

#4 Comment By AJ On January 5, 2017 @ 11:23 am

the U.S. intelligence community appears relatively confident that the Kremlin ordered the intrusion into the databases of America’s major political parties.

On one side, we have the alleged hacking of America’s major political parties by the Russians, on the other side we have the CIA involvement in the coup that placed the current government in Kiev with the State Department hand-picking the leadership. Yats is the guy.

#5 Comment By Seraphim On January 5, 2017 @ 11:32 am

On Syria, here is Nassim Taleb’s take, and note that he is prescinding from his own family grudges against the Assad family to say it:

[5]

#6 Comment By Will Harrington On January 5, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

Sorry, couldn’t get past the first paragraph. Somehow it is wrong for Russia to base missiles in Russia because Nato has expanded to Russia’s border. It really isn’t that I think Putin is a great and righteousleader, it’s really just that I am sick and tired of my country’s hypocricy and complete inability to understand how Russia could possibly be angry, and even scared, of the provacative crap that we keep doing.

#7 Comment By Chris Chuba On January 5, 2017 @ 3:36 pm

“Multilateral sanctions on Iran, to take one example, slashed Tehran’s oil exports so severely and limited access to its foreign-exchange reserves to such an extent that the country’s previously uncooperative and radical government decided to negotiate over its nuclear program.

The funny thing about that story. Iran walked away when we demanded that Iran stop all of its nuclear enrichment because we wanted them to dismantle all of their nuclear infrastructure. Iran thumbed their nose at us and then eventually everyone signed an agreement that acknowledged that Iran can do their own enrichment. So was it Iran that was unwilling to negotiate or were our original demands so unreasonable that they were unwilling to comply?

#8 Comment By c matt On January 5, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

When you start off a story with “people in Washington” are “justified,” you can rest assured that your credibility is lower than negative interest rates.

#9 Comment By SDS On January 5, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

I agree with and can’t add anything to what’s already been said above-

#10 Comment By Interguru On January 6, 2017 @ 11:40 am

Not that we shouldn’t be concerned about Russian meddling in our election, but it’s hard to be outraged. In the last century the US interfered in 72 elections and overthrew at least two democratically elected governments, Iran and Chili

[6]

#11 Comment By JEinCA On January 7, 2017 @ 3:38 am

I love the commenters at TAC. Such a breath of fresh air from dittoheads and neocon blowhards at every other supposedly conservative media venue. Russia is not our enemy. I will even venture to say China and Iran are not our enemies. Our enemies are within and they are the bipartisan globalist shills who sold out our national sovereignty, our economic sovereignty and gutted our Constitution to suit the needs of their globalist handlers. They are the one’s trying to delegitimize our President Elect before he takes office.

#12 Comment By EstonianWolf On January 7, 2017 @ 7:30 am

I would look at the issue from a different angle. What the Western media has failed to understand is the extreme fragility of Russia itself. Putin’s system is an upside down pyramid that is held together by a single person. Take that one person away, and the whole structure comes crashing down with completely unforeseeable results. China has a much less fragile system, leave alone the Western democracies – Trump has proved that the democracy works very well.

The defining moment of crash is closer every day, as Putin’s economic policies have been nothing short of a disaster: Russia’s GDP and Russians’ living standards have not grown for the last ten years, average salary today is way below China’s and so on.

However, a crash in Russia is in nobody’s interest. While Putin and his FSB crew hate the West, they are very much dependent on it at the same time: their assets are in the West, their kids go to Western schools and universities. They don’t want a direct conflict between Russia and Western core. Yet there are much more aggressive power factions in Russia, especially in military circles that are not bound to the West by their fortunes and could be a real danger to anyone on Earth. They are very seriously (and openly!) discussing an all-out war against Ukraine, bombing Kiev off the map like Aleppo – with zero regard to the fact that most Russians have relatives in Ukraine and vice versa. If they would bomb Kiev, they would bomb anything in Europe and try out direct conflict with US as well.

Therefore it may make sense for the West to actually support Putin as a moderate force (as funny as it sounds), because the alternative is likely much worse.

#13 Comment By cka2nd On January 7, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

“Between the cyberattacks it allegedly directed, its continued military support for the Assad regime in Syria, its deployment of nuclear-capable missiles on NATO’s eastern border, and its obstruction in the UN Security Council, Russia has gotten a lot of people in Washington angry—and justifiably so.”

“And justifiably so!?!” Have I wandered over to the Washington Post Op-Ed page? National Review? The American Standard? The WSJ Editorial Page? Any anger in Washington is only justifiable if one is an unreconstructed American imperialist, whether neo-con, “realist” or liberal/humanitarian interventionist.

#14 Comment By Ragnvaldr On January 8, 2017 @ 6:34 pm

Anger at Moscow justified?

Let’s see here, Russia has 2 foreign military bases. The US has over 200?

Exactly who is the aggressor there?

#15 Comment By John S On January 9, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

Doesn’t the Iran example you provide suggest that we should increase sanctions?

#16 Comment By Marcus Aurelius On January 15, 2017 @ 12:54 am

Congratulations !! US gov. debt is $19.3 Trillion

#17 Comment By Mounty On January 28, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

The sanctions have helped Russia to get stronger. They have their own credit card system now. It is cheaper than Visa/Mastercard and could expand internationally. They have their own Exchange for oil and gas (SPIMEX), which one day could become the largest in the world. Then oil and gas will not be traded in USD anymore.