Sanctions on Russia: Right Idea, Wrong Execution

by Bryan Burgess

November 16, 2016

On October 17th, Britain’s Boris Johnson and the United States’ John Kerry announced that they were jointly considering leveling greater sanctions on Russia in response to their bombing in Aleppo. On Capitol Hill, Congress is pushing forward H.R. 5732, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. This bill would impose stricter sanctions on the Syrian regime and any entity that provided “financial, material or technological support” to it or its affiliates. These sanctions would clamp down tighter on Russia and Iran, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s government. While leveling more sanctions against Syria and its narrow network of support feels morally justified, the current domestic and international climate makes it so these sanctions would be a well-intentioned but short-sighted mistake.

On the international stage, we have already seen the effects of sanctions on Russia. While they have significantly damaged the Russian economy, and sounded a strong signal of NATO’s unity, they have done little to make Russia a more cooperative partner on the world stage. Vladimir Putin’s popularity remains about 80%, and he uses NATO’s sanctions to spin a narrative of the West trying to keep Russia weak. Moreover, while the previous sanctions against Russia demonstrated NATO’s unity, Europe’s appetite for further sanctions right now is tepid at best. If the United States and Britain try to level sanctions without a broad base of support, Putin will get another talking point to brag about the strength of Russia in the face of Western aggression.

As for Syria, Assad’s government is already subject to one of the strictest sanctions regimes in recent history, and he continues to bomb civilians. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad has demonstrated an utter lack of concern for the well-being of his citizens, and a recent internal UN report has documented the suffering imposed upon their citizens by the U.S. and Europe’s existing sanctions. And crucially, the Syrian government is already in open civil war. Our sanctions, unless backed up by credible force, are little more than a nuisance to a government prepared to fight to the death, and the United States lost that credible threat capability when President Obama drew and refused to support his Red Line.

While the United States has lost credibility for being too lenient, we have also lost some credibility by being too strict. Sanctions are, at their core, a means of getting a state or actor to change their unacceptable behavior, or at least get them to the negotiating table. Secretary Jack Lew considered sanctions as “forward-looking” rather than “punishment” in a March speech:

“The underlying goal of all sanctions is an effort to change behavior.  Sanctions are not meant to dole out punishment for past actions.  They are forward-looking, intended to keep illicit or dangerous conduct out of our system and create pressure to change future behavior.”

But, as the Iran deal has demonstrated, U.S. lawmakers are too quick to consider sanctions a punishment. Even after Iran has met the conditions of the Nuclear Agreement, the reason the United States imposed many of its sanctions to begin with, lawmakers criticize easing up on what they see as a rogue state actively undermining the world order. While there is no doubt Iran opposes many of America’s efforts and objectives, sanctions cannot be punitive. They must be a tool with a specific end goal, and lifted once that goal is achieved.

This is the critical consideration for sanctions on Russia and Syria. These sanctions have no realistic end goal, other than the removal of Assad, and will likely not be lifted if their conditions are met. This misuse of sanctions as a policy tool weakens our ability to use them in the future. Looking back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the violation of the internationally recognized norm of sovereignty has far more destabilizing effects to the world than the bombing of our allies in the Syrian civil war. Unfortunately, there is a finite number of sanctions the U.S. can level before the marginal effect of each new one reaches zero. And, tragic as it is, the United States does not necessarily have the moral high ground to justify these particular sanctions. If the United States wants to be able to effectively use sanctions in the future, we must accept the moral hazard of doing nothing in Syria this time, and rely on diplomatic deal-making instead.

Bryan Burgess is a Junior B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.