President Joe Biden has leveled a new round of sanctions against Russia over the poisoning and subsequent arrest of prominent Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Announced earlier this week by the Treasury, State, and Commerce departments, the measures included sanctions against seven Russian government officials and a slew of export restrictions on items that could be used for biological and chemical agent production. Washington is expanding sanctions on Russia under the auspices of the U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991. The act was previously used by the Trump administration to sanction Russia over the 2018 poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, in Great Britain.
“We’re sending a clear signal to Russia that there are consequences for the use of chemical weapons,” a senior U.S. administration official said. The move follows Biden’s February State Department speech on foreign policy, in which he described the jailing of Navalny as “politically motivated” and called for him to be released “immediately and without condition.”
But what, in concrete policy terms, has been accomplished by these latest measures? In a rare moment of consensus, Navalny’s supporters and Russian government officials agree that the sanctions have barely any practical effect. Russian dissident and outspoken Navalny ally Masha Gessen noted that all of the seven government officials in question have already been previously sanctioned by the European Union. Many of the high-placed security officials on this list, like Federal Security Service (FSB) director Alexander Bortnikov, are already restricted by Russian law from engaging in financial transactions with foreign entities or freely traveling to the United States. Navalny aide Maria Pevchykh welcomed the sanctions as a “wonderful and cool” gesture of Western solidarity with the jailed opposition activist, but expressed disappointment that they did not include key Russian business elites: “The most painful sanctions, which neither Europe nor the U.S. imposed, are the ones against oligarchs.” UK-based Navalny associate Vladimir Ashurkov likewise signaled frustration with the sanctions’ limited scope. “Of course sanctioning billionaires is tougher than sanctioning security people who never go to the US and don’t have assets there,” he said. “But [delaying] these steps can lead you to an untenable situation... I really don’t understand their hesitation … it’s the political will, why can’t they act on it? I don’t understand.”
Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the Biden administration’s sanctions offhand: “It is high time for those who continue to rely on the use of restrictions in relations with other countries to think about whether they are capable of achieving their goals through such a policy or relations are only getting worse and it’s their own fault,” he said. “The answer will be clear: it’s impossible to achieve goals through this kind of policy,” Peskov added. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Duma Pyotr Tolstoy was blunter: “once again, zilch came out of it,” he said in reference to the recent sanctions.
But ongoing concerns over the inefficacy of Biden’s latest sanctions belie a more fundamental problem that continues to elude a great swathe of the Western foreign policy establishment: since its inception in 2014, the international sanctions regime arrayed against Russia has consistently failed to produce its intended outcomes. The call for further sanctions on Russian ‘oligarchs” thought to be connected to Vladimir Putin is premised on what is sometimes called the “declinist” thesis; namely, the idea that years of consistent economic and diplomatic pressure from a coalition of Western governments have brought Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the brink of collapse. What is now needed, according to this line of reasoning, is a final push in the form of a targeted sanctions campaign against key Russian business elites. If cut off from their income streams, the disgruntled elites in Putin’s economic inner circle will force him to recalibrate his foreign and domestic policies—at least, that’s the theory. But, following numerous Western sanctions levied in the past six years against a slew of politically-connected Russian businessmen, there is not one example of this policy working as intended. To the contrary, experts suggest that sanctions have consolidated—rather than eroded—Putin’s base of support among elites, partially by rendering them more dependent on the Kremlin. As noted by Russia researcher Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute, the oligarch thesis is based on an outdated, early 1990’s view of Russian politics. “Today, it is not like the Yeltsin period, where the oligarchs told the president what to do,” he said. “These oligarchs are not likely to sway Putin’s hand about the major things that he wants to do.”
Amid calls by U.S. lawmakers and Russian opposition figures to impose further punishments on Russia, the Biden administration has left the door open for follow-up sanctions in the near future. “It was not meant to be a silver bullet or an ending to what has been a difficult relationship with Russia,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We expect the relationship to continue to be a challenge. We’re prepared for that, and we’re neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate.”
But, despite their relative toothlessness, Moscow is indeed treating these sanctions as an escalatory measure. In keeping with the zero-tolerance approach to sanctions unveiled last month by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the measures “a hostile move toward Russia” and warned Western governments not to “play with fire.” Later that week, she revealed that the Kremlin is working on a “surprise” for its U.S. counterpart: “Taking into account how [the United States is] behaving now, how they published all the [sanction] lists, I think we will surprise them soon, as well. We are working on it,” she said. Among the countermeasures being mulled in Moscow is a retaliatory “stop list” against U.S. citizens, as well as bans against “nine to ten American media outlets” that could be declared “foreign agents” under Russian law.
During his first few weeks in office, Joe Biden made clear that—unlike every post-Cold War president before him—he will not seek a “reset” in relations with the Kremlin. Instead, his administration sought to manage U.S.-Russian competition with a dual policy of punishing Russia for bad behavior while cooperating when and where it benefits U.S. interests. Just over a month into his presidency, that initial approach has all but given way to an overtly hostile relationship. With Russia signaling its intent to respond forcefully to future sanctions, the stage is set for an increasingly dangerous tit-for-tat game between Moscow and Washington.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.