OPINION | Punishing Russia with sanctions will not stop the Kremlin
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After passing with overwhelming majority in Congress, it seems extremely likely that the Russia sanctions bill sitting on President Trump’s desk will, one way or another, become the law. The bill is an effort to smarten up America’s Russia policy. Unfortunately, what is really needed is something sanctions cannot deliver: a U.S. policy that recognizes Russia as a major foreign policy challenge that cannot be resolved by escalation alone.

Interestingly, Russia seems to be about the only thing congressional Republicans and Democrats can agree on. In a Congress that has had notable difficulty passing major legislation, both chambers have nearly unanimously approved the sanctions bill. Once law, it will enshrine the sanctions already levied on Russia and add some new ones (it also imposes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea). If the president refuses to sign, he is, at best, delaying the inevitable. Given the vote counts of 419-3 in the House and 48-2 in the Senate, there seems little question that an override would follow any veto.

In general, congressionally-levied sanctions are a poor foreign policy tool. One of the more useful aspects of sanctions is that they can be imposed and removed with relative ease, a flexible stick, as it were. Once they are law, sanctions are notoriously difficult to lift, and this flexibility is gone. American diplomats then have less leverage with the sanctioned state, and less capacity to negotiate and identify creative paths forward.

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There is no doubt, however, that Congress does not want the Trump administration to have very much flexibility when it comes to Russia. On this, if not on other things, the vast majority of America’s lawmakers do not trust the president’s judgment. At the least, they are concerned that he does not share their perception that Russia poses dangers to U.S. interests, both at home and abroad. At the most, in light of U.S. intelligence assessments of Kremlin interference in America’s presidential election and accusations of Trump campaign ties to various Russian interests, not a few legislators may well have deeper fears.

 

The Kremlin expects the sanctions bill to become law. It is not waiting for Trump to sign, but taking steps now to retaliate. Notably, Moscow’s response is not to the new provisions added by the legislation, but rather to the final Obama administration sanctions imposed back in December, as punishment for Russian election meddling. Those included the eviction of 35 Russian embassy staff, accused by the United States of spying, and the denial of access to two compounds owned by Russia, on grounds that these were also used for intelligence operations.

At the time, Moscow did not retaliate, claiming the high road. Most likely, the Kremlin expected that the Trump administration would lift at least the constraints on access to the “dachas,” where, whatever else may be going on, embassy staff took vacations and sent their kids to camp. Now, the Kremlin has cut off access to two recreational facilities used by American diplomats in Moscow. They have also demanded that the U.S. mission to their country shrink to the size of the Russian mission in the United States. This means sending home some 700 personnel.

This response is a calibrated one. It underlines the Russian position that U.S. sanctions were arbitrary and petty. Moscow is responding in kind when it comes to recreational facilities, and upping the ante by expelling more than half of the U.S. diplomatic team, not even bothering to accuse any of espionage. The Russians deny any interference in the U.S. election, and they characterize the U.S. action as a manifestation of domestic politics. In regard to the economic provisions, which will make working with Russia’s energy sector harder for investors around the world, Russia is at this stage accusing Congress of protectionism, but not responding. However, the Kremlin promises that further escalation on the U.S. part will lead to further escalation on Russia’s.

In the end, sanctions will have limited effects. Some steps can hurt, but they will not topple governments or, in the near term, change policies. What can do real damage, however, is a continued focus on bilateral hostility to the exclusion of diplomacy, a tone which increasingly dominates the narrative in both Moscow and Washington and which underlines much of the discussion of sanctions. Satisfying as this can be, it is dangerous. At this precarious moment in global history, the U.S. and Russia together can either make things better, or far worse. Absent progress on arms control, a new arms race looms. Ukraine’s future, and European security more broadly, cannot be assured without Russia at the table (and held to account). Syria is doomed without cogent policies from Moscow and Washington. The list goes on.

With so many intersections of Russian and U.S. interests, Russia presents a critical foreign policy challenge, one which will be poorly served by either demonization or conciliation. What is needed is considered, knowledgeable, and nuanced policy. However capable our senators and representatives and their staffs, this is not what legislatures are set up to do. Sanctions have proven easy. The hard work for Congress will be finding ways to hold the executive branch accountable, such that capable, patriotic and responsible action on the Russian front results.

Olga Oliker, Ph.D., is a senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously worked as director of the Center for Russia and Eurasia at the Rand Corporation and is coauthor of “Russian Foreign Policy: Sources and Implications.” Follow her on Twitter @OlyaOliker.


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