Since Thursday, President Biden, along with several other leaders of NATO and UN nations have announced sanctions against the Russian Federation for their invasion into Ukraine. Many are unsure of what these ‘sanctions’ are and how they would affect Russia as a whole.
The objectives of sanctions are varied but generally fall into one of two categories: sanctions that aim at specific changes in behavior and sanctions that seek to impose costs without being linked to a specific policy outcome.
The US for instance has imposed more than 60 rounds of sanctions on Russian individuals, companies, and government organizations over the last six years, spanning nine issue areas. Most of these sanctions have distinct aims when viewed individually. Sanctions against Russia aimed at Ukraine are intended to deter further Russian aggression and persuade Russia to adhere to the Minsk peace accord. Russian individuals and corporations are also sanctioned by the US for failing to comply with North Korean sanctions, intervening in US elections, and hacking US entities. These sanctions impose financial penalties in order to deter future aggressive behavior and maintain international norms.
Many have pointed out that sanctions are not a cost-free tool. Their overuse from a larger strategy carries risks. First, there is the risk that sanctions against Russian oligarchs and companies will make them more dependent on the Kremlin, thus consolidating rather than diminishing support for Putin.
But are sanctions working? The answer is contingent on how we define “working.” Some say that the tough sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine limited Russia’s land grab. Because the counterfactual is likewise probable, this is impossible to prove or deny. Regardless, sanctions aimed at Russia have so far failed to persuade it to follow the Minsk agreements, as Russian troops continue in eastern Ukraine.
Sanctions against Russian individuals and companies for failing to comply with other sanction regimes, such as those imposed on North Korea, have succeeded in limiting access to the global financial system. Secondary sanctions imposed by CAATSA have undoubtedly made doing business with sanctioned Russian businesses more difficult. However, there is no evidence that these have resulted in a shift in Russian government policy.
If Moscow comes to believe that sanctions will be permanent and unavoidable, it will be less motivated to find a way to end the current standoff. When sanctions give leverage, they are most effective. Overuse of sanctions, particularly those that are mandated by Congress (and thus require congressional approval to lift) and are not linked to specific policy goals, generates little leverage and reinforces Russian perceptions that the ultimate goal of US policy is regime change rather than behavioral change.
Because Russia believes that US strategy is only focused on retribution and containment, a diplomatic solution to difficulties between the two countries is less possible.