February 28, 2022

The New Russian Sanctions Playbook

By Edward Fishman

After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week, U.S. President Joe Biden made good on his threat to impose “swift and severe consequences” on Russia’s economy. His administration has enacted a set of sanctions far stronger than those deployed in 2014, after Moscow’s last incursion into Ukraine. This latest package includes sanctions on Russian banks, debt and equity restrictions on state-owned enterprises, and unprecedented multilateral export controls designed to cut Russia’s high-tech imports in half.

These sanctions, coupled with similar measures from the European Union and other U.S. allies, will accelerate Russia’s isolation from the global economy. Such moves, however, are not a sign of policy success—despite the impressive transatlantic diplomacy. On the contrary, they represent a failure to deter Putin from invading Ukraine. It is possible that the threat of sanctions failed because Putin was determined to invade regardless of the cost. It is also possible that Putin underestimated the damage that Western sanctions would cause. The 2014 measures sent Russia’s economy into a tailspin, but the country stabilized after several years.

Just because threatening sanctions failed, however, doesn’t mean the United States should abandon them altogether.

Beyond exacting a price for military aggression and signaling solidarity with Ukrainians under fire, punitive economic measures can demonstrate to Russian elites and society that Putin’s imperial fantasies have costs. Declining living standards and diminishing prospects could, in turn, weaken Putin’s domestic base of support, siphoning attention and resources away from foreign policy.

Over the long term, economic penalties can also degrade Moscow’s ability to project power abroad. With Russia’s army already deployed across Ukraine—and little prospect for a dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy while Putin is in office—sanctions are now less a tool of behavioral change than one aimed at economic and technological attrition. Their primary objective is no longer to deter Moscow from taking particular actions but to drastically alter the trade and investment links between Russia and the United States and its allies—to the latter’s geopolitical advantage.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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