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

Nikolas Gvosdev asks [1] 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 [2]. 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?

27 Comments (Open | Close)

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

#1 Comment By Richard W. Bray On March 21, 2014 @ 11:46 am

It’s obviously about domestic politics. In Wastingtown, DC, tough=Serious. That’s why President Obama was ready to bomb Syria–a truly absurd and destructive plan–to prove that his Red Line would not be violated.

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On March 21, 2014 @ 11:55 am

These piddly sanctions are the liberal-internationalist Rocinante, which our fearless leader has mounted to the applause of his claque. Truth be told, Crimea is not going back to Ukraine, nor would it, even if a new plebiscite were held under the benign eye of Jimmy Carter or Ban-Ki Moon. Howd’ya like them windmills, Barack?

Still, less bad than pulling Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, or putting missiles into Romania. Sometimes one is grateful for ineffectual gestures.

#3 Comment By Tom Skene On March 21, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

It is not possible to impose sanctions on a super power !!
Sanctions are something the strong impose on the weak..as on Iraq/Iran/South Africa in the past…but with Russia..No…
Russian trade with China.and likely with Japan,India will be unaffected,and no Europeans want to lose that trade either

The biggest trading partner with Russian in the Euro zone is….. Germany… and there is no way they are going to imperill an economy which has survived the Euro meltdown
over a disfunctional state like the Ukraine

On the other hand the Russians have a trump card..their vast gas and oil supplies
Russian gas is essential now in much of central and eastern Europe…even a small ce rise would be critical to many economies in small countries like Hungary…but what is the alternative ,given the vast network of pipelines that carry that gas…like the NordStream pipeline that recently opened from St Petersburg running under the Baltic Sea to carry gas to Germany…
so the whole idea is doomed to failure
Obama should cut his losses and abandon the silly idea
Russia has regained the Crimea and that is that …

#4 Comment By Abraham On March 21, 2014 @ 12:05 pm


“I have just been watching the [Western] news and, frankly, I ended up laughing ….

Then, I saw that western credit rating agencies were about to lower the credit rating of Russia (which up to now had been BBB, iirr). Russia with a debt of 12% would be lowered, while the USA with a debt over 100% maintained a AAA. Who is going to take that seriously? But even better, the net result of that will be that it is going to be more expensive for Russians to get financing from western banks. Again, I wonder in total awe. Do these western financiers really not know that the issues of the high interest rates inside Russia (in comparison to the interest rates enjoyed by Russian companies with their corporate headquarters in the EU and US) was a major political issue which constantly opposed the “Eurasian sovereignists” to the “Atlantic integrationists”? (for an explanation of these terms see here, here and here). Think of it – what does Putin want? He wants a) a bigger share of investment in Russia coming from Russian banks, b) more companies incorporated in Russia c) a way to prevent Russian officials from having any assets abroad.

Frankly, Russia and Putin owe the western financiers and bureaucrats a big “thank you!!” for helping the Eurasian sovereignists in their struggle against the Atlantic integrationists…”

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 21, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

I agree with Mr Bray.

The sanctions are all about politics. “Something” has to be done. And since war is not feasible and is politically impossible, the only thing left, besides rhetoric, are sanctions of one kind or another.

It is not, as some would have it, that Obama and his Administration are simply too stupid or ignorant of strategic affairs to understand that, given the importance of Crimea to Russia, sanctions are unlikely to have much effect. Rather, they are walking a political line…do too little, and the hawks, neo con and lib internationalist, have too much ammo….do too much, and the realists and the businessmen and the peaceniks will start to squawk too loudly.

What the sanctions “achieve” are optimal poltical results, hopefully, for Obama and his team. If the polls (in combination with the opinions of the pundits and the other movers and shakers) show that Obama has taken the “Goldilocks” approach (ie not too hostile, not too appeasing, but “just right”), then he wins. If not, he readjusts.

#6 Comment By collin On March 21, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

My guess is the minor sanctions by the Obama administration is much more of a future signal than a move that will change behavior. The annexation of Crimea is already baked in at this point. Drenzer has shown sanctions don’t work but often it is the threat of sanctions that have more impact. So the sanction may work because Russian financial markets have taken a hit the last 30 days and the best day of Russian markets was when Putin announced no further military interest in the Ukraine.

If the goal is decrease the chances of continued military involvment in The Ukraine, then the sanctions are reasonable IMO.

#7 Comment By Mogden On March 21, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

Something must be done. The sanctions are something; therefore, they must be done.

#8 Comment By Ron On March 21, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

I agree with Collin. Sanctions cannot undo what is done. But they will impose a cost on some powerful forces in Russia.

To that extent, they may alter the Russian calculus for future adventures. Or is that implausible? It seems reasonable to me.

#9 Comment By Andrew On March 21, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

Gvozdev, rationalizing sanctions, misses one very important point that Russia was ready to just about any development when saw an opening for Crimea. As the title of another article here in TAC suggests quite correctly: A Coup in Crimea—or in Russia? There was a “coup” in Russia and the nature of this coup, at least for now, is lost on pundits. Russia simply doesn’t want anymore to pay exorbitant price for purely superficial association with Europe anymore. It is a very complex phenomenon but it seems that Russians abandoned idea of “integration” (whatever that means) into the European structures. In fact, as I noted before, there will be very many happy people in Russia if Russia will be kicked out of WTO, as an example. Nor does Russia see anymore any benefits with close (again–whatever that means) relations with the United States.

#10 Comment By Andrew On March 21, 2014 @ 2:47 pm


Frankly, Russia and Putin owe the western financiers and bureaucrats a big “thank you!!” for helping the Eurasian sovereignists in their struggle against the Atlantic integrationists…”

Very true. Sad for me, but very true nonetheless. Plus one very huge issue looms now, after Crimea, Russia can start talking to Japan about, say, couple of Kuril Islands being returned (in stages) and this time nobody in Russia will accuse Putin of “selling out”. I am pretty sure this is in the cards.

#11 Comment By Flavius On March 21, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

Sanctions in the context of what been transpiring in the Ukraine over the past 6 weeks do not even amount to an after tremor.
Of course they are meant for domestic political consumption — the administration saves face after miscalculating everything by counterfeiting competence for a distracted, uncommitted and reliably ignorant American public. Who even knows what the sanctions entail in detail, who will enforce them, how will they be enforced, who will monitor the enforcement,
how will the effectiveness be measured, who will be monitoring the monitors… etc.
The White House has punted the ball into the Bureaucracy. Goodbye ball.
The short version of what has just happened is yet another bollixed intervention in a place our experts know nothing about.

#12 Comment By Mikhail the History Grad Student On March 21, 2014 @ 6:53 pm

My understanding is that the sanctions are there to demonstrate that ‘actions have consequences’ and to discourage this sort of thing in the future. It won’t change Russia’s behavior in this case, but it makes these sorts of actions less enticing in general. Putin has decided that he is willing to suffer the consequences of taking Crimea. Fine, but that means there should be consequences to be suffered.

#13 Comment By Puller58 On March 21, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

For the White House, this is an attempt to keep the Carter Administration from being compared to it. For Congress, it’s about raking in donor class money. All else is moot.

#14 Comment By R Grewal On March 21, 2014 @ 11:21 pm

Daniel, you write: “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.” I think that’s wrong. The real purpose behind these sanctions is to prevent further Russian incursions into Ukraine. And in that they might succeed.

#15 Comment By Chris Atwood On March 21, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

I think it’s pretty clear to any one reading the news that all the executive decision makers (the White House, NATO, etc.) regard forcing Russia out of Crimea as impossible. Anders Fogh Rassmussen stated as much.

Again, policy makers seem pretty explicit that sanctions are intended to deter further movements into Ukraine and to reinforce the general international norm of non-dismemberment of neighboring states.

The deterrence part is why a number of big sticks have been left unused–their being held back for use in case Russia attempts to occupy or even annex additional parts of the Ukraine.

Given the situation I think the limited sanctions are about the best policy to be followed.

Of course I wish the US and EU had not gotten themselves in such a position of provoking the annexation of Crimea, which since it won’t be reversed, will palpably diminish the (already shaky) norm of respect for international law and non-dismemberment, but that’s unfortunately water under the bridge by now.

I hope, and am cautiously optimistic, that the White House recognizes that further NATO expansion would be dangerous and that a “Finlandized” Ukraine (generally pro-Western, but not in EU or NATO, and not in any Eurasian Union), sans Crimea, is the end state to shoot for.

In the end, after a decent interval, maybe the US can quietly change its maps to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, in return for Moscow recognizing Kosovo. Serbia and Ukraine can then move on.

Finland too had to just accept the results of Russian aggression in the Winter War, and managed to get over it.

But the big variable is, is Putin willing to put up with “Finlandization”? Or will he insist on a closer merger of Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy with Moscow’s? I don’t know. I don’t think any one knows. Maybe Putin doesn’t know himself.

#16 Comment By KHW On March 21, 2014 @ 11:55 pm

Wow @chrisatwood, i did not realize Moscow had not already recognized Kosovo. That is a terrific option that should be pursued, especially due to the fact Putin cited Kosovo in his presidential speech as an rationale and precedent for this action in Crimea.

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 22, 2014 @ 12:47 am

The long range plan according to Full Spectrum Dominance is either submission being agreed to by existing authorities of a country or failing that, regime change for resistant nations.

#18 Comment By Chris Atwood On March 22, 2014 @ 1:54 am

I realized this when a conference I was attending was originally supposed to take place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. But some of the attendees were academics from Kyrgyzstan, so they couldn’t get visa from Kosovo, since Kyrgyzstan was following Russia’s lead in not recognizing Kosovo passports. In the end the conference venue was changed to Istanbul. A shame, since I’d been to Istanbul and never been to Kyrgyzstan.

That was last spring and I don’t think the recognition situation’s changed.

#19 Comment By Chris Atwood On March 22, 2014 @ 1:56 am

Oops, KHW. Sorry!

#20 Comment By Chris Atwood On March 22, 2014 @ 6:03 am

Oops again, it should have read “But some of the attendees were academics from KOSOVO, so they couldn’t get visa from KYRGYZSTAN, since Kyrgyzstan was following Russia’s lead in not recognizing Kosovo passports.”

Anyway, I hope you got the idea. 🙁

#21 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 22, 2014 @ 10:34 am

Almost half the countries in the world have not formally recognized Kosovo’s independence, nor has the UN.

I agree with poster Chris Atwood’s suggestion re Finlandization. Frankly, in my view, this would have been a better option for the Baltic States and perhaps some other of the new NATO members as well. A belt of neutral States between Russia (and any “Eurasion Union” members) and NATO would be, in my opinion, the best result, so that NATO and Russia are not glaring at each other across a militarized, thousand mile frontier, with the possibility of war just a shot away. I think that, during the Cold War, tensions were eased on the parts of the “Iron Curtain” that faced Austria, Yugoslavia, and Finland. At one point, I believe Stalin proposed a reunified, neutral Germany. If this had been pursued, and had come to pass, NATO and the Warsaw Pact would have been almost totally separated (except, IIRC, the small border of Norway and the USSR, the USSR/Turkey border, and the Bulgaria/Greece border), and completely separated by the large reunited German state in central Europe.

#22 Comment By Andrew On March 22, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

@Chris Atwood

Maybe Putin doesn’t know himself.

It is not just Putin. While powerful, no doubt, figure, he doesn’t operate in vacuum. Seeing modern Russia as some kind of monarchy is ridiculous, other, much more important than just mere personalities, factors are at play here.

#23 Comment By Andrew On March 22, 2014 @ 5:03 pm


Ukraine as we know it is done. What is emerging now is not good.

#24 Comment By Ken Hoop On March 22, 2014 @ 5:18 pm



you might….maybe… convince me to trust Rand Paul’s integrity but never again his judgement.

#25 Comment By Andrew On March 22, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

@Ken Hoop

US political foreign policy “elite” is in a zugzwang. It cannot be changed.

#26 Comment By Georgina Davenport On March 22, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

Wrong as it may be, what Putin has done to Crimea, unless we are willing to go all in, this is one we just have to swallow….

There is no good option with Assad in Syria because he is backed by Putin. Now, why do we think we have any option at all with Putin himself?

The only option I see is when Russians themselves decide this is not the Russia they want. But, alas, the recent poll in Russia is showing Russians at large are as “old-Soviet” as Putin despite having suffered under the old regime.

#27 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 23, 2014 @ 11:11 am

One wonders, what sanctions could ever be applied to punish or change bad U.S. government behavior? Apparently none, which is a very fine thing, seeing that U.S. government policy everywhere and always, has been, is and forever more will be in the best interests of most of humanity at home and abroad. It takes a truly exceptional government of unparalleled self-conscious virtue to sit in judgement of, punish, reward or overthrow every other nation on the face of the earth. As venal as we know our politicians might be, they are just the textbook example of how private sin, as long as it is by American elites, produces public good. The newly installed alternate set of ruling oligarchs in the Ukraine will inevitably demonstrate this truism – that whatever their prior history, they become wholesome as soon as our elites back them.