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Where do sanctions on Russia go from here? A foreign policy expert weighs in

Foreign policy expert Emma Ashford says sanctions are effective for inflicting economic pain on a country, but leadership are often good at insulating themselves from the impact.
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Foreign policy expert Emma Ashford says sanctions are effective for inflicting economic pain on a country, but leadership are often good at insulating themselves from the impact.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shown little sign of slowing in the face of intense sanctions, and as the war drags on the goal of the punitive measure is becoming less clear, according to one foreign policy expert.

The United States and allies imposed strict sanctions on Russia in the early days of the war, and then last week enacted new measures in response to the civilian death toll in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

But, with little evidence of de-escalation so far, some are left wondering what the West can hope to achieve from the sanctions campaign in the future.

Emma Ashford is a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Council and spoke with All Things Considered about the goal of sanctions going forward, whether they can effectively target Russian leaders, and whether they will hurt regular people

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On what is the goal of sanctions on Russia

It depends who you ask, to be perfectly honest.

These sanctions were initially intended as a deterrent. The Biden administration said to Russia, "If you invade Ukraine, we will slap the sanctions on you," in the hopes that would deter the Russians from invading. That obviously didn't work.

So now the sanctions are in place, at least in theory they are supposed to be putting pressure on the Russian government to end the war. That doesn't appear to be happening so far. And it's not clear whether even more sanctions would necessarily do that.

So then you get into this question that often arises in cases of sanctions implementation of — and again, Iran, Venezuela, we've seen this in lots of other places — how long do you leave the sanctions on? And over time, does the goal just shift from being concrete policy change like ending the war, over to something more akin to weakening the Russian government over the long term. And I fear that that's where we're sliding into with the Russian sanctions.

On whether current sanctions can be maintained or increased

The sanctions that we have already imposed, those can be maintained for quite a long time, I would think.

The interesting question is about the sanctions that we have not yet imposed. I think it's very doubtful that we're going to see Europe impose large scale energy sanctions, blocking imports to Europe of Russian energy, simply because European economies are so dependent on that gas, that it would almost certainly cause a recession.

Ashford says wider sanctions on Russian energy exports seem unlikely.
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Ashford says wider sanctions on Russian energy exports seem unlikely.

On how sanctions affect regular people

In theory, modern sanctions — targeted financial sanctions — are meant to hit a government and not the people within a country. But in practice, that's very difficult to do.

And so some of the sanctions that we've seen put on Russia ... [which block] a lot of banks from the international system, have an impact on the government that can't borrow abroad, but it also means that ordinary citizens of that country might find themselves unable to pay for things online. So Visa or Mastercard will cancel all the cards in Russia, for example.

Then there are the knock-on effects in terms of government spending. So if the Russian government is suddenly unable to maintain its spending obligations, that will also have an impact on ordinary people.

On how effective sanctions are in targeting Russian leadership and influencing policy change

This is one of the biggest problems with sanctions more generally. What we actually see in much of the studies that have been done on sanctions is that government officials, leaders, particularly in authoritarian states, are very good at insulating themselves from the effects of sanctions.

And so this is one of those big problems: How do you translate economic pain into policy change? And unfortunately, the history of sanctions suggests that we're good at causing the economic pain, but we're not good at getting policy changes out of it.

On whether lifting some sanctions could incentivize Russia to change course

This is the other big lesson that scholars who have studied sanctions have pointed to in recent years, that it's not enough to simply put sanctions in place if you want them to actually yield policy changes in the targeted country. You have to have a way to lift them at some point.

So in effect, you have to have a way to reward the state or remove the punishment, if want them to actually change their behavior.

So if we wanted to get something out of the sanctions with Russia, one of the best things that we could do is be specific about the ways in which those sanctions could be raised in exchange for Russia stopping conflict, or withdrawing some of its forces. A phased approach to lifting them that could help to end the conflict.

Unfortunately, as we've seen, in many previous cases, that can be politically problematic. You can imagine how difficult it would be even here in the U.S. to talk about lifting sanctions on Russia after everything that has happened in the last month and a bit.

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