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The Primacy of Sanctions: An Assessment of U.S. Sanctions on Russia

Date & Time

Dec. 7, 2020
1:00pm – 2:30pm ET


The American response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and its electoral interference in 2016 cemented sanctions as America’s primary response to Russian malign activity. This panel will discuss the effectiveness and different angles (diplomatic, economic, and political) of the US sanctions regime on Russia. Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Former Ambassador to the United Nations and Russia Thomas R. Pickering addressed the increased reliance on sanctions, both with Russia and Iran, in U.S. foreign policy and whether they are an appropriate substitute for traditional diplomacy. Daniel Ahn analyzed the economic impact of Russian sanctions and to what extent Russia has learned to live with – and get around – U.S. sanctions.  Finally, Randi Levinas discussed the political aspect of U.S. sanctions, especially the increased involvement of Congress in the implementation and enforcement of sanctions. The overview provided an accurate assessment of America’s Russia sanctions program and whether it can continue to serve as the cornerstone of U.S. policy with Russia.  

Selected Quotes

Amb. Thomas Pickering

"First and foremost, I think sanctions come in a variety of guises and get-ups. We tend to immediately think of economic sanctions and they, of course, include denials of trade, denials of access, denials of travel and so on, and the bulk of them come either as general international sanctions or general unilateral or particular regional sanctions. Russia, of course, has the great advantage of being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the principal instrument for the levying of general sanctions and it has the veto, so it indeed has the capability and the willingness to assure that efforts to turn either regional or individual problems with international sanctions pressure fail and I think that case is well demonstrated."

"It helps a great deal in a question of sanctions, especially with Russia, to have a viable negotiating process ongoing, one in which you can use the capacity of diplomatic give and take to take the sanctions leverage into the room with you, so to speak, in order to find a way to help confect an answer to the problem. It means that those who trust sanctions to achieve regime change or, in fact, one way or another unilateral capitulation by the other side, are often if not universally reaching beyond what it likely or realistically possible."

Daniel Ahn

“When you sanction a particular entity, what you are doing is you're cutting it off from both the ability to export its services to Western markets but also to import things from the West. But given the fact that Russia’s primary exports to the West were fossil fuels, oil, and gas - which are fungible and can be redirected and they were not as severely sanctioned as others - it really has been the import channel by which these sanctions have bitten [...]. What has happened is by denying key Western financial legal technological and other services that may account for a relatively small amount of value added but are actually critical for the operations of said company, we have had an outsized impact upon the Russian economy.”

“On average, Russians today are now much poorer than they otherwise would have been. They are less connected to the West. There are much fewer contacts between ordinary Russian and Americans. I’m not sure this is exactly what some of the stated goal of all the sanction policy was supposed to be so I think this is an excellent time actually to hold this kind of event, not just as the incoming Biden administration but also Congress thinks about its Russia policy in the next four years, whether sanctions should play a central role as it once did, whether we have now reached the point of diminishing return and we should also be thinking about not just the unintended consequences but also the medium-term costs associated with sanctions over usage.”

Randi Levinas

“The point is sanctions are complex and they can be a very blunt instrument. With statutory sanctions, when you get politics and emotions driving Congress’ agenda, it’s far more difficult to rectify these matters and Congress doesn’t adapt nimbly to new information or to change circumstances and when the topic is Russia and President Putin, it becomes all the more difficult.”

 “Clearly, Russia presents challenges to our policymakers and our companies understand that they have to manage risk, including the risk of sanctions, when it comes to Russia but it really is incumbent on our policymakers - including those in Congress - to consider making sanctions conduct-based and targeted in such a way that they’re considering the impact on U.S companies, on U.S. national economic interests, and our U.S. global competitiveness.”

Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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