Paul Pillar

Making Sanctions Against Russia Work

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was admirably clear and focused in speaking to reporters about the intentions behind the newest round of sanctions against Russia. The purpose, said Blinken, “is not to punish Russia but to make clear that it must cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine.” We should hope that everything communicated about the sanctions, including what is discussed with Russian officials in private, exhibits comparable clarity and focus.

We can't be sure about that. President Obama's announcement of the new sanctions began with a discussion of the downing of the Malaysian airliner. He referred to buildups of troops on the Russian side of the Russian-Ukrainian side of the border. He talked about how sanctions already imposed have “made a weak Russian economy even weaker.” The reporters present did not help to restore focus. The only two questions the president took were about whether there is a new Cold War and whether he is considering lethal aid for Ukraine.

General discourse about sanctions, whether against Russia or against Iran or some other country, too often treats them as if they really were about punishment. The weakening of someone else's economy gets discussed as if such weakening were itself a plus for U.S. interests, which it is not. The weakening is only a means to some other end, involving a change in the target country's behavior.

Sometimes one might inflict punishment for a past deed in the hope of deterring similar deeds in the future, by either the same perpetrator or someone else. If that is being done, however, the punishment is a one-off action with a definite ending that does not depend on any changes in the other country's behavior. That is not the case with these latest sanctions. Moreover, the downing of the airliner is a poor focus for that kind of punishment because of the accidental nature of the incident. The tragedy of the airliner helps to demonstrate the danger of giving lethal toys to rebels, and politically it clearly had a significant role in moving the Europeans to take stronger action against Russia, but logically and strategically the sanctions should not be thought of as a response to that incident.

Sanctions are a means of affecting the target state's cost-benefit calculus, to increase the chance that state will stop doing something we don't want it to do or to start doing something we want it to do. The first step in a successful application of sanctions is to decide what that something is. This step is more complicated than it might seem, especially with an adversary with whom we have an assortment of grievances. The change in behavior has to be important enough to us to be worth the expenditure of political capital and other costs involved in applying sanctions, but also to be a reasonable enough demand that there is a decent chance the target state will comply. The broader are our demands, the better compliance would be for our interests but the less likely compliance—any compliance—will be achieved.

Blinken's formula that Russia must “cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine” is a worthwhile and reasonable demand to attach to these sanctions. The stability of Ukraine is certainly important, and Russia's dealings with the separatists appear to have a great deal to do with its current instability. As a matter of international law as well as policy importance, the demand is on sound ground. By the same token, it muddies the water and reduces the chance of compliance to talk about Russia's military deployments on its own side of the border. Those deployments might make us or the Ukrainians nervous, but they are not destabilizing Ukraine. They are taking place on Russia's sovereign territory, there is no demilitarized zone that they violate, and Vladimir Putin would be on sound legal ground to disregard any Western demands about them.

Another step is to communicate clearly to the target country exactly what is the offensive behavior that needs to be changed. Specific, observable and measurable pieces of behavior need to be identified. It is necessary to be more specific with the Russians in private than we have been in public as to exactly what “stop destabilizing Ukraine” means.

An equally important step—one far too often overlooked in much discussion of sanctions—is to communicate persuasively to the target country that the demanded change in behavior is a sufficient as well as necessary condition for the sanctions to be lifted. The leadership of the target country needs to be convinced that, after compliance, sanctions will not be continued because of some other grievance or demand. As Andranik Migranyan notes, this is a hazard in the current instance in that Putin might believe that because of Crimea or some other issue (including those military deployments in Russian territory) sanctions will be left in place. If he does believe that, he has no incentive to comply with any demand.

Finally, it is important to remember that the sanctions are only one term in a cost-benefit calculation. They make it harder for the other country to persist in behavior we don't like. Just as important is to try to make it easier for the other side to switch to behavior we do like. One thing this means in the current instance is that Putin should know that if he does comply, he will be allowed to crow unchallenged about how the West backed down from unjustified economic warfare, and that he will not have to admit anything about arming the rebels in Ukraine—but rather just to end the arming quietly.