From the beginning of the crisis sanctions have been assumed to be both the central deterrent to Russian aggression, and the critical punishment if it violated international law. In response to the invasion, the Biden Administration (wisely) ruled out the direct use of U.S. military forces in Ukraine and instead announced an unprecedented package of hard-hitting economic sanctions.
Sanctions are a necessary step in holding Russia accountable for its actions. But policy makers also need to be attentive to the costs and limits of economic sanctions, both in terms of humanitarian impacts and potential collateral harm to U.S. interests.
Many are rightly skeptical of the wisdom, effectiveness, and humanitarian costs of the heavy U.S. reliance on economic sanctions. In countries like Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and Cuba, decades of sanctions have not changed the regime or its policies, but have created an enormous human cost for the innocent civilians affected by them. In a country like Afghanistan, where sanctions seem entirely disconnected from any attainable policy goal but are clearly devastating to the population of one of the poorest countries on earth, they appear almost spiteful or even sadistic.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine differs from other situations in ways that make the use of sanctions far more appropriate. Most obviously, Russia has launched an aggressive war of choice and violation of international law on a massive scale, which is not true of other nations targeted by U.S. sanctions. The risk of catastrophic escalation, including the use of nuclear weapons, makes a direct military response wildly irresponsible and dangerous. This leaves sanctions as a major tool to ensure accountability and generate incentives for de-escalation.
But that doesn’t mean that we should forget the lessons of the failure of sanctions in so many other contexts. First, sanctions should be designed to minimize their effects on innocent civilians and instead be targeted on Russian political decision makers, powerful oligarchs, and the Russian military machine. Policy makers should bear in mind not only the difference between the broader Russian population and key members of the government, but the fact that long-term economic sanctions will directly impact civilians in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. They could also affect the entire world through inflation in prices of key energy and food commodities, including our European allies, less developed countries that will find it difficult to absorb price shocks, and consumers here in the U.S.
Appropriate targeted sanctions for key decision makers and the Russian defense industry should include asset seizures, bans on travel to the West, financial sanctions targeted at the defense sector, and export controls on leading-edge technologies used in defense and aerospace. The remarkable openness of some Western financial institutions and luxury playgrounds to Putin-linked oligarchs can be targeted. Export controls on semiconductors also bear special mention as they should be highly effective in impacting Russian technological capacity while having only an indirect effect on the broader civilian economy. These elements are all present in the sanctions currently announced.
Policy makers also need to think carefully about the pragmatic wisdom of sanctions and the ability to effectively implement them over the long term without collateral harm to U.S. interests. It is notable that sanctions on the Russian defense industry have technically been in place since 2017 with the passage of the CATSA legislation, but the U.S. has thus far refrained from applying them to strategic partners such as India and Egypt, and their application to U.S. ally Turkey has involved significant diplomatic costs. The implications of trying to apply much more intense sanctions would be far greater.
In terms of the ability to fully implement sanctions, President Biden announced yesterday that countries representing over half of the world economy had agreed to comply with U.S. sanctions. But he notably refused to answer questions as to whether China and India (representing about a quarter of the world economy) intended to fully comply. Recent Chinese statements on the invasion of Ukraine indicate a significantly divergent perspective from the U.S., and the Chinese foreign ministry has stated its intent to continue “normal trade relations” with Russia.
An issue central to both the humanitarian impact of sanctions and their long-term effect on U.S. interests is the question of the goal of sanctions and their relationship to U.S. diplomatic efforts. Will sanctions be an open-ended, long-term declaration of economic war aimed at regime change in Russia, on the assumption that no diplomatic progress is possible? The record of multi-decade U.S. sanctions campaigns that have failed to achieve regime change in far smaller and less powerful countries than Russia indicates that such a maximalist campaign is unlikely to succeed in that goal, although it will certainly have a severe negative impact on the Russian economy and probably involve significant civilian harm. Or will sanctions be used in a more targeted manner, as an incentive to support concrete diplomatic goals?
With respect to diplomacy, Russia’s decision to proceed with the invasion of Ukraine in the face of sanctions threats and the certainty of massive international condemnation shows that sanctions and diplomacy will not suffice to get Russia to fully reverse its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. It is clear from President Putin’s statements that Russia views a demilitarized and neutralized Ukraine as a vital national interest, which it will not compromise under economic pressure. But sanctions could still be an effective incentive in diplomacy aimed at stabilizing the dangerous new intensity in the U.S.-Russia conflict, as well as a potential bargaining chip to affect a political and humanitarian settlement in Ukraine in ways that would be beneficial to the citizens of Ukraine. Pressures for such a settlement may mount as a result of successful Ukrainian resistance to the invasion. If we expect sanctions to actually change Russian behavior rather than simply punish them, they need to be linked to a strategy for negotiations with Russia. This will inevitably involve some form of compromise, as challenging as that may be.
President Biden’s speech yesterday announcing sanctions certainly appeared to imply a sanctions campaign with maximalist goals. He depicted Putin as fundamentally hostile to freedom, stating that the Ukraine invasion was not motivated by Russian security goals and was just the beginning of a broader campaign of aggression driven by an irrational desire for empire. If the U.S. goal is regime change, based on an analysis that Putin is seeking a broader empire rather than more limited security guarantees and Russia can only be dissuaded if Putin is toppled, then sanctions will likely not achieve this goal and will carry significant costs along the way.
But a closer look at the details of the sanctions package indicates a more measured approach. Even if it is unclear whether the U.S. plans to pursue diplomatic goals connected to sanctions, the Administration appears sensitive to their potential humanitarian costs and practical limitations. The sanctions include tough property blocking measures aimed at Russia’s largest banks, which are unprecedented in terms of the size and scope of the assets that would be frozen. However, the package does not appear to include full secondary sanctions on the Russian financial system, which would draw the U.S. into direct conflict with third party nations that are not fully compliant with the sanctions regime.
Notably, the sanctions also explicitly exempt financial transactions involving the purchase of energy and agricultural commodities, so long as such transactions are conducted at arms length through a non-U.S., non-sanctioned intermediary. Given Russia’s central role in the global commodity and energy markets, this exemption minimizes the negative humanitarian effects of sanctions on civilians worldwide through commodity price inflation. It also avoids negative impacts on European allies that are dependent on Russian energy supplies.
There is obviously much uncertainty as to the fate of Ukraine under Russian assault, the eventual security settlement that will be reached in Eastern Europe, and the role sanctions will play over the long term. But the limits and costs of sanctions in so many other contexts shows that we should not look to them to magically accomplish regime change or solve our security challenges with Russia. The effort to attain such goals through a maximalist sanctions campaign is unlikely to succeed and would involve great costs, both in terms of the impact on innocent civilians and the diplomatic and soft power capital that the U.S. would have to expend in trying to achieve anything close to full global compliance.
That does not mean that tough and targeted sanctions cannot play an important role in an effort to hold Russia accountable, punish its key oligarchs and decision makers, and change its behavior. But they need to be one part of a broader diplomatic strategy intended to change Russian behavior, not a replacement for such a strategy.
Marcus Stanley is the Advocacy Director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Prior to joining the Quincy Institute, he spent a decade at Americans for Financial Reform. He has a PhD in public policy from Harvard, with a focus on economics.
People take shelter in a subway station, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.
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A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position in a trench at a front line on the border with Russia, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Sumy region, Ukraine January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
For a conflict discussed in starkly moralistic terms, the ways the Ukraine war is talked about by its most enthusiastic Western supporters can be remarkably cynical about the human carnage involved.
“Aiding Ukraine, giving the money to Ukraine is the cheapest possible way for the U.S. to enhance its security,” Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of the Economist, recently told the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The fighting is being done by the Ukrainians, they’re the people who are being killed.”
This view is not unique to Beddoes. It’s been widely expressed by those most in favor of an open-ended, prolonged war and most against the kind of peace negotiations that would shorten it.
“Four months into this thing, I like the structural path we're on here. As long as we help Ukraine with the weapons they need and the economic support, they will fight to the last person,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) early into the war, accidentally voicing what the war’s critics have often said about the war — that the U.S. will fight it “to the last Ukrainian.” Later, Graham called it the “best money we’ve ever spent.”
“It is a relatively modest amount that we are contributing without being asked to risk life and limb,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press last year. “The Ukrainians are willing to fight the fight for us if the West will give them the provisions. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“I call that a bargain,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has said about the war funding, pointing to the damage Ukrainian forces had inflicted on the Russian military.
“No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remarked.
Americans “should be satisfied that we’re getting our money’s worth on our Ukraine investment,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), because “for less than 3 percent of our nation’s military budget, we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half,” and “all without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.”
But politicians aren’t the only armchair warriors who look at the enormous death and destruction suffered by Ukraine by prolonging the war as akin to a brilliant business decision. Hawkish think tanks have made similar arguments.
“When viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment,” Timothy Garten Ashe wrote for the weapons maker-funded Center for European Policy Analysis. “Support for Ukraine remains a bargain for American national security,” wrote Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia Peter Rough. “For about 5 percent of total U.S. defense spending over the past 20 months, Ukraine has badly degraded Russia, one of the United States’ top adversaries, without shedding a single drop of American blood.”
And major U.S. newspapers have likewise published similar perspectives. “We have a determined partner in Ukraine that is willing to bear the consequences of war so that we do not have to do so ourselves in the future,” former top George W. Bush officials Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates celebrated in the pages of the Washington Post.
“For all the aid we’ve given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries in the relationship, and they the true benefactors,” wrote Bret Stephens at the New York Times, pointing to the fact that NATO is paying in only money, while “Ukrainians are counting their costs in lives and limbs lost.”
What’s distasteful about this is not just the flippant way it treats the unimaginable scale of loss of life, permanentdisability and emerging long-term crises being experienced by Ukrainians — as mere abacus beads to be moved around in a cost-benefit analysis centered on the United States and its NATO allies. It’s also the fact that, far from being “willing,” “determined” and ready to “fight to the last person,” many Ukrainians have demonstrated that they do not want to risk their lives in this war — a share of the population that is getting larger and more vocal the longer the war has gone on.
Since the start of the war, when many fleeing Ukrainian men were stopped at the border and ordered to return to potentially fight, thousands of Ukrainians have defied the government’s ban on men aged between 18 and 60 leaving the country — to the point of spending large sums of money and even risking their lives to get out.
Many hunkered down in their homes to dodge enlistment officers, while tens of thousands signed a petition opposing increasingly aggressive conscription practices. Early last year, Ukraine’s parliament upped the punishment for desertion, which soldiers have this year admitted is still a growing problem.
By November 2023, the BBC determined that a total of nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men had fled the country to avoid being drafted, while the State Border Service revealed a month later that more than 16,500 had been stopped from leaving. At one point, the country’s law enforcement uncovered a massive scheme across nearly a dozen regions that gave out falsified medical certificates declaring someone unfit for military service in return for as much as $10,000.
These plans have engendered massive opposition, with protests by soldiers’ families that have taken place around the country since last year calling for a cap on the length of military service continuing and intensifying; earlier this month. One hundred women blocked a road and mistakenly attacked another woman due to rumors of draft officials coming to take the village’s men away.
“I don’t see the 500,000 more people ready to die,” admitted a former Ukrainian government minister and current army captain last November.
It increasingly appears that many of those who are most enthusiastic to keep the war going and avoid a negotiated end aren’t, as we keep being told, the Ukrainians who are most likely to be killed or wounded in the fighting. Instead they are politicians and commentators far, far away from the front line in other countries who view its attendant death and destruction as akin to a board game — or, in their words, as a “good deal,” a “bargain,” and a satisfying “investment” for their own countries.
In other words, it looks increasingly like all too many other U.S.-led wars.