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The US struggles with sanctions paradox as Ukraine looks on

Measures must be tough enough to deter Putin from further action but not so harsh that they push Russia further into Ukraine.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – “What [are you] waiting for?” the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asked world leaders at the Munich Security Council on 19 February. He was demanding to know why they had not already imposed sanctions on Russia. “You’re telling me that it’s 100 per cent that the war will start in a couple of days. Then what [are you] waiting for?

“We don’t need your sanctions after the bombardment will happen, and after our country will be fired at, or after we will have no borders, or after we will have no economy, or parts of our country will be occupied. Why would we need those sanctions then?”

On 21 February, the Russian president Vladimir Putin recognised as independent the separatist territories of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). He sent troops into these regions, claiming they were there for “peacekeeping duties”. The leaders of these self-proclaimed republics claim territory that goes beyond what they now control – into areas still held by the Ukrainian government. This has raised fears that Putin is preparing for a still more aggressive military incursion.

And on 22 February, the US president Joe Biden finally heeded Zelensky’s call. Sort of.

Biden did announce sanctions on Russia. The US will sanction VEB bank and Russia’s “military bank”, Promsvyazbank. Neither of these is the largest bank in Russia. Everybody involved – including Biden, Putin and Zelensky – knows this. Senior administration officials have suggested that other, larger Russian banks will be sanctioned if the invasion continues.

The US is sanctioning Russia’s sovereign debt, which means that Russia cannot raise money from the West or trade new debt in American, or European, markets. (That America and the European Union apparently coordinated on this is also no small feat.) But the US did not, for example, go ahead with putting in place technological export controls; the United States has reportedly had talks with Asian partners – Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, all of which produce semiconductors and computer chips – to get them on board with tight export controls. And America has announced sanctions on some Russian elites in Putin’s inner circle, but others went unscathed.

In his remarks on 22 February, Biden implied that he expected Russia to forge ahead with its invasion, noting that it had moved blood banks up with its forces. “You don’t need blood,” he said, “unless you plan on starting a war.”

The Biden administration, then, did not put in place every sanction or restriction it could. Nor did the Senate. To date it has passed a non-binding resolution on Ukraine – a far cry from the “mother of all sanctions” promised by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Individual senators have instead encouraged the Biden administration to impose sanctions. Biden closed his speech by saying that he hoped diplomacy would prevail, but later that day the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, cancelled plans to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on 24 February.

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But if Biden believes that Putin is set on invading, Zelensky’s question still holds. What is he waiting for? And why?

“​​I think the real question we’re seeing some answers to is whether sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, act as a deterrent to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine,” said Daniel Tannebaum, partner and global head of sanctions at Oliver Wyman, a management consultancy. “Thus far, the threats of sanctions also haven’t seemed to halt the actions of Putin and his military. The Putin government is looking for a justification of an incursion.”

Relatedly, putting sanctions on too aggressively and too early could have the opposite of the intended effect “and give Putin the justification of aggression that he was looking for”, said Tannebaum. On the other hand, “what good are the sanctions once Russia has already taken parts of Ukraine?”

The current situation adds an even odder wrinkle: what is the appropriate level of severity of sanctions to follow what Biden dubbed the “beginning” of an invasion – when the US hopes to stave off further moves?

“They have to leave themselves room for escalation,” Brian O’Toole, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. The point of these first sanctions is to “try to provide enough deterrent to keep them from going on.

“Even if it’s a 5 per cent chance you have a deterrent effect, that’s an outside shot, but it’s worth it rather than just making it a fait accompli,” said O’Toole, who was senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control in President Barack Obama’s administration.

This is the paradox for America. The sanctions need to be tough enough to convince Russia – and, specifically, to convince Putin – that future measures could be truly debilitating and are worth de-escalation, but not so harsh that they push Russia further into Ukraine. And this dance needs to be completed even if Biden thinks that, in all likelihood, Russia will march deeper into Ukraine, because a 5 per cent chance of saving lives is still more than no lives at all.

And so the United States waits for Russia. And Ukraine, meanwhile, is left waiting for the United States, and the European Union, and the United Kingdom. And for Russia, too.

[See also: Putin has yet to show his hand on Ukraine]

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