What Is the Purpose of U.S. Sanctions on Russia?
On September 20, Washington's announced new sanctions on 33 Russian individuals or entities for election interference. In addition, America’s November deadline is approaching for Russia to meet Washington’s demands for international inspections and guarantees that Moscow will never use chemical weapons again. Assistant Secretary of State Manisha Singh warned during testimony to Congress on September 13, that without compliance a “severe” “second tranche of sanctions” will be imposed. It is not clear what sanctions are meant to accomplish or whether they are working.
For instance, the September 20 sanctions were a part of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). They are meant “to impose costs on Russia in response to its interference in the United States election process, its unacceptable behavior in eastern Ukraine, and other malign activities.” Also, the November deadline and demands were made on August 27 after Russia used the Novichok nerve agent in an attempted assassination of former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in the United Kingdom. In that case, U.S. anti-biochemical weapons law required a response.
But sanctions alone are not a strategy, and they may not work well. For example, too little pain will be ineffective; too much could cause dramatic escalation. America’s first sanctions were imposed in July 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. These caused a Russian recession, which reached its height in March 2014, and Russia's Central stopped propping up the ruble in December 2014.
According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, Russia's real GDP eked out 1.38 percent net growth since sanctions were enacted. Also, Russia's August 2018 inflation rate was at 3.1 percent, at a one-year high but down from a spike of 16.9 percent in March 2015. Furthermore, Russia’s current poverty rate is about 13.61 percent, calculated using the latest 2017 population figures and the most recent official rate from March 2018. Russia's 2016 poverty rate was 13.4 percent. (America's 2017 poverty rate was 12.3 percent, down from 12.7 in 2016.) Also, Russia's most recent unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in July 2018—an all-time low—and down from a high of 5.9 percent in March 2015.
Russia remains resilient and tough. It has suffered enormously under Western pressure but hasn't cracked and in some ways has recovered. On the one hand, poverty persists, and there were recent protests over a plan to raise the retirement age for men from 60 to 65 and women from 55 to 60. Personal and state fiscal pressures also coincide with a recent drop in Russian president Vladimir Putin's approval rating from 80 percent to 64 percent, according to a state-run VTsIOM survey.
But on the other hand, the latest poll from the independent Levada Center conducted in August 2018 shows that 70 percent of Russian still approve of Putin. This is consistent with past surveys, despite approval of the Russian government crashing from 66 percent in September 2014 to a low of 33 in August 2018. In fact, since the Crimean invasion in March 2014, Russian approval for Putin increased to—and has remained mostly above—80 percent even as governmental approval fell. The dip in Putin's popularity may not last or be sufficient to matter.
Additionally, economic crises arguably help Putin consolidate and maintain his power by making average Russians, pensioners, and oligarchs alike more dependent on the support of the Russian state. Sanctions also give Moscow's vast propaganda machine a ready, Western-made scapegoat. Finally, Russia-watchers should recall both democratization theory and Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. People care about survival and economic well-being first and politics second. The recent protests in Russia were against pension reforms and economic conditions, not against war in Ukraine or Putin himself. In contrast, the protests in 2011 and 2012, before sanctions, were larger, pro-democratic, and anti-Putin.
All of this paints a complicated picture of a weakened, but defiant and capable Russia. It should raise doubts about changing Russia's behavior. Putin remains firmly in control due to genuine support as well as repression and concessions. Moscow will likely never submit to inspections and return Crimea to Ukraine. The Washington Post’s Christian Caryl declared that "Crimea is still part of Ukraine, and the West must continue to insist on this point until Russia relents." However, Russia will never budge on its redlines any more than Cuba or North Korea changed under years of pressure. Moscow will not relent over Crimea without force, but war with a nuclear power would be disastrous.
America should not legitimize Russia's aggression in Ukraine or its biochemical attack on the United Kingdom. Sanctions may not change Moscow’s behavior. After all, research by the Peterson Institute International Economics found that “Since 1970, unilateral US sanctions have achieved foreign policy goals in only 13 percent of the cases.” In addition, sanctions research shows that “incentives to bargain” are needed for success since diplomacy requires both sticks and carrots. That means America must decide under what realistic conditions sanctions should be increased or decreased.
However, Washington's bureaucracy and Congress are slow. It took fifteen years to remove 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment sanctions, even though Russia complied with that U.S. law since 1997. Additionally, while laws such as CAATSA help lock-in measures against sudden changes without Congressional approval, it also decreases flexibility and removes a vital bargaining chip.
Washington could decide to maintain sanctions until—unrealistically—Crimea is returned. Alternatively, perhaps sanctions are just about making Russia suffer, its coffers bleed, and its military falter. But either goal puts Moscow in the penalty box indefinitely, even at the risk of armed confrontation and serious Russian-Chinese alignment—as evidenced by the recently concluded Vostok-2018 wargames. Conversely, perhaps Washington hopes for another Russian collapse that ends this second cold war—but that would open a nightmare of succession, possible warfare, and loose nukes.
In the end, some flexibility should be found to pursue an end goal mutual non-interference based on deterrence and reduced provocations. Russia should keep away from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and NATO should cease to expand. Moscow must halt its election interference, and Washington must not push Russia into full economic collapse. Deterrence and non-interference would be an improvement over aimless sanctions, recognizing the escalation cycles and incentives at play. Sanctions cannot bend Russia to America's will, but deterrence and a calculation by Washington not to back itself—or Moscow—into a corner can prevent the situation from getting worse.
John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities and an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He is also a writer for Young Voices, and his articles have appeared in The American Conservative, Fox, and Real Clear Defense.