Think before adding more sanctions on Russia

By Daniel DePetris

Lawmakers may be out of town for the holiday, but that isn't stopping them from aiming their fire at the Russian government. The cyber attacks allegedly directed by the Kremlin, continued Russian military support for the Assad regime, the deployment of nuclear capable missiles on NATO's eastern border, and Moscow's obstruction in the U.N. Security Council has gotten a lot of people in Washington angry - and justifiably so. It is a certainty that once the new administration is settled in and the new Congress gavels into session, sanctions bills targeting Moscow's economy will be introduced, debated, and likely passed.

The more important question that should be asked, however, is not whether additional sanctions measures on Moscow are appropriate, but whether more sanctions will help or hurt a bilateral U.S.-Russia relationship that has plunged deeper and deeper into the sewer over the past two years. For Russia hawks in Washington and Western Europe, that seems to be precisely the objective; Moscow is acting badly and making peaceful relations harder to attain, so Russia's ties with the west ought to suffer in retaliation. But punishment and retribution isn't - nor should it be - the whole story.

Depending on the country being targeted, U.S.-imposed economic sanctions can either take the form of a symbolic band-aid to a knife wound or an effective tool to convinced a government to change its policy. Multilateral sanctions on Iran, to take one example, slashed Tehran's oil exports so severely and limited access to its foreign exchange reserves to such an extent that a previously uncooperative and radical Iranian government decided to negotiate over its nuclear program (whether the deal that resulted from those talks was strong enough is a matter of dispute). Sanctions on North Korea, however, haven't served the international community particularly well: Despite the passing of one of the most comprehensive and stringent sanctions regimes in history, Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have if anything improved.

The impact of U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia is somewhere in between. Restrictions on Moscow being able to acquire credit, dual-use energy technology, and western investment in its energy sector have gotten a lot harder in the two years since those sanctions were enacted. Moscow has been forced to dip into its foreign exchange reserves, which have dwindled to $323.6 billion last month compared to the $476.2 billion it had on hand in November 2012.  Russia is preparing for budget cuts in the next fiscal year that could include defense, which budget documents report will suffer a 27 percent decline in expenditures  And Russia’s overall economy remains in recession, with the World Bank reporting a 0.4 percent contraction in GDP in the third quarter. 

And yet despite this economic downturn, the sanctions have yet to force President Putin to change his outlook on Ukraine.  Russian military personnel are still on Ukrainian soil, pro-Russian separatists continue to flout the de-escalation agreement, and Crimea is still annexed by the Russian Federation.

Before members of Congress rush to pass more economic sanctions on Russia, they should ask themselves what exactly they might accomplish and whether punishment is worth the potentially enormous cost of making every other policy area that involves the Russians more confrontational.

Russia may be challenging the liberal international order in its near-abroad by deploying its own troops across borders and annexing territory from its neighbors, but Russia also happens to be a country that sits on the Security Council and therefore has the power to unilaterally make the resolution of disputes around the world more difficult to achieve: nuclear non-proliferation, the Syrian civil war, counterterrorism, implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to name a few.  To put it bluntly, stronger and more systemic economic sanctions are unlikely to get the Russians to cower in Ukraine — a country that is clearly considers a core national security interest and crucial for its power-projection capabilities.

A Trump administration that aims to squeeze North Korea in the Security Council or launch a new multilateral diplomatic initiative, for instance, will inevitably include the Russians at the table. Moscow's retaliation to additional sanctions could undermine diplomacy in any one of the areas listed above. It would almost surely further complicate the diplomatic process in Ukraine. And as much as it is hard to believe that the Russian Air Force could do more damage in Syria, Moscow has the capacity to accelerate its air sorties - further radicalizing whatever moderate opposition in Syria that is left.

None of this is to discount or lobby against the passing of more sanctions on Russia next year. Cyberhacking is a 21st century form of warfare, and the U.S. intelligence community appears relatively confident that the Kremlin ordered the intrusion into the databases of America's major political parties.

But as the last decade has illustrated time and again, the U.S. usually suffers when policies are formulated without weighting all the costs and risks that could conceivably result. Restraint in the face of pressure is just as critical to U.S. national security as military and diplomatic power.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on January 5, 2017. Read more HERE