The Moral Case for Sanctions Against Russia
Rather than talk in terms of strategy or punishment, American officials should return to a kind of thinking that Republicans used to love: values-based foreign policy.
Apr. 6, 2018
On Friday, the Treasury Department announced that it was imposing sanctions against twenty-four Russian individuals and fourteen Russian companies. This was the third set of sanctions against Russia announced in the past month: on March 15th, the Trump Administration imposed sanctions on individuals and companies named by the special counsel Robert Mueller as agents of election meddling; a week and a half later, the U.S. expelled sixty Russian diplomats and ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. Each of the last three American Presidents has taken office promising to improve relations with Russia, only to see the relationship sour further—yet the contrast between declared intention and reality is particularly jarring in the case of the Trump Administration. While Donald Trump once promised to bring about a “great relationship” with Russia, Russian-American relations are now arguably at their lowest point since the Cold War.
Historically, sanctions against Russia have come in several different categories, each of which reflects a different theory of Russia and perhaps even of the world. Diplomatic expulsions are one category—about thirty countries have expelled Russian representatives in response to last month’s apparent nerve-agent poisoning, in Britain, of a former Russian spy and his daughter. The expulsions have been presented as both symbolic censure and a defensive measure. This week, in his last public appearance as the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster described a world in which the Western way of life is under attack, and the expulsions are part of safeguarding it. Expulsions are an old standby of U.S.-Russian relations and are probably somewhat effective—they can certainly cripple embassy-based spy operations—but, as a defensive measure, they are imprecise. Why close the Seattle consulate and not, say, the one in Houston? In its retaliatory measures, the Kremlin put a fine point on the random nature of the choice by holding a Twitter poll on which U.S. consulate should be closed in Russia. The Russian Twitterverse chose St. Petersburg. This, and the expulsions of sixty American diplomats from Russia—on top of the hundreds expelled last summer—will make it very difficult for ordinary Russians to obtain U.S. visas and slow daily diplomatic work at a time when both countries continue to claim that they are interested in better relations.
A second category of sanction concerns trade and economic relations. These can be thought of as either strategic or punitive. The Obama Administration imposed these kinds of broad sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and framed them as strategic measures aimed at pressuring Vladimir Putin to change his behavior. John Bolton, the incoming national-security adviser, meanwhile, has made it clear that he views sanctions a punishment—he has tweeted and spoken about the need to exact a price from Russia in response to “behavior you don’t accept.” Different as the Obama-era and Trump-era attitudes may seem, they both stem from the same paternalistic assumption that Russia can be coerced or frightened into behaving differently. There is, however, no evidence for this: Russia’s response to sanctions has consistently ranged from indifference to escalation—including imposing counter-sanctions that cause even further economic pain among the Russian population. Indeed, the very idea that economic hardship undermines Putin’s rule is erroneous. Hard times can be good for autocracies, and Putin has masterfully used economic resentment to mobilize popular support.
The third kind of sanctions is known in policy circles as “smart” sanctions. (Bolton is a staunch opponent of this kind of sanctions.) These are premised on a more nuanced world view, which sees Putinism as a system that can be undermined from within. One theory in support of targeted sanctions imagines that the Russian élites, once squeezed, will rebel against Putin—a theory that betrays a basic misunderstanding of how Putin’s mafia state works. Putin is a patriarch at the center of a clan where every member is dependent on him for money and personal security. These are not conditions that could foment an uprising. It is true, however, that targeted sanctions undermine Putin’s authority as the sole source of his élites’ well-being: they take aim at his status as the patriarch.
The sanctions announced Friday belong to this last category. Measured by proximity to Putin and the sheer amount of wealth affected, these are, without a doubt, the harshest sanctions ever imposed on Russia’s super rich. Still, what informed the targeting of particular individuals is unclear. Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Russian political exile who runs underminers.info, which he describes as a “research project on post-Soviet kleptocrats,” pointed out in an interview that two of the wealthiest and most influential of Putin’s subjects, Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, both of whom have vast holdings in the West, are not on the list, while Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg, two men with very large holdings in the United States, and Alexey Miller, head of the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom, are.
Will these targeted sanctions be effective? Anyone who expects them to change Putin’s behavior will probably be disappointed. Whether they will weaken Putin’s hold on power in the long run is a more complicated question and probably one that cannot be answered. Yet, rather than talk in terms of strategy or punishment, American officials should return to a kind of thinking that Republicans used to love: values-based foreign policy. The Russian regime commits political assassinations, wages war, breaks international and national law all over the world, and has succeeded in making Western countries complicit in its crimes—by employing Western financial networks and by making European countries, in particular, dependent on its exports of gas and oil. Sanctions should not be thought of as worthwhile because they’re necessarily strategically effective or even “smart” but because it’s morally abhorrent to be complicit in supporting Putinism.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer, author of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
Source: The New Yorker