Analysis: Obama Not Alone in Having Doubts About Russia Sanctions


“Russia is extremely dependent on global finance and global trade,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics. He believes the White House should impose tougher sanctions now rather than ratchet them up slowly.

“We need shock and awe to change Putin’s behavior rather than incrementalism,” he said.

Aslund dismissed any possible effect of the sanctions on the U.S. economy, calling the U.S.-Russia trade relationship “a blip” and said Europe could rely on its reserves for months if Russia retaliates by cutting off gas supplies.

U.S. officials insist their policy is adequately calibrated to ratchet up pressure on Putin, saying they believe that while it may not change his behavior immediately, it will do so “over time.”

Sanctions have become one of Obama’s preferred weapons. It’s easy to see their attraction. After over a decade of war, the American public is weary of conflict. Obama himself has displayed an aversion to the use of force. Sanctions offer a potentially powerful and bloodless alternative.

In the 1990, targeted sanctions became more powerful as leaders harnessed the power of cutting off access to the American banking system. U.S. officials are quick to praise sanctions as one reason Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction in 2004.

Both Hufbauer and Schott agree that for sanctions alone to work with a large interconnected country like Russia, Obama will have to get Europe on board.

“I think the only chance is that if the western powers can come up with a very strong package,” Hufbauer said. “With that threat, Putin might be deterred. But without that, chances are not very good.”

“If the U.S. and the EU can only increase this incremental approach to sanctions in naming individuals and the occasional company or bank, this is a policy of turning the screw very, very slowly and not applying much pressure,” Schott said. “If what is on the table turns out to be more of the same, the Russians may play for more time and can continue to destabilize Ukraine and absorb the costs.”

Obama, Hufbauer said, appears to be reverting to President Woodrow Wilson’s view of sanctions. Wilson trumpeted the sanctions after World War I, saying if used properly “there will be no need for war.”

“The modern theory is that they are part of the force curve. They’re signaling that force is around the corner if sanctions don’t work,” he said. “Obama has really reverted to a Wilsonian view, that sanctions are an alternative to the use of force.”

The closest modern example may be that of Syria, where Obama has all but removed the threat of American force off the table. Sanctions there have so far have failed to stop President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from attacking.

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