January 18, 2019

Russia Sanctions in 2019: Clarifying a Strategy


By Edward Fishman:

During the first two years of the Donald J. Trump administration, the central theme of U.S. sanctions policy toward Russia was preservation. President Trump entered office intending to “get along with Russia” and potentially relax sanctions, but the combined efforts of Congress and the president’s own advisors have resulted in the entrenchment of the Obama-era sanctions regime.

In light of Trump’s instinct to give Russia a free pass for its invasion of Ukraine and interference in the 2016 U.S. election, this is not a bad outcome. But in 2019 it will not be enough. Russia is again turning up the heat in Ukraine, seizing Ukrainian vessels and sailors in November and amassing tanks along the border late last year. And time is running short for Washington to put in place deterrence measures that make clear to Moscow that a replay of 2016 is unacceptable for the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

But the strategy underlying sanctions has drifted. In 2019, U.S. sanctions against Russia remain firmly in place, but their goals—and the policies through which they might achieve them—are hazier than ever. The objective for U.S. sanctions policy toward Russia this year should be to embed economic pressure into a more coherent strategy.

Even the toughest sanctions are like any other tool of statecraft—they are only as effective as the strategies they advance.

The first step is to determine the ends the sanctions are meant to bring about. The United States has a long wish list of the Kremlin, but Russia won’t change all of its ways in one fell swoop. To give sanctions a fighting chance at effectiveness, Washington must clarify what actions Moscow can take to relieve them and what costs Moscow will incur if its destructive behavior persists.

Take the election issue. Setting a goal of jettisoning Moscow entirely from Americans’ social media feeds and TV screens is unrealistic. A more actionable policy aim is to prevent Russia from executing a campaign to influence the outcome of the 2020 U.S. election, including through hacking the online accounts of political candidates and their staffs, leaking emails, or tampering with voter rolls and electoral infrastructure. The best way to do this is to outline clearly that Russian interference on the scale of 2016 will result in a raft of far more drastic sanctions—and put mechanisms in place that make such consequences essentially automatic.

Because the goal of U.S. strategy on Russian election meddling is deterrence, the sanctions policy should serve that purpose. That’s why in 2019 Congress should prioritize passing legislation that establishes a deterrence program--like the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act. More ambitious initiatives, such as a new transatlantic pact that provides for collective defense against election interference (à la NATO’s Article 5), will probably have to wait until Trump’s successor takes office.

On Ukraine, Washington wants not only to deter additional Russian aggression, but also to induce Russia to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Donbas and Crimea. Consequently, increasing pressure in an incremental fashion, in close coordination with European allies, makes more sense on this front. It will demonstrate with each passing day that as Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Moscow’s economic prospects will only worsen.

Trump administration officials boast about having imposed sanctions on more than 200 Russian individuals and companies since January 2017. And data shows that sanctions continue to exact a heavy toll on Russia’s economy, squeezing growth and scaring off foreign investors. But even the toughest sanctions are like any other tool of statecraft—they are only as effective as the strategies they advance. In 2017–18, the United States shored up the strength of sanctions against Russia. In 2019, Washington must move beyond codification and enact a strategy that enables sanctions to serve their purpose: altering Moscow’s actions.

Edward Fishman is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he focuses on the intersection of business, economics, and national security. His research interests include sanctions and the evolving ways states use economic power to advance their foreign policy interests. He is concurrently a fellow at the Atlantic Council, where he specializes in Europe and Russia.

Read more in the CNAS "U.S. Strategies to Counter Russia" commentary series.

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