Before the Biden administration imposes sanctions on Russia, Republicans in Congress and the media should ask some hard-headed questions. In his many years as president, vice president, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, every single U.S. foreign policy blunder has had Joe Biden’s fingerprints all over it.
Last year’s debacle in Afghanistan showed Biden true to form. And the same team of advisors who oversaw the Afghan fiasco—Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Gen. Mark Milley among them—are issuing dire warnings about Russia. Are you feeling reassured?
There is indeed a strong case that U.S. sanctions could cause severe economic hardship to Russia. But sound strategic thinking includes at least three components: a well-defined objective; the close adaptation of means to that end; and a careful consideration of the unintended but harmful side-effects that may follow. Here are some questions to review whether these criteria are being met in the Biden administration’s policies.
First, what is the objective of the sanctions? Most likely, the purpose of sanctions would be to deter Russia from invading Ukraine or to roll back a Russian invasion if one occurred. But the stakes are extremely high for Russia and for Vladimir Putin: to be seen to yield to U.S. pressure would be a severe blow to the régime’s prestige and might cause Putin to fall. Russia has long premediated an invasion or some lesser (to use Biden’s word) “incursion,” and has prepared for a U.S. blowback. And so far, Putin has not flinched.
But perhaps Biden’s true objective (as many Russians believe) is to bring about régime change in Russia. If so, the Biden administration owes it to the American people and our allies to be much more candid. An attempt to restructure the international order in such a fundamental way could easily lead to a major war. Also, even if we emerged “victorious,” the consequences for all concerned could be catastrophic.
Second, what would be the effects of our sanctions on our friends and allies, including Ukraine? Russia will surely respond to sanctions with counter-measures. Those could inflict a lot of harm on friendly nations. When Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in 2008, Ukraine’s economy took a 20 percent hit to national production. Does Biden think Ukraine would escape unscathed this time?
Also, what about Germany and other European allies that depend on Russia for natural gas? The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, although not yet opened, has been built to supply Germany’s energy needs with Russian gas. If, as State Department officials are saying, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will be just “a hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean,” how would Germany obtain its energy?
We can hardly expect Germany to reverse its environmentally driven energy policy and start building nuclear power plants. We cannot construct LNG terminals fast enough to meet Europe’s near-term demands. And even if Russia wanted to sell gas to Germany, how could the Germans pay for it if Biden’s sanctions blocked the payments?
The Biden administration might carve out an exception for those transactions, but that would dilute the force and credibility of its overall policy. Little wonder that Germany, and indeed Ukraine, seem unenthusiastic about the war talk coming out of the Biden administration.
Third, are Americans prepared for Russian retaliation against the United States? There is no reason to think that the United States would be immune to Russian retaliation if our sanctions bit deeply. Since Russian financial institutions would be our primary target, it would be natural for Russia to respond in kind: Putin’s hackers could target our banks, stock exchanges, payment systems, and the like.
Russia could also launch a series of cyberattacks of increasing scope and severity. Are Americans willing to suffer such disruptions of their personal and financial lives?
Furthermore, Russian cyberattacks could provoke the United States to escalate the conflict. Where might such escalation lead? Russia has a modernized and formidable military. It is armed (as we are not) with battlefield nuclear weapons, and appears willing, in an extreme situation, to use them.
Are the American people ready and willing to fight a (potentially nuclear) war against Russia for the sake of a country that is of marginal national security interest to us? It’s unlikely.
Fourth, can the Biden administration count on our allies in Europe and around the world to support our sanctions? What level of enforcement can we expect from them? Our European allies were equivocal in supporting past U.S. sanctions against Iraq and Iran. Would they do better now?
What about our other allies? Russia cannot meet its need for semi-conductors; it has to look to outside sources for that vital commodity. This is a major Russian vulnerability. But can we be sure that South Korea, say, which is a major manufacturer, will not meet that demand, maybe indirectly?
Fifth, wouldn’t sanctions drive Russia and China even closer? The U.S. economic sanctions against Russia in 2014 promoted greater trade between those two nations. Will China stand by and watch Russia be strangled when increasingly the two nations are economic, military, and diplomatic partners? It seems more likely that China would enable Russia to circumvent any sanctions that Biden employs.
Any sensible administration would not want to force Russia into China’s arms. China is our main adversary. Russia, which is certainly not a friend but need not be an enemy, is no such threat. If any foreign nation should be in our cross-hairs for punitive sanctions, it is China, not Russia.
Sixth, won’t crushing economic sanctions hasten the day when powers like China and Russia bring down the global financial architecture that gives the United States such immense leverage? The more often the United States uses sanctions, the more determined our likely targets will be to create alternative global financial systems. Power is best conserved when its exercise is restrained.
Seventh, when have U.S. sanctions ever worked? As international relations scholars have argued, the effectiveness of economic sanctions is highly doubtful. We imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 after its invasion of Crimea: they obviously have not deterred Russia from encroaching again on Ukraine.
U.S.-sponsored sanctions against North Korea have not ended its nuclear program. The United States froze $9 billion in Afghan state assets after the Taliban took power: have those upended the Taliban? The United States maintained sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for many years; and against Cuba for even longer. Were these success stories?
Let’s circle back to the start: What is the objective here? The core issue seems to be that Putin wants a promise from the West not to admit Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and more generally to accept that Ukraine and Belarus lie within Moscow’s sphere of influence. Biden refuses to make that promise. Is fighting over this issue worth the risks—including, at the extreme end, the risk of war with a nuclear power?
Ukraine is currently not a member of NATO, and we have no treaty obligation to defend it. Moreover, the chance that Ukraine will become a member of NATO anytime soon is very low. It is too corrupt (as the Biden family should well know) and its political institutions too feeble to permit that. So Biden is asking the West, and the American public, to bear the costs and risks of his Russia policy for the sake of a hypothetical question about NATO’s future membership.
Republicans should not go along with this. Let Biden and his accessories in Congress, the media, and the permanent bureaucracy have full ownership of the Ukraine matter. Donald Trump is right: this is a matter for the Europeans to handle.
Republicans should also be searching for explanations of the Biden administration’s overwrought attitudes, including his lurid vision of the sacking of Kiev. Is a desperate Biden, faced with an overwhelming electoral disaster in next November’s midterms, “wagging the dog”?
Are the elites who manage our national security apparatus promoting international conflict, as usual, to advance their careers, burnish their credentials, and ratify their claim to be useful? And is the Democratic Party, obsessed by its irrational hatred and suspicion of Russia, letting its fantasies rip once again?
Sanctions rarely if ever achieve their intended effect. They usually do more harm than good. Republicans should not follow Biden into the abyss of sanctions. Certainly not unless he answers their questions first.