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For US sanctions on Russia to work, it must be clear what they are meant to achieve

Sanctions have consequences – not just for the target, but for the country that imposes them as well.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – With Russian troops – still – amassed on Ukraine’s border, and the US – still – warning that Russia may invade, talk in Washington, DC has turned to what, exactly, is to be done about it.

There are a few schools of thought. Some argue that hitting the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle with sanctions would be most effective, and there are reports that the Joe Biden administration is preparing to do just that. But those thought close to Putin have been sanctioned before, and some believe that this has only made oligarchs more dependent on, and thus closer to, Putin.

Meanwhile, in Congress, the Senate foreign relations committee chairman, Bob Menendez, has warned that the “mother of all sanctions” is being prepared.

Congress has imposed dramatic sanctions in the past, but not without consequence: for example, in 2017, Congress passed and then-president Donald Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or Caatsa. But even America’s allies and partners worried that the act painted with too broad a brush. Caatsa has also caused rifts in partnerships the US is trying to pursue: India, for example, is going ahead with its purchase of the Russian S400 missile defence system. Should America not waive sanctions, it would almost certainly rupture a relationship that Washington has tried to bolster to counter China. 

Meanwhile, since illegally annexing Crimea from Ukraine and facing Western sanction in 2014, Russia has worked to make its economy more resilient, stockpiling foreign currency and diversifying the type of currency in the stockpile. Europe, on the other hand, has not worked to make itself less dependent on Russian gas – a fact that Russia is all too aware of and is ready to leverage.

[See also: Ukraine crisis forces Biden to rethink foreign policy goals]

None of this means that sanctions on Russia “won’t work”. The question is what they are intended to do. If the aim is to hurt some people in Russia, they can almost certainly do that. Biden, for example, has threatened blocking sanctions, keeping Russian banks from engaging in dollar-based transactions.

But will that threat keep Russia from invading Ukraine? And if Russia does invade Ukraine, and the sanctions do not work specifically to make Russia leave – what then?

Menendez said the sanctions would be “crippling to their economy, meaningful in terms of consequences to the average Russian in their accounts and pensions”. But since, as Felix Light wrote for the New Statesman, average Russians aren’t the ones clamouring for war, it is unclear whether that will help matters more than it hurts. 

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin preparing for war?]

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