On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing titled “Keeping the Pressure on Russia and Its Enablers: Examining the Reach of and Next Steps for U.S. Sanctions,” in which Senators questioned U.S. officials from the Treasury and State Departments on the efficacy of American sanctions to date, and what the future holds as the war in Ukraine reaches an inflection point.
In his opening statement, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the committee, laid out exactly the right guiding theme for the hearings, saying “We impose sanctions not to punish, but to constrain, and ultimately, change behavior,” before spelling out a list of crucial questions that policymakers and those in charge of sanctions implementation must contend with. Are sanctions having the desired effect? Have the sanctions changed Russian president Vladimir Putin’s calculus at all? How will stakeholders outside of the G7, namely China and India, respond to the proposed price cap on Russian oil? How can we fill the gaps in our sanctions policy to make them more effective? And how can the United States best coordinate diplomatic efforts, sanctions policy, and military aid in the coming months to end this war?
The ensuing discussion did not entirely live up to the roadmap set forth in this introduction, however.
Have Sanctions Worked?
Generally speaking, there was bipartisan agreement among the senators on the American-led sanctions regime to date: The Biden administration merited praise for acting rapidly and imposing unprecedented sanctions on Moscow in February, but the sanctions package has so far come up short by failing to constrain Putin. While Russia has suffered setbacks on the battlefield, its economy has not cratered as desired; Putin appears undeterred and, as of right now, there is no end to the war in sight.
According to many of the senators present at the hearing, the problem with the sanctions is that they had not been implemented or enforced thoroughly enough and that too many countries outside of the United States and Europe had avoided sanctioning Moscow, therefore allowing the Russian economy to essentially stay afloat. The disagreement between senators and the two witnesses from the administration came down to expectations. Certain senators believed that the sanctions were supposed to have stopped the war more quickly. “While we're playing the long game, Ukrainians are dying,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said. Another problem is that there still doesn’t seem to be agreement over what exactly the goals of the sanctions ought to be.
By some measures, the sanctions have been successful. Given Russia’s ongoing brutality, sanctions are a worthwhile enterprise simply to increase the cost of Putin’s war. And as one witness at the hearing, Elizabeth Rosenberg, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes at Treasury, often reminded the Senators, the administration is viewing this sanctions package as a “long game.” And in the long-term, Moscow is likely looking at a stagnant economy. So, if the goal is to contain Russia’s economy, perhaps the sanctions have been effective.
What the Senators Ignored
What was largely missing from the discussion is the question of why specifically the sanctions may not have lived up to expectations. And whether broad sanctions of this scale can ever be successful by the rubric that Menendez presented in his opening statement: meaningfully altering the behavior of adversarial governments.
Somewhat surprisingly, the member who most thoughtfully wrestled with that question was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), widely considered to be a Russia hawk. “I think that we have to have a more clear assessment in Congress and in our national psyche as to just what the impact of sanctions can do,” Romney said. “The indications so far are, it wasn’t as crippling as we thought on Russia and I wonder whether that teaches us a lesson that should be important to us as we consider the impact of sanction regimes in the future.” The conclusion of Romney’s statement though raises the question of what exactly he sees as the benefit of such an assessment would be. “Not that we then don’t do them,” he said. “Of course we do.”
Instead of grappling with Romney’s question, the other Senators remained focused on how to best tighten the screws on Moscow. Even when there was a gap in the questioning while waiting for others to arrive, various senators mused about the necessity of imposing further sanctions on Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Iran. The impact that ongoing economic warfare could continue to have on the global south went mostly unmentioned.
Sanctions can be most effective when combined with either an opposition movement that can exert political pressure on leadership or when combined with diplomacy, where the conditions under which sanctions could be eased are clear. But contra Menendez’s introductory words, the discussion remained focused solely on the sanctions themselves. The participants never confronted the question of how diplomacy and continued military aid fit into the larger U.S. strategy in Ukraine.
The hearing revealed some tension between senators and an administration that is being accused of not doing enough to slow down Russian aggression in Ukraine. The critique could have been more precise—and the witnesses could have offered a more honest defense of their policies —if they were able to have a more serious discussion about what sanctions are and what they can reasonably accomplish.
Blaise Malley is an Associate Editor at The National Interest. His work has appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, and elsewhere.