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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 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 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 in expenditures. And Russia’s overall economy remains in recession, with the World Bank reporting 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.

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