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What Is The U.S. Trying To Achieve With Sanctions?

Nikolas Gvosdev asks what U.S. policymakers want to achieve in their response to the annexation of Crimea:

If reversal is the goal, then the emphasis is on pressure and punitive measures; if the aim is a long-term settlement, then inducements are required. What should be recognized, however, is that these approaches cannot be pursued simultaneously.

Yet part of the hesitation in imposing stronger measures arises because another crucial question has not been definitively answered: If reversing Russia’s move in Crimea is determined to be the policy objective, what costs is the U.S. prepared to pay?

So far, the U.S. response has been trying to have things both ways: hawkish enough to fend off some domestic critics, but not so harsh that it immediately provokes a backlash. The second round of sanctions imposed by the administration was a stronger punishment than the sanctions imposed earlier this week, but it is presumably still not enough to force the desired change in Russian behavior. In any case, returning to the status quo ante seems extremely unlikely if not impossible at this point. Russian threats to undermine negotiations with Iran are being dismissed as bluster, but the argument that Russia is bluffing in this case isn’t very compelling. The administration would like us to think that it can penalize Russia without serious consequences for other U.S. priorities, but as it applies more penalties that becomes much less likely. The administration should have learned is that its past attempts to split the difference between two courses of action haven’t successful and have invited scorn from all sides.

One thing that the administration should have also learned by now is that it gets little or no credit from its critics for its hawkish measures, and most of its critics will continue to condemn its response as “weak” no matter what it does. It won’t matter to those critics how much the U.S. tries to punish Russia, because it will never be seen as good enough. Meanwhile, punitive measures can inflict damage on Russia, but there is no good reason to believe that sanctions will ever cause it to change its behavior in the way that Washington wants. Punitive measures have to be aimed at forcing Russia to give up Crimea, and if they’re not then they don’t serve much of a purpose other than riling Moscow and provoking retaliation. Since that goal seems entirely fanciful, what are these punitive measures supposed to be achieving?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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