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Russia sanctions bill is a 'single barrel, sawed-off shotgun'

If God forbid the administration fires it, the results will be to wound Moscow, but also to blow off America’s own toes.

Analysis | Europe

The Menendez bill on sanctions against Russia could be described as a hair trigger on a single-barrel sawed-off shotgun, with all that weapon’s combination of dreadful effect and lack of discrimination. If, God forbid, the Biden administration fires it, the results will be to wound Russia, but also to blow off America’s own toes. Having expended its single barrel, the United States will also have no weapon left to deter Russia — whereas Russia will have many left in its armory.

The “Defending Ukraine Sovereignty” bill provides for a large range of severe sanctions both against trade with Russia (including secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do so) and against specific Russian individuals and banks. The most radical element of the bill would seek to remove Russia from the Swift international banking payment system.

Since the United States and NATO have stated explicitly that there is no question of their sending troops to defend Ukraine, the threat of massive sanctions is by far the most effective deterrent to a Russian invasion that the West possesses. By the same token, it is vitally important that this deterrent not be expended prematurely, leaving us with no remaining means of leverage over Russia.

At present, there is still room for a diplomatic solution to this crisis. It is clear that the Russian government has not yet decided on war (for what it may be worth, Moscow has stated repeatedly that it does not intend to invade Ukraine), and that Russia’s demarche was not simply an excuse for war. Had that been the case, Russia would have invaded already, when key Russian demands were rejected.

Two possible areas of diplomatic progress have been raised by the U.S. and French administrations, respectively, and seem to have been taken seriously by Moscow as a basis for negotiations. It is vitally important that nothing be done to frustrate this negotiating process.

The U.S. response to Russia’s demands has recognized the “indivisibility of security” (a key Russian position, even if U.S. and Russian interpretations of its meaning differ) and suggested meeting certain important Russian concerns through new mutual arms control agreements in Europe, especially concerning the stationing of short- and medium-range missiles.

The initiative of French president Emmanuel Macron is based on a resumption of the “Normandy Format” talks between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, aimed at a resolution of the Donbas conflict as set out in the Minsk II Protocol of 2015: internationally guaranteed autonomy for the Donbas within a sovereign Ukraine. Since 2015, this has also been the official policy of the United States, and it is in fact the only way that the Donbas can be returned to Ukraine since any attempt by Ukraine to do this by force will lead to disastrous defeat, and is indeed precisely what Russian hardliners are hoping for.

Finally, while the U.S. and NATO responses have rejected a ban on Ukraine joining NATO, they have so far not ruled out the possibility of a moratorium for a period of some years, while we try to sort out the wider security relationship with Russia. The West would sacrifice nothing by this, since even the most ardent proponents of Ukrainian NATO membership acknowledge that this cannot happen soon.

As long as these negotiations continue and Russia has not launched a full-scale invasion, massive new sanctions should be held in reserve. An additional very important reason for this is that while such sanctions would badly hurt Russia, they could also do considerable damage to the West and the Western alliance.

In the West, the overwhelming initial burden of new sanctions would be borne not by the United States but rather by the Europeans, in the form of energy shortages and higher energy prices. Around 40 percent of Europe’s gas and 30 percent of its oil come from Russia. In the short to medium term, Europe simply has no adequate alternative to Russian gas.

The European public might be prepared to bear such costs in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, for the United States to try to force Europe to accept them in return to some much smaller Russian action would risk a severe political and public backlash against U.S. policy. To maintain the West’s unity, it is essential that Russia be clearly seen as the guilty party; because without the western unity, it will be impossible to make new sanctions effective.

Massive new sanctions, leading to prolonged economic warfare between the West and Russia (backed by China) would also risk serious effects on the wider world economy, including that of the United States. Apart from a global rise in energy prices, Russia is also a leading global exporter of commodities, including food and vital raw materials like titanium, aluminium, nickel and copper. 

Measures that would cut Russia off from the international banking system and therefore make it difficult or impossible for other states to pay for Russian commodities would risk a surge in global inflation that would inevitably in turn fuel inflation in the United States. A sharp rise in global food prices would risk fuelling unrest and instability in many vulnerable states, and provide new opportunities for Islamist terrorism.

Finally, massive sanctions would force Russia into greatly increasing is dependence on China, thereby guaranteeing Beijing’s energy security, supporting its Belt and Road Initiative, and generally strengthening China’s position in the world.

In view of the above, there are very serious problems with certain provisions of the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act as it now stands. The loose wording of the bill suggests that the full range of sanctions could be imposed in response to Russian actions far short of invasion — even, for example, a new cyber-attack, or an alleged attempt at subversion. In the existing bill, there is no attempt to distinguish between different levels of Russian action and to calibrate U.S. sanctions in response. This risks a serious split between the United States and some of its key European allies.

Once imposed, these sanctions would be extremely difficult to remove. The draft bill provides that only in the event of a formal agreement between the Ukrainian and Russian governments can sanctions be lifted, thus effectively giving veto power over U.S. policy to Kyiv. As we have seen on several occasions in recent years, the Ukrainian government is itself subject to heavy pressure from nationalist extremists. The result will be to hand control over a vitally important area of U.S. policy to dangerous forces that America cannot necessarily influence. And if such sanctions remained in place permanently, they would be a source of permanent difficulties for the world economy, and a gift that keeps giving for China.

The purpose of the threat of new Western sanctions should be to prevent war and support the Biden administration in its negotiations with Russia. To tie the hands of the administration as this bill seeks to do makes ongoing negotiations much less likely to succeed. And to impose sanctions before any invasion has occurred will make war much more likely. 

A war in Ukraine would be a catastrophe for the Ukrainian people, and it would also be extremely bad for Europe and the world economy, including the U.S. economy. To respond to Russian invasion by backing a guerrilla war in Ukraine would create a permanent armed conflict in Europe, unending suffering for ordinary Ukrainians and a real threat of Russian attacks on any NATO state that supported the guerrillas. Far better to use the threat of sanctions to prevent war happening in the first place, and not throw away this valuable weapon in advance.

Analysis | Europe
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