Ukraine crisis tests the limits of sanctions against Putin

The Russian leader’s provocative actions demonstrated the limits of relying on the threat of economic hardship to change the behavior of a government like Putin’s – a highly personalistic regime that resisted Western sanctions for eight years, raised extremist members of the security services to its most influential positions and suppressed national dissent.

For months, senior US and European officials have warned the Russian leader that he would face serious economic consequences if he invaded Ukraine. But as the crisis escalates, raising the risk that Russia’s 190,000 troops and enabling forces around Ukraine will stage a full-scale invasion, Washington is faced with the reality that even the harshest sanctions can have consequences. limits.

“When it comes to major military or national security issues, this type of coercion – punitive economic measures – rarely works,” said Dursun Peksen, a political science professor at the University of Memphis who studies the effectiveness of penalties. “I therefore remain skeptical about the willingness of the Russian regime to make any significant concessions given the importance it attaches to the issue at hand.”

Peksen said research indicates that “problem salience” — or the amount of importance a government attaches to a certain issue — is a major determinant of how well sanctions will work against a state target. -nation. The more importance a government attaches to the issue in question, the less likely it will be to respond to any form of international pressure, he said, noting that Putin views Ukraine as central to the national security of the Russia and his country’s foreign policy.

The situation shows the dilemma the United States and its allies face when seeking ways to influence Russia without taking direct military action, which would risk a confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers. Early in the crisis, Biden ruled out the possibility of deploying US troops to Ukraine, later saying that even sending US forces to evacuate Americans could result in a “world war”.

US foreign policy has come to rely more on sanctions in recent years. A US Treasury report released in October described the sanctions as “a tool of first resort in dealing with a range of threats to national security, foreign policy and the economy of the United States”.

But while sanctions can be particularly effective when they target a specific problem – for example, preventing a country from developing a nuclear weapons program – they may not be powerful enough in many cases to achieve more ambitious goals.

“Sanctions have their place, and it is obviously appropriate that they be employed at this stage, because Russia has crossed a red line, but the hope that even the most brutal economic sanctions will prevent a major power from trying to obtain territory that its seems determined to acquire is a fiction,” said Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Drezner said the Biden administration should perhaps have put more emphasis on the other main threat against Putin – that an invasion of Ukraine would bring the very kind of NATO troops and weapons to bear. its borders which it claims not to want. While senior Biden administration officials have regularly delivered this message in public, they have not said what exact steps the U.S. military will take to bolster allies or add additional weapons to NATO’s eastern flank.

The threat of sanctions can work as a foreign policy tool, said T. Clifton Morgan, professor of political science at Rice University. Morgan said that of 1,412 cases he and his colleagues analyzed, the threat of sanctions achieved a political outcome about 50% of the time, but in Putin’s case, effectiveness depends on “the value that ‘he gives to the issues at stake’. ”

Previous sanctions have cost the Russian economy dearly, but appear to have done little to curb the Kremlin’s actions or threaten Putin’s power. Senior Russian officials routinely dismiss the impact of tough economic measures against the country, showing they are confident Moscow can survive the punishment.

“Excuse my language, but we don’t give a damn about Western sanctions,” Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, said in an interview this month with Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. He said that Russia has already faced so many sanctions and that they have often had a positive impact on the Russian economy and agricultural sector.

“We became more self-sufficient and were able to increase exports,” Tatarintsev said. “We don’t have Italian or Swiss cheeses, but we have learned to make the same good Russian cheeses according to Italian and Swiss recipes.”

In a recent article in The Economist, Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said hardliners in Putin’s war cabinet are already under sanctions and would benefit from a bigger schism with the United States. United and Europe.

“If anything, new sanctions would not only harm Mr. Putin’s war cabinet, they would secure its members’ place as the primary beneficiaries of Russia’s deepening economic autarky,” wrote Gabuev. “The same logic applies to domestic politics: as the country descends into an almost permanent state of siege, the security services will be the most important pillar of the regime.

Yet even if they fail to stop Putin from invading Ukraine, sanctions are still important to “signal to people in Russia that he is taking Russia in the wrong direction”, as well as “to constrain and strangle the ability of future Russian aggression,” Andrea said. Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“I think it’s incumbent on the West and the United States to make sure that the external environment is punitive — that we play our part in not facilitating and allowing this type of regime,” Kendall said. Taylor.

Kendall-Taylor said Putin’s speech seemed to indicate economic costs were not going to be a primary factor in his decision-making. “If he thinks about his legacy and doesn’t want to be the leader who lost Ukraine, I don’t think there’s anything to deter action other than the threat of military force. – and it was not planned,” he added. she says.

US officials are unsure which economic measures, if any, would have been strong enough to change Putin’s reckoning on Ukraine, which is a personal and emotional matter for the Russian leader.

“The United States and NATO have worked very hard to make sure the signal is really clear – that there are going to be real sanctions and they are going to be very costly,” said Amanda Licht, professor of political science at Binghamton University studying sanctions. . “The problem is that the costs just aren’t big enough.”

John E. Smith, former head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, now a partner at law firm Morrison & Foerster, said economic sanctions could play a role in moderating Putin’s territorial ambitions or deterrence of future military adventurism.

“Will the sanctions prevent him from invading eastern Ukraine, especially the breakaway republics? Probably not. Similarly, the 2014 sanctions did not mean that he turned the troops around and left Crimea,” Smith said. “But the sanctions can impact how far he is willing to go in Ukraine. Because if you are sitting in Kiev, you want sanctions that will prevent it from occupying the entire territory of the country.

Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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